“Whenever the American people are faced with a clear goal, and they are challenged to meet it, we can do extraordinary things. Today, the challenge is to regain the strength we had earlier in this century — the strength of self-sufficiency.”

Those words by President Richard Nixon, echoing across 35 years, reflect the resolve, determination — and yes, anger — of the American people at being humbled by Arab nations shutting off the flow of oil and creating a type of chaos previously unknown in this country: way-of-life disruptions as a result of the deliberate withholding of a critical commodity.

Likening 1973’s embargo to the crisis that spurred the creation of the Manhattan Project that concentrated the efforts of the nation’s best minds on developing the atomic bomb that brought an end to World War II, Nixon promised Americans that by 1980 — then a bit more than six years away — the U.S. would be freed from imported oil.

Project Independence he called it.

Nixon doubtless is spinning in his grave; not only has the country not escaped OPEC’s stranglehold, we’ve doubled our dependency on imported oil since 1973, and efforts during the ensuing decades to develop widespread alternative energy sources have been little more than token.

Project Independence quickly withered and died; the oil spigots were reopened, prices fell, and despite our brief experience with humble pie and oil detox, we were hooked again, and our addiction has worsened with each passing year.

It is one of the unconscionable failures of leadership during the subsequent decades — Congresses, administrations (and the public for not holding their feet to the fire) — that we’re not now powering this country with non-petroleum energies. We took the path of least resistance.

Last week, in another exercise of posturing for the media, a congressional committee hauled in execs from five major oil companies, assailing them for wanting a continuation of $18 billion in government subsidies, while failing to build new refineries or move substantially toward alternative energy.

“On April Fool’s day, the biggest joke of all is being played on American families by Big Oil,” declared Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

The oil company representatives defended their record profits ($123.9 billion last year), saying they’re not out of line with other industries and that the tax breaks are needed to spur production of more U.S. petroleum.

It was mostly for show, coincidentally on a day when independent truckers were in the news, protesting record-high diesel prices ($1,100 or so to fill up the average 18-wheeler).

Congress will go back to more important things, like spending millions to investigate steroid use by professional athletes. The oil companies and speculators (in a futures market that didn’t exist 35 years ago) will continue raking in billions in profits (millions of which they pass along in contributions to assorted congresspersons). And nothing substantive will have been accomplished.

The long-ago resolve and anger President Nixon expressed on behalf of the American public has devolved into resigned acceptance: while oil prices almost daily hit record levels, we gripe and moan as we fill our tanks — but please, we ask, just keep the stuff flowing.

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com