If Soviet tanks had invaded the Persian Gulf in the late 1940s, the U.S. and Britain had a plan.
Blow up the oil fields. Possibly by detonating nuclear weapons.
Declassified documents show that Anglo-Americans were so pessimistic in the early days of the Cold War about their chances of defending the Middle East, that they resolved to destroy the oil fields rather than let them fall into Soviet hands, according to writer Steve Everly. In an article published in Politico, Everly describes how in 1948, as the Soviets were blockading Berlin, the Truman administration approved a plan in which American and British oil companies, such as Aramco (Arabian-American Oil Company) and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (an ancestor of today’s BP) would cooperate in the destruction of their own oil facilities. A Central Intelligence Agency operative told British oil-company representatives "how their production operations in those countries would in effect be transformed into a paramilitary force, trained and ready to execute the CIA’s plan in the event of a Soviet invasion," Everly writes.
The goal of the American plan "was to keep the Soviets from tapping Saudi Arabia’s oil and refined fuels for up to a year in the event of an invasion," according to Everly. "The plan would unfold in phases, starting with destruction of fuel stockpiles and disabling Aramco’s refinery. Selective demolitions would destroy key refinery components difficult for the Russians to replace. This would leave much of the refinery intact, making it easier for Aramco to resume production after the Soviets were ousted."
American oil companies provided the CIA with technical advice, while covert CIA agents were embedded in Aramco. The plan remained in effect through the Eisenhower and into the Kennedy years. However, by the advent of the Eisenhower administration in 1953, the oil companies on both sides of the Atlantic were having second thoughts, fearful of economic losses and what would happen if the Arab nations in question discovered their potential fate.
That fate could have included mushroom clouds over Tehran and Riyadh. Doubtful that sufficient British troops could be found to hold the oil fields or that air strikes would knock them out, "the most complete method of destroying oil installations would be by nuclear bombardment," concluded a study for the British Chiefs of Staff that the National Security Archive has made available.
No one should be surprised by this scorched-earth plan. Had the Soviets invaded Western Europe during the Cold War, the U.S. would quite possibly—if not probably—have unleashed nuclear weapons to stop them. If Washington could turn Germany and France into radioactive rubble, then it could the Arabian sands into glass.
The oil field plan was rooted in the pessimism of the early Cold War, when Communism seemed on the offensive in places like Berlin and Korea, and no one could be sure if even Western Europe could be held. If the situation was that bad, then what hope could there be of mustering enough troops to keep Russian soldiers from dipping their toes in the Persian Gulf?
What is also interesting is how the specter—or more likely the bogeyman—of Soviet conquest of the oil fields persisted. In the late 1970s, the Carter administration created the Rapid Deployment Force to forestall any Soviet moves into the Persian Gulf. especially after Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan. How American paratroopers and light infantry would have fared against Soviet tank columns is debatable, but there looms an even larger question: Was America prepared in the 1970s and 1980s to use nuclear weapons on Saudi Arabia or Iran, solely to keep the oil out of Russian hands?
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This article first appeared several years ago and is being republished due to reader interest.