If there is one most frightening thing that war always exposes, even if one is on the winning side, it’s weakness in the supply logistics. While most never consider it, official policy often changes during a war because supplies that are critical to the war effort seem in danger of being disrupted. Such jeopardy, moreover, forces the accountants, economists and politicians waging the conflict to start thinking about how the world will be changed once the fighting has ended.
Few today appreciate the fact that our foreign policy, particularly as it is tied to the Middle East, came about because of just such concerns in the first years of the Second World War. As one might expect, that official policy was based on real fears that America would one day run out of oil.
“The European War”
It was the summer of 1941 and the State Department had requested that the White House include Saudi Arabia in our Lend Lease program. It wasn’t because the Saudis were going to become a direct ally against the European Axis Powers, but because we were about to embargo U.S. oil shipments to Japan. Many believed – correctly, as it turned out – that this would probably lead to hostilities with Japan that would draw us into the war.
Standard Oil of California, which had been drilling for oil in Bahrain for over a decade, now had oil concessions granted by King ibn Saudi. The first six wells Standard drilled into the Arabian desert were nothing to write home about, but when Well No. 7 came in on March 4, 1938, the engineers and wildcatters all knew that Saudi Arabia was going to be an oil bonanza.
Yet on July 18, 1941, Roosevelt refused the request for Lend Lease for Saudi Arabia. He saw no immediate benefit to diverting U.S. dollars overseas simply because Standard had oil concessions there. In any case, the outbreak of the European War in 1939 had reduced oil production in the Kingdom to an insignificant volume — a trickle, considering that American oil amounted to 60 percent of the world’s crude at the time. Instead Roosevelt asked Federal Loan Administrator Jesse Jones to look into the possibility of having England deal with the Saudi King’s pressing needs.