Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Grain versus Petroleum Debate

In the first half of 1942 the battle over the raw materials for manufacture of butadiene was a fierce one, reaching not only into chemical industry but also into politics. Butadiene could be produced from both grain alcohol (ethanol) and petroleum. Both sources had strong political allies: “farm-bloc” politicians, hailing mostly from Midwestern states that relied on agriculture, favored the alcohol process. Standard Oil of New Jersey and other oil companies, as well as bureaucrats from the War Production Board, some of whom had ties to the oil industry, favored the petroleum process. For months President Franklin Roosevelt refused to intervene, allowing politicians and scientists to duke it out over butadiene. In the end the war’s butadiene synthetic rubber was created via the petroleum process—but how was that decision made?

Butadiene Structure

By the summer of 1941 the petroleum process for creating butadiene was tapped by Jesse Jones and the Rubber Reserve Company to be used for most of the U.S. rubber production. The petroleum process was promoted heavily by those with a financial stake in the matter—oil companies—and the businessmen who were part of the War Production Board and other wartime organizations, such as the Rubber Reserve Company. Additionally, the United States’ large supply of oil and its well-established oil companies made the choice to use petroleum for butadiene attractive. But petroleum and gasoline were necessary in many other wartime goods, and the president even considered a gas ration. By early 1942 a vocal minority, including other politicians and scientists, touted the benefits of using grain alcohol instead of petroleum for butadiene. To the supporters, the most vocal being Iowa Senator Guy Gillette, grain alcohol had several things going for it: the Midwest had an abundance of grain crops and stockpiles available; grain alcohol was a renewable source—by using the waste of farmers the government would not be using valuable petroleum; the process was faster for achieving butadiene; and, according to the figures of advocates, the grain-alcohol process was cheaper than the petroleum process. These central arguments were drawn out for months: petroleum advocates countered that the process was not cheaper, nor was grain alcohol in large supply. For that matter petroleum boosters said that producing the grain necessary for all the butadiene required by rubber was impossible.

Adding fuel to the fire was the increasingly apparent fact that the government was ill-prepared for the rubber demands of war. The United States had not stockpiled enough rubber in the years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and its total initial capacity of synthetic rubber plants was only 40,000 tons yearly. Groups like the Truman Committee exposed the government’s lack of preparedness, and as a result other committees were formed for further investigation, including a subcommittee of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry charged to evaluate industrial alcohol and synthetic rubber. Gillette was chosen as the head of this committee in March 1942, and over the next few months of hearings and investigation, he exposed blocking of the grain-alcohol process by Standard Oil of New Jersey and bureaucrats. Meanwhile, plants that were to use the petroleum process were delayed, and rubber production was at a standstill. In June, Gillette proposed a bill to create a Rubber Supply Agency to develop synthetic-rubber precursors from alcohol; he also proposed that a single leader of this agency be established in the hope that solid leadership could finally solve the rubber problem. Although Congress, fed up with the political fighting and lack of leadership on synthetic rubber, passed this bill, Roosevelt vetoed it a month later. The president’s reasoning was that yet another rubber leader would cause confusion and that the current grain surplus was questionable after 1942. The possibility of using agricultural resources for synthetic rubber ended with the president’s veto and the appointment of the Baruch Committee in August 1942.

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