Book Review-‘Coal and Empire: The birth of energy security in industrial America’ by P. A. Shulman

By Stevan Gray, published December 2020


Peter A. Shulman begins his study of coal and the birth of American fuel security with an account of the meeting between Roosevelt and the Saudi king in 1945. He describes this meeting as ‘a kind of set piece in writings about the emerging post-war geopolitics of energy’ (p. 1). Yet, Schulman argues, although this was a marker of a growing awareness of the need for energy security, it was far from its beginning. To understand its real emergence, he argues, we should look back a century to 1845, and to a meeting between a long forgotten American naval Lieutenant, William C. Chaplin, and Sultan Omar Ali of Brunei. This meeting, about the coal deposits found in South East Asia, may have resulted in ‘no new and lasting geopolitical arrangement around energy’ (p. 3), but it did show that the US had begun to think about the importance of fossil fuels to American power. The book is described as a journey from the latter event to the former, showing how the US developed an understanding of energy security. However, in reality, it largely only assesses up to 1920, and the period up to 1945 is only really covered in the conclusion, and is thus given little attention. This may be forgiven because, as the author rightly points out, the rise in oil use in the twentieth century, and particularly after the First World War, has left this period well-trodden by historians already…

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Subjects include: Strategy & Diplomacy

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