Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security

Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security

Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security

Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security

Synopsis

Growing American Rubber explores America's quest during tense decades of the twentieth century to identify a viable source of domestic rubber. Straddling international revolutions and world wars, this unique and well-researched history chronicles efforts of leaders in business, science, and government to sever American dependence on foreign suppliers. Mark Finlay plots out intersecting networks of actors including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, prominent botanists, interned Japanese Americans, Haitian peasants, and ordinary citizens- all of whom contributed to this search for economic self-sufficiency. Challenging once-familiar boundaries between agriculture and industry and field and laboratory, Finlay also identifies an era in which perceived boundaries between natural and synthetic came under review.

Although synthetic rubber emerged from World War II as one solution, the issue of ever-diminishing natural resources and the question of how to meet twenty-first-century consumer, military, and business demands lingers today.

Excerpt

On the same day that the New York Times reported on page 6 that the Nazis had slain seven hundred thousand Polish Jews, a different headline appeared above the fold of the front page: “Lehman Ends Tennis; Shoes to Rubber Pile.” As part of his commitment to respond to the U.S. rubber crisis, New York governor Herbert Lehman and his family had donated tennis shoes and other household items to the nation’s scrap-rubber drive. As the juxtaposition of these stories demonstrates, no domestic issue generated more attention or caused more public anxiety in early 1942 than looming shortages of rubber. For decades, many Americans had been as concerned about foreign control of rubber as people are today about petroleum. the situation proved especially grave in 1942. Government officials had no real plan to obtain and fairly distribute rubber. Vital for war production, military operations, and sustaining the civilian standard of living, rubber was the nation’s most valuable agricultural import. the United States consumed about 60 percent of the world’s rubber, some six hundred thousand tons each year, yet it produced virtually none. About 97 percent of the nation’s supply came from lands in Southeast Asia that had fallen to Japan after Pearl Harbor. Government officials had prepared for this possible calamity in only haphazard and halfhearted ways, stockpiling barely enough rubber to get through the year. Prospects for 1943 were far worse. in response, officials launched scrap-rubber drives and unveiled several desperate programs to find alternate rubber supplies, including a rushed development of Latin American sources, an ambitious increase in the production of synthetic rubber, and a renewed effort to develop domestically grown rubber crops.

This was not the first time that some Americans had argued that domestic rubber crops such as guayule, cryptostegia, goldenrod, and kok-sagyz (also . . .

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