Robert W. Cherny: Graft and Oil ... How Teapot Dome Became the Greatest Political Scandal of its Time

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert W. Cherny is professor of history at San Francisco State University. He is the author of several books and articles on American politics, 1865-1940, including American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868-1900; A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan; and San Francisco, 1865-1932, with William Issel. He is also co-author of two textbooks: Making America and Competing Visions: A History of California.]

In the 1920s, Teapot Dome became synonymous with government corruption and the scandals arising out of the administration of President Warren G. Harding. Since then, it has sometimes been used to symbolize the power and influence of oil companies in American politics. In the days before Watergate, one historian called it “the greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics.”

Teapot Dome is a geological feature in Wyoming, named for nearby Teapot Rock, and the site of an oil field. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson designated that oil deposit as Naval Oil Reserve Number 3—reserves Number 1 and Number 2, in Elk Hills and Buena Vista Hills , California, respectively, had been similarly identified by President William Howard Taft in 1912. These reserves were created to guarantee that the Navy would have a sufficient supply of oil in wartime. However, their establishment was controversial—oil interests believed that the reserves were unnecessary and could be developed privately. In addition, private wells surrounded the naval reserve fields, siphoning off their underground deposits.

That was the situation facing Albert Fall, one of President Harding’s poker pals, when Harding appointed him as Secretary of the Interior in 1921. As a lawyer in New Mexico Territory, Fall had represented mining and timber companies, and had invested in mining himself. As US Senator from New Mexico after 1912, he’d shown little interest in the conservation movement, and conservationists, led by Harry Slattery and Gifford Pinchot, viewed him as hostile to their ideas. When Fall tried to open Alaska’s oil, coal, and timber to extensive private development, the conservationists were quick to organize and defeat his plans. Similarly, when Fall tried to move the National Forests and federal Forestry Service under his control at the Department of the Interior, the conservationists blocked him. In their efforts, conservationists could count on help from a number of progressives in Congress, notably Senator Robert La Follette, a leader of the progressive wing of the Republican Party....

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