I talked with Kluge Fellow Gaetano Di Tommaso about his research project, “Petro-Modernity and Statecraft: The U.S. Energy-National Security Nexus Reconsidered (1890s-1920s).” Before coming to the Kluge Center, Tano, as we call him here, was a Teaching Fellow at Sciences Po-Paris (Reims campus), in France.
Giselle: How did you become interested in U.S. history and energy policy?
Tano: I first became interested in this topic while studying for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international relations at the University of Bologna in Italy. The classes on U.S. history stuck with me, to the point of my developing a real fascination with the country.
When learning about the U.S. rise to prominence in the 20th century, it is impossible not to notice the role that energy, and fossil fuels in particular, played. To better understand today’s geopolitical landscape it seemed necessary to look into the relationship between American power, security, and patterns of energy production and consumption.
I turned the topic into the focus of my Ph.D. research, which I completed between Bologna, Sciences Po-Paris, and the U.S., and which benefited greatly from the guidance and assistance of all those, starting from my supervisor, who took the time to discuss these issues with me.
In the last couple of years, as a teaching fellow at Science Po-Paris, I had the opportunity to set up and teach a seminar course called Energy Security in the Contemporary World that allowed me to connect my historical research work with the analysis of the more recent energy challenges. The students’ urgency in discussing and addressing energy-related matters was further confirmation of their relevance, both inside and outside universities.
G: Can you tell us more about your research project?
T: Countries today need to answer to competing goals of increasing energy access, keeping costs down, ensuring a stable and reliable supply, and minimizing environmental damage, both at the domestic and global levels. These are trade-offs that every country has to deal with, whether they are resource-rich or not, and that will get even more difficult to manage in the near future.
My project focuses on one of the biggest energy actors, if not the biggest, on the global stage – the United States – and tries to understand how it answered some of those questions in the last century.
Specifically, my work focuses on the early decades of the 20th century, or, to frame it in historiographical terms, on the Progressive Era, which is broadly defined as the period between the end of the 19th century and the 1920s. This is when the United States underwent the fuel transition from coal to oil. I look at how the country originally perceived and framed the issue of energy supply, which is to say how the American people and the federal officials learned, discussed, and dealt with the problems associated with the nation’s growing energy needs in a world that was changing quickly at the industrial and technological level.
I am investigating when and how access to specific energy sources came first to be defined as a national concern. This means that one of the main goals of the project is to understand how the country’s growing energy needs expanded the concept and perimeter of American security – a security defined not only as territorial defense but also as the protection of U.S. society and economy – to incorporate access to certain raw materials at home and abroad.
The reconstruction of the socio-cultural environment of the time – the perceived changes within American society associated with the growing use of fossil fuels, and oil in particular – is especially important in this context, as I try to shed light on how availability of energy resources came to be associated with a unique vision of modernity and therefore seen as a requirement for the country.
The larger aim is to analyze how the security of supply was first conceptualized and what domestic dynamics underpinned this process. Thanks to the materials I have access to in Washington, D.C., through the Library of Congress, I am developing another aspect related to this topic that represents the opposite side of the same coin.
On the one hand, we see the increase of federal responsibilities once new needs had been established; on the other, however, we find a lack of federal intervention, which is to say a lack of proper regulations (in a period known for its attention to public health) in areas where public policy could not keep pace with the rapidity of change.
These domains, like environmental protection and sanitation, were also those among the most adversely affected by the unregulated growth of the extractive industry and quick industrialization – or, to put it differently, those in which the local ramifications of this entanglement of energy and security became most visible and long-lasting.
G: How has energy security previously been considered in historical scholarship?
T: When talking about energy security in historical context, until recently most of the attention was focused on the second half of the 20th century. There have been countless historical accounts telling the story of the birth and growth of the fossil fuel industry in the United States, and many others explaining how oil, in particular, became a coveted raw material by the end of WWI.
Yet, while it’s not difficult to find scholars making references to the impact that the energy transition had on the American industry and economy, the bulk of the literature has looked at the decades from the 1940s onwards when discussing the connection between American energy security, power, and global strategy.
The classic historical understanding sees the security and economic necessities brought by the second world conflict and the ensuing rivalry with the Soviet Union as the reasons the Unites States finally raised its level of concern about oil supply and eventually built up its presence and influence in oil-rich regions of the world like the Middle East. The Cold War decades are also the period when the notions of national security and energy security were popularized. The latter’s rise, specifically, is usually dated back to the 1970s, when a series of tumultuous events shook the Middle East and an oil crisis (in fact, two) hit the rest of the world.
These narratives are problematic when they push to the background previous longstanding interests, awareness, prospects, and concerns surrounding oil supply; or when, to the contrary (and possibly worse), they offer a presentist interpretation of those early 20th century anxieties, expectations, and events.
My research project takes a fresh look at the relationship between oil, the wellbeing of Americans, and the country’s advancement and safety; it engages with theoretical and analytical categories such as those of national security, energy security, and modernity and tries to find them a proper place in the context of the Progressive Era, thus testing their historiographical relevance. By looking at the original shift on energy in the country, and putting it in historical perspective, the broader goal remains to highlight new patterns of continuity and change in American statecraft.
This is a two-part interview. Please check back next week for the second half of our interview with Gaetano Di Tommaso.