Gas rationing in Portland, Oregon, in December, 1973, as a response to the oil embargo. Courtesy of the National Archives.
“For we have only just begun our confrontation with our imperial history, our imperial ethic, our imperial psychology. It is perhaps a bit too extreme, but if so only by a whisker, to say that imperialism has been the opiate of the American people.” -William Appleman Williams, 1980.
“Words like ‘monopoly,’ ‘cartel,’ and ‘block’ thereafter achieved a remarkably sudden if selective currency, although very rarely did anyone speak of the small group of American multinationals as a cartel, a designation reserved for the OPEC members.” -Edward Said, 1981.
On December 16, 1973, a few thousand Americans celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party by filing onto an imitation eighteenth century shipping vessel called the Beaver II and dumping oil drum barrels into the Boston Harbor. Onboard the ship was an effigy of Richard Nixon in a crown with the names of oil companies written on it. This Boston Oil Party coincided with a city-wide celebration of the 1773 Tea Party, for which Bostonians reenacted the original tea-dumping protest with empty boxes, to avoid pollution, and hurried through their reenactment as demonstrators made their way to the ship chanting “Nixon, Exxon, ITT: Drive the tyrants in the seas!” (Hall 125).
An article on the event published a day later in the New York Times reports that from “a powerful loudspeaker operated by the People’s Bicentennial Commission, the organizers of the demonstration, on the fourth floor of a nearby warehouse, a voice asked: ‘How many people think he should be taken to the boat and hung?’ An enormous cheer broke out.” But only the effigy was hung as demonstrators began another call-and-response chant: “Down with King George, Down with King Richard!”
The People’s Bicentennial Commission, or PBC, was, as Simon Hall puts it, a group of disaffected “veterans of the of the civil rights, student, and antiwar movements” founded in late 1971 “with the goal of democratizing the US economy” (117). The Oil Party drew American leftists who were frustrated with the rhetoric of the New Left’s response to the Vietnam War, which was grounded in a critique of American imperialism. The BPC was instead self-consciously American, in ways that are confusingly familiar to those of us in the twenty-first century: They waved “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and protested unfairly taxed resources. While ideologically opposite from the Tea Party of the early Obama years, the BPC had basically the same idea decades earlier: to locate solutions to present problems squarely in the past.
The BPC’s founder, Ted Howard, wanted to identify in US history an American tradition of protest to critique what he saw as simply a sudden turn in the wrong direction. Their target was Richard Nixon, the oil companies, and the military-industrial complex that exercised imperialism, most recently in Chile by supporting an anti-democratic coup against the newly elected Salvador Allende.
Nixon’s foreign policy, though, was a resurgence of Eisenhower’s, who himself had clashed with protestors during the Great Depression. Eisenhower vowed to prevent communist influence in nonaligned nations, but not through direct military action. Unlike Truman, who invaded Korea, Eisenhower preferred to make cosmetic changes through CIA influence. As a tool, he utilized the CIA to train rightist protestors in Iran, Guatemala, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo whenever these countries tried to nationalize one or another resource for their own benefit, rather than the benefit of American businesses. Kennedy and Johnson returned to direct action in Vietnam, and in reaction to the war’s unpopularity, Nixon returned again to Eisenhower’s brand of covert influence.
In October of 1973, Arab nations in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), decided to work together to combat this kind of imperialism by placing an embargo on the US, to protest American financial support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The result was a financial panic with national repercussions.
To express their outrage, the Oil Party drew a connection between Nixon and King George III, in part of a long, ongoing dialogue in which Americans see their present in someone else’s past. Recently, it has become popular to compare the US to empires in antiquity. Cullen Murphy’s 2007 book Are We Rome? is one example, and much more recently the far-right has drawn this comparison to support dictatorial leadership, going so far as to compare Senator Mitch McConnell to Julius Caesar. Likewise, Yale’s The Politic published an interview with Donald Kagan in 2011 in which Kagan compares America to the Athenian democracy.
The parallels between Athens and Rome are easy to make, but are hardly original. William Appleman Williams observes in Empire as a Way of Life that the Founders “knew the ideas, language, and reality of empire from their study of the classic literature about Greece and Rome. . . It became, indeed, synonymous with the realization of their Dream” (viii).
To be fair, Kagan also notes that the Founders studied the Athenian democracy, but he emphasizes that they wanted to craft a state that would be resilient to conflicts like the Peloponnesian War between Athens and neighboring Sparta, claiming that because “democracies are commercial republics. . . they require the approval of the population to wage war, and that checks them because the people may have contrary wishes.” His point here seems somewhat naive. Where was this “check” during American influence campaigns in Iran and Chile? Where was this “check” during drone strike campaigns in Pakistan and Libya?
But Athens may be a useful comparison. Like America during the Cold War, Athens controlled trade routes and islands with their powerful navy. In his account of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient historian Thucydides describes one episode in which the island of Melos wanted to be neutral, to the ire of Athens. This scene, known as the Melian Dialogue, is re-imagined hauntingly in the British film The War that Never Ends, with Michael Kitchen, Stephen Moore, and Oliver Ford Davies:
The Melian Dialogue is one of the most accurate summations of US foreign (and domestic) policy throughout the Cold War, although George W. Bush would provide a much simpler summation decades later: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” This strategy left no room for nonalignment, and those who tried for independence, like Melos, like Chile, Iran, and the OPEC nations, would find themselves ruined in the wake of American interventionism.
The Oil Party of 1973 was a reaction to the flaws of this policy, but failed to address the broader scope of it. OPEC’s protest had lasting consequences because it struck the heart of the empire: Wall Street. This is perhaps why the Oil Party faced no consequences for calling for the hanging of a sitting US president. The impact of their protest was short-lived and limited, seeing a temporary corrupt leader when the oil embargo should have prompted them to look inward at their own democracy.
Hall, Simon. “‘Guerilla Theater. . . in the Guise of Red, White, and Blue Bunting’: The People’s Bicentennial Commission and the Politics of (un)-Americanism.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 52 no. 1, 2018, pp. 114-136.
Said, Edward. Covering Islam. Vintage Books, 1997.
Williams, Appleman Williams. Empire as a Way of Life. Oxford University Press, 1980.