Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Wartime Crisis

June 1942: A boy turns in rubber for salvage. Delaware Public Archives.

Competition on a national scale: politics 

In 1942 the issue of what synthetic rubber would be made from became a polarizing political debate. Large quantities of butadiene were necessary for the process, but what would be the source material: petroleum or grain alcohol? Just a day after Standard Oil signed the consent decree, the RRC reserved funds to the tune of nearly $650 million for both research and the creation of pilot plants dedicated to rubber made from petroleum—the Standard Oil/I.G. Farben method. Rubber from grain alcohol was a process favored by many senators, especially those from major farming states. Iowa Senator Guy Gillette spearheaded the effort to bring the nation’s attention to this potentially renewable—and beneficial to American farms—method of creating synthetic rubber. In June 1942 he introduced a bill that would require some of the government rubber to be produced from grain-alcohol butadiene. By July he voiced support for a Rubber Supply Agency based on grain-alcohol butadiene, in opposition to the War Production Board’s support for petroleum-based rubber. Along with several other senators he formed the Gillette Committee to investigate the handling of the rubber problem. While Gillette’s bill was vetoed, the debates surrounding his investigation sparked presidential action.

Amedeo Avogadro

Izaac M. Kolthoff to Herb A. Laitinen, 7 January 1941. Izaac M. Kolthoff Collection, CHF Collections.  Click image for full size. 

In August 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt appointed a Rubber Survey Committee, a group not invested in or influenced by state politics, to investigate the rubber problem. The committee was composed of Bernard Baruch, financier, presidential adviser, and chair of the committee; Karl T. Compton, physicist and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and James Bryant Conant, chemist, president of Harvard University, and chairman of the National Defense Research Committee. The committee was to review the government’s handling of preparation of the nation’s rubber supply and rubber industry for war to determine what leadership was necessary to guarantee the success of synthetic rubber and to come to a consensus about the source of America’s synthetic rubber. The committee’s final report, commonly called the Baruch Report, released in September, set into motion the nationalization of the rubber industry and the full-fledged American synthetic-rubber research effort. The committee explicitly expressed in its report that “the existing situation [is] so dangerous that unless corrective measures are taken immediately this country will face both a military and civilian collapse. In rubber we are a have-not nation.”

The Baruch Committee sent a clear message to the president to call upon the bevy of scientists and end the political fight. According to the report, the debate over grain alcohol versus petroleum as a rubber source had become politicized and polarizing, and only served to obscure the need for scientific research—complex research—immediately. The report clarified that while rubber made from alcohol was a decent rubber to use, it would not be as cheap as implied in the long run: thus, the decision to focus on petroleum as a source was all but finalized. The report also made more explicit demands of the nation: it gave the nation goals for rubber conservation/scrap drives, implored the administration to use all available funds and resources to expand the program quickly, and ordered the immediate construction and operation of 51 plants to produce the monomers and polymers needed for the manufacture of synthetic rubber. The report also demanded a leader with complete authority over the rubber program. William Jeffers, president of the Union Pacific Railroad, was named “rubber czar” only days after the report was released. Jeffers, who claimed he would be under the influence of no political faction or ideal, went to work quickly. A standard type of rubber was quickly chosen: Buna-S, the recipe based on Germany technology. Buna-S could be milled on the same machines as natural rubber, and a recipe for the—now named—GR-S [government rubber-styrene] rubber was decided.

Hear William Baker:  When the Baruch report came around, and others in Washington...[William] Jeffers, who had been president of the Union Pacific Railroad, was brought in to form a Rubber Reserve to contain and conserve what rubber we had and try to make synthetic rubber as well.  When those fellows got together, they saw that our scientific and technical base was really pretty feeble.  At that time the national strategy had decreed, however, that we would nationalize the industry—the war was getting tougher and tougher—and we would make use of all the patents they had of German work which was supposed to have been successful.  The Germans were supposed to have had synthetic rubber, which was a frightening hypothesis if true because we didn’t.  The Japanese and Germans had cut off the Far East and the war would hang in balance.  You wouldn’t have mechanized warfare.  You couldn’t have aircraft.  You couldn’t have a lot of those things without rubber, and our domestic economy would have collapsed. (46)

Continue to next section >

Rubber from Petroleum or Grain?

World War II’s butadiene synthetic rubber was created via the petroleum process for butadiene—but that decision came after much political infighting and drama. Read More >

Another View

Listen to the CHF podcast, Distillations, episode 113: Burning Rubber, featuring an interview with historian Mark Finlay.  Listen >

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