The United States and the Persian Gulf in the Twentieth Century

  • Gary Sick


It took half a century for the United States to become the major power in the Persian Gulf, and that process was characterized by evasions, indecision, and general reluctance to get involved. Initially drawn in during World War II to protect the Allies’ supply lines to the Soviet Union, the United States then withdrew virtually all its military forces for more than a generation, content to leave commerce in the hands of the giant oil firms known as the Seven Sisters and most regional security responsibilities to the ministrations of its experienced and well-established British ally.1


Saudi Arabia United Nations Middle East Security Council Military Force 
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  1. 1.
    The British certainly viewed the United States as a potential rival to their dominant influence in the region. This was particularly true following World War II, as the United States began to appreciate the strategic importance of oil, as the Persian Gulf emerged as a critical sector in the global doctrine of containment of the Soviet Union, and as British power began to wane. During this period, Britain maneuvered quite successfully to insure that U.S. political presence in the region did not match its growing economic and military might. The United States was somewhat frustrated with these tactics, but its profound reliance on the UK as a strategic bulwark trumped any political ambitions until well after the British withdrawal in 1971. For a close look at part of this process, see Rosemarie Said Zahlan, “Anglo-American Rivalry in Bahrain, 1918–1947,” in Bahrain Through the Ages: The History, ed. Abdullah bin Khalid al-Khalifa and Michael Rice (London: Kegan Paul International, 1993), 567–87.Google Scholar
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    For a more detailed account of this period, see Michael A. Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf A History of America’s Expanding Role in the Persian Gulf, 1833–1992 (New York: Free Press, 1992)Google Scholar
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    A detailed account of this episode and its implications can be found in Gary Sick, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran (New York: Random House, 1985), 13–21, quote on 14.Google Scholar
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    The analysis in this section draws extensively on the author’s article “Rethinking Dual Containment,” Survival 40, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 5–32. See also Martin Indyk, “The Clinton Administration’s Approach to the Middle East,” Keynote Address to the Soref Symposium on “Challenges to U.S. Interests in the Middle East: Obstacles and Opportunities,” Proceedings of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 18–19, 1993, 1–8. At the time of this speech Indyk had just joined the National Security Council staff. He later became the U.S. ambassador to Israel (twice), separated by an appointment as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.Google Scholar
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    Elaine Sciolino, “CIA Asks Congress for Money to Rein in Iraq and Iran,” New York Times, April 12, 1995, 1.Google Scholar
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    David E. Sanger, “U.S. Ending a few of the Sanctions Imposed on Iran,” in New York Times, March 18, 2000, A1.Google Scholar

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© Lawrence G. Potter 2009

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  • Gary Sick

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