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Sorry No Gas
How Americans Met the First Great Gasoline Crisis—Nearly Forty Years Ago
October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
Ickes put his finger squarely on the problem: human nature. To ask the average American motorist to cut his use of gasoline voluntarily in a time of peace and prosperity was to ask him to cut his standard of living voluntarily, which was a lot to ask, particularly if his next-door neighbor was doing nothing of the kind. The automobile culture was perceived as very much a part of the good life, a fact recently and vividly confirmed during the Great Depression. Americans somehow managed to drive straight through the worst economic upheaval in their history. After the slightest of dips in 1932–33, when the economy sounded the depths, gasoline consumption climbed steadily, and in 1941, despite the gasoline mini-crisis in the East, passenger cars used over 10 per cent more fuel than in 1940.
To all appearances, the future was secure as far as gasoline stocks were concerned. The United States was entirely self-sufficient in oil, and indeed was a major exporter of petroleum products. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, North America accounted for 64 per cent of the world’s crude-oil production. (The Near and Middle East’s share, by contrast, was a mere 5.7 per cent.) Dr. Robert E. Wilson, a government consultant on oil production, said in mid-1940 that the outlook for the American petroleum industry was such that “even satisfying the enormous demands of a mechanized army presents no serious problems.”
While Wilson’s forecast would prove essentially accurate, war’s cold realities made short work of any feelings of complacency. It was the Eastern seaboard that felt the pinch first. Beginning in mid-January, 1942, German U-boats opened a fearsomely effective campaign against American coastal shipping. In just two weeks they torpedoed nine tankers. By May, daily deliveries of gasoline to the East Coast had been slashed 80 per cent. It would be months before the U.S. Navy could make inroads against the submarine offensive. Ickes was candid about the crisis: “Storage on the Gulf Coast and in the Southwest is brimming,” he acknowledged, but there was simply no way for railroads and barges to compensate fully for the tanker losses. Washington announced that on May 15 gas rationing would go into effect in seventeen Eastern states. That same month the national speed limit was reduced to 40 miles an hour to conserve fuel and tires.
The emergency rationing program was put in the hands of Leon Henderson, head of the Office of Price Administration. Henderson—an economist, a warrior in a hundred New Deal battles whom conservatives regarded as a wild-eyed radical—occupied a decidedly prominent post. “For this job I need the toughest damned bastard in town,” Roosevelt had told him, “and, Leon, you are it.” Henderson had to be all of that to survive as OPA head, for he was responsible for imposing a myriad of controls on the people and the economy. The hastily contrived Eastern rationing plan, with its basic allotment of three gallons a week, was something of a ramshackle affair, full of inequities, especially for motorists living on the fringes of the rationed areas who had to endure the sight of those from neighboring towns driving to their heart’s content. It also had loopholes, the most notorious being the X-ration card that permitted unlimited gas for supposedly essential use. When two hundred members of Congress applied for and received X rations, editorial writers across the land raised a derisive shout.
By the fifth month of war, then, no American could buy a new car, tires were tightly rationed, and some 50,000,000 citizens in the East were trying to get by on drastically reduced gasoline supplies. The Petroleum Industry War Council was on record as warning of far worse to come. It pointed to the critical rubber situation and predicted that unless something was done promptly, the number of roadworthy automobiles, currently standing at 29,600,000, would be slashed to 9,000,000 by the end of 1943 and to 1,000,000 by the end of 1944. One million cars! That was something last seen in 1913 and would surely mark Judgment Day for the American way of life. The only way to prevent this, said the Petroleum Council, was to accelerate synthetic-rubber production—and to ration gasoline nationwide.
Such prophecy heated the political atmosphere in Washington. Bruce Catton, the future historian who observed it all from a ringside seat in one of the war-mobilization agencies, wrote sardonically that “there was a confusion of tongues and a blowing of great winds.” Certainly it was an odd situation. The means of closing the critical rubber gap was the subject of intense debate. Almost nightly, in Caribbean and Atlantic coastal waters, oil tankers were ablaze, forcing millions of Americans to make do with only a few gallons of gas a week, while millions more could still “fill ’er up” whenever they felt like it, and storage tanks along the Gulf Coast were still full of gasoline. Experts said Draconian action must be taken immediately. Congressman Leland M. Ford rose on the House floor to exclaim, “What is the whole program? Why are not our people told the plain, honest-to-God truth?”