Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Rubber

Washington, D.C., circa 1921. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size here.

Prewar United States rubber industry

From the start of World War II in Europe in September 1939, the United States kept a keen eye on the supplies the nation would need if pulled into the European conflict. It was clear to scientists and many politicians, however, that the nation’s prewar actions were woefully inadequate with regard to the rubber problem. In fact, by the end of 1939 the United States had stockpiled only 125,800 tons* of crude natural rubber, a small amount compared with the hundreds of thousands of tons needed yearly to supply all branches of the armed forces. With politicians and scientists becoming more vocal about the U.S. rubber situation, Congress looked to aid the war effort by way of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a government agency created during the Great Depression to restore confidence in the national banking system and to loan money to state and local governments, agriculture, large banks, railroads, and other businesses. On June 28, 1940, Congress authorized the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to establish subsidiary corporations for the purpose of acquiring critical materials: the Rubber Reserve Company (RRC) was created for the purpose of obtaining rubber. Under the direction of Jesse Jones, a Texas banker who was called on by President Franklin Roosevelt to be both Secretary of Commerce and the head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the RRC’s activity over the next two years would be constantly scrutinized by politicians and scientists alike as it spearheaded the rubber effort.

Hear Paul S. Greer: You see, the Rubber Reserve Company in the meantime was operating altogether as a unit, mostly looking after the operation of the plants, supervising operations. The Rubber Director was responsible for making sure you got everything you needed to work…the Rubber Reserve Company got all its necessary building materials and equipment. And also, if the research was under Rubber Director...and also, the allocation of rubber was under the Rubber Director. But then when the Rubber Director was abolished—the Office of Rubber Director—the research was tossed over to Rubber Reserve to carry on and the rubber allocation was shunted in to the Department of Commerce, except that a good bit of the allocation was given to Rubber Reserve also.  So the Rubber Reserve was pretty much all…the main thing about rubber after 1944. (19)

Jones’s tenure as RRC head would be characterized by inactivity, wavering, and political dramatics. By August of the same year, less than two months after the RRC was authorized, a group of representatives from the chemical, petroleum, and rubber industries met with the National Defense Research Committee to discuss the specifics needed for a national synthetic rubber program. However, it was not until 1941 that Jones made his first call to action to the big rubber companies of the nation, when he authorized the construction of one synthetic-rubber plant each for B.F. Goodrich Company, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and United States Rubber Company—the “big four.” Each plant would have an annual capacity of 10,000 tons. But even 40,000 potential tons a year did not calm a political battle brewing over the source of rubber. To win the war the United States looked to the research of competitive industry giants and of a nation that would soon become its enemy—Germany.

Hear Willard Asbury and A. Donald Green:  

MORRIS (interviewer): What did people outside the company think the America was going to do if it was cut off from it?  Was it going to rely purely on stockpiles of natural rubber? What I’m trying to get at here is, what did the American government and the American people think they were going to do when they were cut off?
GREEN: Well, The American people couldn’t have cared less.
ASBURY: And the government didn’t care either.
GREEN: No.
MORRIS: It was a question that no thought was given to at all, rather than an alternative?
ASBURY: Well, Frank Howard would go down to Washington time and time again and talk to them and all, but it didn’t do anything. (20)

The roots of necessary research

Chemical Structure Buna S

It was not until World War I that U.S. researchers began studying methods of synthetically producing rubber. The need for rubber during wartime and the disruption to international supply lines exacerbated the existing volatility of the natural-rubber market, making what was a relatively cheap resource at times overly expensive and unreliable. Gearing up for a new research effort, however, was not simple. The field of polymer chemistry in the United States was in its infancy. It wasn’t until 1920 that Hermann Staudinger, a German chemist, suggested that polymers (which he called macromolecules), like rubber, were made from long, chainlike attachments of molecules, a theory for which he received the 1953 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Staudinger’s research would not be confirmed until 10 years later through the work of chemists at E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company. The field of rubber chemistry was almost nonexistent...almost. Much of the knowledge about synthetic rubber was in Germany, which in the 1920s was reeling from the deleterious effects—socially, economically, politically, and culturally—of the war it started and the reparations for which it was responsible. The Americans for the most part were on their own in developing the chemistry needed to produce a synthetic form of rubber. The rise of the American synthetic-rubber industry came about through the interest of men like Oliver Hayden, an academically trained chemist who entered the chemical industry after his service in the U.S. Army Sanitary Corps during World War I, and companies like Fisk Rubber Company, for which Hayden began working.

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