Peter A. Shulman. Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. 336 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-1706-6.
Reviewed by Dana M. Caldemeyer (University of Kentucky)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
In an age where oil prices and access to oil are featured prominently in foreign relations, it is easy to assume that US concerns over energy supplies are a new phenomenon directly related to the nation’s increasing demand for foreign oil. Peter A. Shulman, however, presents a compelling case that suggests otherwise. His book, Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America, “reveals how energy did not suddenly become critical to American security in 1945.” Instead, Shulman suggests that the United States’ postwar interest in oil as a question of “energy security” was “learned” through its relationship with the coal industry that began nearly a century earlier (p. 13).
Shulman argues that coal became crucial to the development of national infrastructure and global expansion as the United States industrialized in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1840s with the emergence of transoceanic steam vessels, the United States became intimately involved with resource allocation and fuel consumption. Both the US Navy and privately owned but government subsidized mail-carrying steam ships looked to the US government to overcome obstacles of coal prices, availability, and quality. By the turn of the century, these early relationships had expanded into what Shulman calls “networks of fuel” that connected US coalfields to fueling stations throughout the world. This development prompts Shulman to conclude that “the great process of industrialization and the emergence of the United States as a global power unfolded at the same time as intertwined processes” (p. 6).
Using an impressive variety of government and military reports along with personal correspondence and newspapers, Schulman examines three specific groups that he claims were critical to informing how the United States understood energy availability. Naval officers and administrators introduced the language of security to describe the importance of available coal. Government officeholders and politicians used this understanding to develop national policies that dictated the US approach to energy. Finally, scientists, engineers, and business leaders responded to these groups, helping shape the way discussions pertaining to energy demand and availability were framed.
The book primarily focuses on the period between 1840 and 1930, with each chapter exploring a different theme in the development of US foreign policy as it related to energy. The first three chapters chart the global debates pertaining to the technological developments and resource availability that began to shape public discourse regarding fuel concerns. Transoceanic steam ships opened the door for faster communication that encouraged US policymakers to offer subsidies to aid companies in delivering mail overseas. As publicly funded enterprises, the questions of fueling became topics of national debate that pulled in engineers, contractors, legislators, and geologists to determine the most efficient means to fuel the nation’s seafaring vessels. From extensive comparisons of various US coal types and production techniques to negotiations of access to foreign coal supplies, the 1840s and 1850s placed energy availability and consumption in a global context that directly informed US foreign relations and decisions to secure foreign territory to better stock their fuel supplies. These early years, Shulman argues, created the “outlines of nearly every policy choice available in later decades” (p. 9).
The fourth chapter looks more closely at the United States, focusing on the Civil War era when domestic coal production intensified. Here, Shulman argues that both the Union and Confederacy viewed lack of access to coal as a “vulnerability” that could lose the war (p. 121). The war, then, gave way to a growing awareness for the amount of coal needed to defend land at home or abroad in wartime. According to Shulman, this understanding drove many colonization proponents, and eventually Abraham Lincoln, to promote the Chiriquí colonization. More pragmatic than utopian, the proposition for the colony located near Panama would provide not only land for a new naval station but also access to Caribbean coal. Freed people could settle in the colony and immediately begin mining coal for US naval consumption. Such a plan would allow naval vessels to refuel in the Caribbean at substantially less cost, opening the door for American expansion into South America. Although the project failed, the debate over Chiriquí demonstrates that the United States was already thinking about expansion in terms of energy security.
The final two chapters carry this argument forward from the years following the Civil War to the 1920s. Examining postbellum diplomacy and logistics, these chapters demonstrate how the United States justified its expansion and learned to effectively manage its newly acquired territories. According to Shulman, the presence of coaling stations did not prompt US territorial expansion. Rather, he claims, the United States’ expanding empire created a new need for coaling stations in order to help protect overseas interests. In the years between 1865 and 1898, Shulman claims, coaling stations, along with other methods of securing fuel, were geared more for commercial development than wartime security. After 1898, however, this justification shifted. Whereas the use of coaling stations as a way to protect territorial holdings was largely rejected in previous decades, it became the primary means of justification in the wake of the Spanish-American War. This newfound need to preserve growing US strength also gave way to what became known as “logistics,” or the tactical planning and placement of raw materials. Such study examined not only the accessibility of coal supplies to the United States but also what was available to potential enemies, allowing the United States to measure its security in comparison to competing nations and adding to the feeling of preparedness should a new war arise.
Taken together, these chapters convincingly reveal that technology, government procedure, and US foreign policy developed in tandem and in ways that made these seemingly disparate areas intimately entwined. Shulman’s writing is clear and his argument is well organized, but his close attention to the policy debates at times makes his narrative tedious to follow. Still, Coal and Empire is a major contribution to foreign policy history and an essential read for any scholar interested in the development of policy and technology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
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Dana M. Caldemeyer. Review of Shulman, Peter A., Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America.
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