- Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security
Japan's attack on the United States in December 1941 brought American dependency on foreign rubber into sharp and painful focus. Cut off from Asian supplies, how would the nation meet both military and civilian demand? Mark Finlay, professor of history at Armstrong Atlantic State University, describes the crisis of World War II and earlier efforts to find a domestic rubber crop that would prevent a rubber famine of the sort experienced during World War I. Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, a promising young army officer named Dwight Eisenhower, and many lesser-known entrepreneurs hoped to liberate the country from its dependence on foreign rubber. They experienced limited success and much failure in the interwar period. When fears about the lack of preparedness were realized after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the United States government responded by creating an Emergency Rubber Program. By the end of the war, however, the program had been canceled and the United States resumed its dependence on foreign rubber. Finlay argues that the search for domestic rubber "marks a transitional phase in the history of American technology and science" (p. 10). Prior to the crisis of World War II, the solution to the rubber problem was an agricultural one. During the war, the debate shifted even as work proceeded on agricultural solutions. Synthetic rubber was the new and improved temporary solution, while the long-term answer involved continued dependence on foreign rubber in the name of building trade and diplomatic ties around the world. [End Page 1033]
Concern about U.S. vulnerability began during the Mexican Revolution and World War I and remained an issue in American public life through World War II. By the second decade of the twentieth century, rubber was no longer a marginal commodity in American life; it was central to the automobile industry and many others. The rubber famine of World War I subsided quickly, reflecting the brief involvement of the United States, but concerns flared again in 1922 when Great Britain cut East Indian rubber production and raised prices. Throughout this period, American businessmen and entrepreneurs searched for rubber plants that could be grown in the United States. Thomas Edison rose to the challenge, announcing that he would pursue the project as an act of national service with financial support from Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford. The Emergency Rubber Project, created in 1942, consisted of more than 1,000 scientists and tens of thousands of laborers who worked in Haiti and across the nation, including at the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, to develop several plants into viable rubber sources.
Domestic rubber lost the war to synthetic rubber, however. Even though domestic rubber accounted for 77 percent of American rubber production in 1943, 63 percent in 1944, and 39 percent in 1945, there were disadvantages to domestic rubber crops. Many of them could not be modified to produce suitable quantities or quality of rubber. Furthermore, synthetic rubber won favor with Americans who were enamored with industrial solutions, and, most important, the Roosevelt administration's commitment to internationalism made foreign rubber a tool of diplomacy and American engagement in the postwar order.
Growing American Rubber is a significant contribution to many fields, not the least of which is the history of technology and science. Finlay deftly weaves stories of diplomacy, scientific research, interest-group politics, entrepreneurs, farmers, laborers, and the environment to tell the story of rubber-crop research in the first half of the twentieth century. He claims that the domestic rubber project "underscores the links between war and broader discussions about the relationship of scientific enterprise to geopolitics" as well as the "increasing level of state intervention into scientific, technical, and agricultural research" (p. 7). Readers will appreciate Finlay's meticulous research, demonstrating the local, regional, national, and international aspects of the quest for domestic rubber. That search, Finlay persuasively contends, is a relevant subject for today's policymakers. The success of...