Behind the Barbed Wired of Manzanar: Guayule and the Search for Natural Rubber 

A pile of old bicycle tires, hot-water bottles, fruit-jar rings, rubber soles, and tubing all ready to be repurposed. Library of Congress, LC-USE6-D-005529.

Anderson’s idealistic project soon ran into some very real hurdles. Government officials objected for several reasons. They could not offer any support to a program one official described as a “large-scale colonization scheme.” The U.S. government’s rubber “czar” did not answer Anderson’s letters, which hindered efforts to obtain lumber, iron, and other strategic materials. Anderson also feared that “some of the dirtiest bastards” in the California agribusiness community would interfere. Racist attitudes also remained: Arizona Governor Sidney Osborn hoped to prevent an influx of Japanese Americans and insisted that Caucasians remain visibly in charge of the project. In a moment of realism Anderson recognized that local residents might respond with violence and “gunplay.” 

The biggest hurdle was financial. Working out the business plan for a nonprofit, noncapitalist rubber company in rural Arizona proved difficult. Agricultural cooperatives could not make a long-range commitment to purchase a crop not yet in the ground. Caltech distanced itself from the project: its mission had little to do with developing new commercial agricultural crops. Even a leading sympathizer to the plight of Japanese Americans said that “creating a Shangri-La in the foothills with guayule and vegetables is a case of group escapism.”

Most important, few Japanese Americans were eager to move to a guayule-based community in Arizona. Most former internees sought communities with established schools, medical facilities, and steady jobs, and could not wait for the slow-growing guayule. Scientific and technical experts like Shimpe Nishimura chose not to join the project; at least one of the nurserymen found he could earn twice his earlier wages in the postwar economy. By January 1945 Anderson had lined up only one truck, one tractor, and three families.

Yet Anderson’s commitment to guayule was not over. In 1946 he bought some of the ERP’s last remaining stands of living guayule, 1,150 acres planted near Banning, California. Manzanar veteran Frank Hirosawa helped design the processing mill, while Emerson and Nishimura (who had followed Emerson to his new post at the University of Illinois) offered occasional help. The Wrigley Company promised a generous price for quick delivery of guayule rubber to use in chewing gum. By 1948, however, Wrigley officials reneged on the deal. Anderson had no choice but to collect the viable guayule seed, sell his land, and auction off equipment. For another 40 years Anderson tirelessly lobbied for guayule, occasionally generating some interest but generally working in obscurity. His ties with Manzanar veteran and plant propagator Frank Kageyama remained especially strong (although their trip to the People’s Republic of China piqued the curiosity of both Chinese and U.S. intelligence officials). 

By the end of World War II guayule had become probably the most intensely studied plant that never made it into commercial production. The Manzanar researchers contributed to this body of knowledge, coauthoring papers that appeared in leading biological, botanical, and chemical journals, all based on research conducted behind the barbed wire. But after the sense of emergency had passed, the notion that government should support research on crops like guayule faded. One reason, of course, was that synthetic, petroleum-based rubber had emerged as an economically viable and politically appropriate substitute for the nation’s natural-rubber consumption. Efforts to develop new crops, like guayule, now are found only on the fringes of farm bills and granting-agency budgets, while research and price support for such basic farm commodities as corn, soybeans, and cotton has ballooned.

The story of guayule in World War II offers insights into roads not taken. Yet such roads may open up again in the 21st century. The global economy remains dependent on both natural rubber from the Hevea plantations of Southeast Asia (which still account for about 40% of global rubber production) as well as the synthetic-rubber factories of the industrial world. But both sources have vulnerabilities. Natural-rubber trees lack genetic diversity and are at risk from the potentially devastating South American leaf blight. Synthetic rubber consumes much of the global petroleum production not devoted to fuel and is vulnerable to diminishing petroleum supplies and the unpredictable geopolitics of oil. As a result several guayule enthusiasts remain; both private businesses and public research institutions are currently growing the plant in Arizona, southern Europe, and elsewhere. If this humble desert shrub ever makes a comeback, the important scientific research conducted at the Japa­nese American internment camps will live on.

Mark R. Finlay is a historian of science and the environment at Armstrong Atlantic State University. He is the author of  Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009), the source for some portions of this article. He would like to thank Glenn H. Kageyama, Frank Akira Kageyama, Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, Jeff Martin, Mike Fraley, Richard Anderson, and CHF’s Travel Grant program for assistance with this project.