11/24/2010 05:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Alternate History of the Energy Crisis

U.S. Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal was terrified. The year was 1948 and diplomats worldwide contemplated what might occur if nations recognized Israel as an independent state.

If the United States recognized the soon-to-be nation, Arab nations might cut off what would become crucial oil shipments, he feared. The crimp in turn could imperil the Marshall Plan, which in turn could provide momentum to the communist juggernaut.

"The nation could be forced to convert to four cylinder cars" within a decade, he predicted. (The quote has been cited in several books, including O Jerusalem by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.)

Opel Pandas on the streets of Baltimore! Men surely didn't take a bullet at Anzio for that. In the end, the U.S. recognized Israel, the oil embargo of 1948 didn't occur and Detroit dragged its feet on fuel economy for decades.

But it makes me wonder. What would have happened if Forrestal's fears had come true? What if the Gulf nations had imposed a strict embargo and the United States was forced to cut down on gas starting in 1948?

For one thing, U.S. auto companies likely wouldn't have become the bumbling boneheads of the industrial world that they became. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler would have had to retool quickly in the late 40s and they likely would have accomplished the feat. Turning on a dime was something they learned to do thanks to the wartime experience when the federal government ordered these automakers to start building tanks. German and Japanese conglomerates were still in shambles at the time so U.S. automakers could have eked out an early, sustainable lead in efficient cars. Fifty five mile per gallon cars might have arrived by 1975, not 2025.

In turn, that might have meant softening, or even avoiding, the blight that hit Detroit in the 1970s. The focus on energy could have seeped into the U.S. steel industry and other manufacturing firms, helping preserve an advantage in exporting. Who knows? The U.S. could have become an early leader in solar manufacturing and wind had energy efficiency become an indelible strain of corporate culture and a path to profits.

Alternative fuels like biodiesel and ethanol? The lack of cheap oil would have put farmers, biologists and chemists on the hunt for substitutes, paving the way for a thriving industry in the 60s and 70s. (Biofuels work, but they just cost more than gas and less gas would have opened an opportunity.) The wealth generated would have made Kansas look like Palo Alto. The world might be looking to the U.S., not Brazil, for leadership in how to turn crops into fuel.

Iran? It likely wouldn't have become a problem. Britain and the United States organized a coup in 1953 against Mossadegh, the then-prime minister who wanted to nationalize Iranian oil assets. The coup led to the Shah on the throne. Better efficiency and alternative oils would have meant no coup, no Shah, no 1979 Iranian Revolution, and no Great Satan Bookstore in the old CIA headquarters in Tehran.

Jimmy Carter might have served two terms (or, more toward the wishes of you conservatives, never been elected at all). Ayatollah Khomeini, meanwhile, likely would have been a guy on a park bench. As a country with a fairly well-developed middle class and educational system, Iran would likely have emerged as a shining star in globalism.

Terrorism? It would have occurred -- the cultural, political and religious issues of the Mideast made war inevitable. But the oil-rich nations of the Gulf wouldn't have had as much money. That would have meant less of the "affluent poverty" that afflicts those nations. Instead of relying on family wealth and government-made jobs, more teens in those nations would have attended college and been forced to get jobs. Political fringes and extremism would have eroded.

Muscle cars? Well, you can't have it all. NASCAR might have remained a Southern specialty. A vibrant economy in the Great Lakes would likely have doomed the musical careers of Grand Funk Railroad and other Rust Belt rockers too.

Offshore oil drilling? We would have had it and mistakes and spills would have occurred. But you likely wouldn't see so many politicians and consumers enamored with the concept. Political debates around energy -- except when discussing nuclear -- would have likely revolved more around cost, benefits and efficiency.

In other words, it wouldn't be an emotional issue.

That's a problem I could live with.