This special issue of the Journal of American History, “Oil in American History,” addresses one of the most central and controversial topics of contemporary political and social debates: the reliance of the United States and its citizens on petroleum and its by-products. For decades, American society has run on oil. Yet despite oil's nearly pervasive role in our daily lives, few Americans have ever directly viewed the oil that travels from the well to their cars, and most consumers have had only a vague sense of their dependence on a multitude of synthetic materials derived from oil. Similarly, oil is largely invisible in many narratives of twentieth-century U.S. history.

Prompted by a growing awareness of oil’s centrality to American life following a dramatic rise in...

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