- Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security
Similar to contemporary worries about oil supplies, foreign control of the rubber industry troubled many Americans during the twentieth century. Mark Finlay, Professor of History at Armstrong Atlantic State University, explores the intersection of agriculture and industry by examining the domestic rubber thread from the farmlands of California and Florida, to the fields of Haiti, to the Japanese internment camps of Manzanar, and to the southwestern borderlands of Mexico and Texas.
Finlay discovered that business, science, and government leaders, including Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Bernard Baruch, all played prominent roles in arguing for domestic solutions to the rubber quandary. Many of these “chemurgists” argued that agricultural products could provide raw materials for industrial production.
Prominent business leaders argued that domestic rubber was vital for the nation’s economic development and for its military preparedness. Modern warfare demanded coordination between government and industry. The development of a domestic supply seemed a military necessity. Edison, Firestone, and Ford financed domestic rubber research, especially at Fort Myers, Florida, through what became known as the Edison Botanic Research Corporation (EBCO). In fact, rubber became Edison’s final obsession. For the octogenarian, the solution to the nation’s pressing rubber problem was to be found in domestic agriculture. Edison died in 1931, but his field studies continued and eventually changed the plant-patent process.
By 1942, Edison and other chemurgists seemed prophetic when a “rubber mess” threatened to hinder the American war effort. As the Japanese threatened [End Page 81] the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) plantations of Southeast Asia, rubber became the most valuable agricultural import to the United States. The federal government froze automobile production, forbade sale of rubber tires, controlled the sale of most rubber goods, launched scrap rubber drives, planned for alternate supplies from Caribbean and Latin America projects, increased production of synthetic rubber, and funded efforts to develop domestically grown rubber crops. In response to rubber shortages the federal government formed the Emergency Rubber Project (ERP). It was “something like the Manhattan Project of the plant sciences, comparable to some degree in terms of scale, urgency, and interdisciplinary scope.” (141) The search for an agricultural solution centered on the woody shrub guayule, from the deserts of northern Mexico and southwestern Texas, the invasive vine cryptostegia (native to the Indian Ocean basin), the Central Asian highland plant kok-sagyz, better known as the Russian dandelion, and Edison’s personal favorite, a wildflower called goldenrod, common in the pinelands of southern Florida.
Thus there was an explicit relationship between war and the environment, developing mainly from the resource exploitation required by war. Those who promoted synthetic rubber derived from renewable resources from American farm products ultimately could not compete with those who favored synthetic rubber from non-renewable petroleum. Furthermore, rubber and petroleum companies created a narrative that the WWII rubber crisis had been solved by patriotic efforts to develop synthetic rubber.
Finlay’s well-researched work based on government reports, various papers, and a good mix of newspapers and rubber trade journals makes clear the importance of rubber in American history. The United States shifted from domestic organic to inorganic and foreign solutions to the modern consumer driven economy. Unfortunately the United States still relies on a risky combination of imported natural rubber and synthetic rubber derived from petroleum, making this study timely and relevant.