Sorry No Gas
How Americans Met the First Great Gasoline Crisis—Nearly Forty Years Ago
October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
According to the members of the blueribbon committee, the situation was desperate. Their report, released to the Washington press corps, had been blunt, unsparing, and apocalyptic. “We find the existing situation to be so dangerous,” it warned, “that unless corrective measures are taken immediately this country will face both a military and civilian collapse.” The committee proposed to counter the dire threat by the imposition of nationwide gasoline rationing.
Such a report may be easily imagined in one of the future-crisis scenarios currently making the rounds in the White House or the Department of Energy. In fact, however, it was issued on September 10,1942, with the United States nine months into World War II, and it triggered the nation’s first—and, thus far, only—encounter with the full-fledged rationing of gasoline. How the American people coped with so traumatic an experience may be instructive.
To be sure, the lessons of history need to be used with caution. The situation in the early 1940’s was very different from what we are told may confront us in the early 1980’s. We were then at war, united against a common enemy. We were then not hostage to foreign sources for petroleum. Indeed, in 1942, for much of the country at least, there was not even a gasoline shortage. Yet if the origins of wartime gas rationing have little in common with one of these alarming future scenarios, the actual rationing experiences of 1942 to 1945 may offer certain lessons worth a second look.
The blue-ribbon committee that issued its outspoken report in September, 1942, had been assigned the task of bringing order out of confusion. It was a distinguished panel, including educator James B. Conant, president of Harvard, and physicist Karl T. Compton, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; at its head was Bernard Baruch, Wall Street wizard, director of industrial mobilization during World War I, and confidant of Presidents. Franklin Roosevelt had turned to him almost in desperation. “Because you’re ‘an ever present help in time of trouble,’” the President pleaded in a handwritten note, “will you ‘do it again’?” The time of trouble in this instance was what the press called the “rubber mess.”
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, rubber instantly became the most critical strategic material for making war. Nine-tenths of the nation’s rubber came from the Far East, and it was painfully evident that nothing would now stop Japan from cutting off that source. Stockpiles on hand, enough for about a year of peacetime demand, were grossly inadequate for the growing war machine. Synthetic rubber eventually would provide the answer, but the American synthetic-rubber industry was in its infancy. Just four days after Pearl Harbor a freeze was put on the sale of new passenger-car tires, and on December 27 tire rationing was authorized, to go into effect early in January, 1942. Sales of new cars also were halted, leaving America’s motorists to contemplate an uncertain driving future with their present cars and tires.
There was much complaint on Capitol Hill at the administration’s lack of foresight in not undertaking a syntheticrubber program earlier, as well as much heated debate over which manufacturing process should receive priority; the oil bloc promoted the petroleum-derivatives process, while the farm bloc trumpeted the virtues of the grain-alcohol method. Finally this was straightened out and the synthetic-rubber program put in train, but not before the issue of gasoline rationing was injected into the whole business, complicating it infernally.
At this point, in the early months of 1942, gas rationing was an issue plaguing only the Eastern seaboard. Observant Eastern motorists, however, could have detected the handwriting on their gasoline pumps as early as the previous summer, six months before Pearl Harbor. Fully 95 per cent of the coastal states’ petroleum needs were supplied by tankers from the Gulf Coast. In the late spring of 1941 the administration made an emergency loan of one-fifth of these vessels to the British to shorten the voyage time of their war-ravaged tanker fleet: oil exports from Caribbean and Gulf Coast refineries were shipped in the American tankers to New York and Halifax, then transshipped across the Atlantic in British tankers. Shortages soon appeared at Eastern filling stations, and the administration’s petroleum coordinator, Harold L. Ickes, veteran New Dealer and self-styled curmudgeon, lectured the public on voluntary cuts in nonessential driving and called for early station closings. He was largely ignored, although the New Jersey legislature took enough notice to pass a resolution condemning the requested cuts as a threat to the state’s tourist industry. After some dislocations as oil companies reduced their allotments to meet the shortfall, the mini-crisis passed when the British returned the borrowed tankers. In any future fuel crisis, Ickes remarked pointedly, “I suspect that it is going to require something more than persuasion.…”