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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
The truth may have been plain, but it was also unpalatable. Unless all civilians were forced by edict to cut their driving to a minimum by means of gasoline rationing, they would run their tires down to the rims, and there was no possible way to replace all those tires. And without automobiles to get workers to their jobs, the Arsenal of Democracy would grind to a dead stop.
While the nation’s industrial plant in the war years was nowhere near as decentralized as it is today, it clearly was tending in that direction. All across the country new arms factories were springing up in cornfields and meadowlands far from public transportation. This was particularly true in California, center of the burgeoning aircraft industry. Seven out of ten war workers in the Los Angeles area depended on their automobiles to get to work; at some plants the ratio was as high as nine out of ten. A survey in Michigan disclosed that 635,000 of 850,000 war workers had to drive to work. Investigators at two hundred key industrial sites in fourteen states found 69 per cent of the employees had no alternative to commuting by car. For the duration the private automobile was going to be as vital a cog in the war machine as steel or copper or machine tools.
Roosevelt knew this truth better than anyone, but he could not bring himself to say it out loud and face the supposed wrath of a nation of gasoline-rationed car owners—and almost one out of five of the 132,000,000 Americans now owned a car. He knew, too, that the midterm congressional elections were due in the fall; so did the nervous congressmen up for re-election, particularly those from the wide-open Western states. In answer to a press-conference question about the rubber mess, the President admitted, “I don’t know who is right. Now here is the greatest expert on it in the United States,” he said, pointing to himself, “and he doesn’t know!” Urged by his aides to impose gas rationing, he called instead for a massive scrap-rubber drive, and thousands of tons of old tires, hot-water bottles, garden hoses, overshoes, and floor mats (including one snatched from the White House by Harold Ickes) poured into collection centers. Little of this scrap proved to be re-usable, however, and the rubber shortage persisted. When he was asked about gasoline rationing, Roosevelt did not have an answer either, except to remark that he could understand why someone with a good car, four good tires, and an oil well next door might want to continue driving as he pleased. Predictably, none of this added to the public’s understanding of the real issues.
In the summer of 1942 Congress took it upon itself to untangle the rubber mess (and by extension, the gasoline mess) by passing Iowa Senator Guy Gillette’s bill to establish a “rubber czar” at the head of a special agency independent of the War Production Board then overseeing the war economy. Roosevelt knew he must veto the Gillette bill or risk serious damage to the mobilization machinery, and to make his veto stick he hit upon one of those brilliant political strokes for which he was famous. In his veto message he announced the formation of the blue-ribbon Baruch committee to examine thoroughly the whole business of rubber, gasoline, and civilian automotive transportation and to make recommendations. In one neat maneuver, he had side-stepped, gotten out from under, and passed the buck.
Baruch’s panel delivered its forceful conclusions, and with that weighty backing the President bit the bullet and announced that on December 1, 1942, nationwide gasoline rationing would take effect. A national “victory speed” was set at thirty-five miles an hour. William M. Jeffers, head of the rubber program, put the business in a nutshell: “This is not a gasoline rationing program,” he said, “but a rubber conservation program; the object is not to take cars off the road, but to keep them on the road.” The people accepted the verdict with apparent equanimity, for the turnout at the polls in November was low and Republican gains were regarded as normal for an off-year election.
Perhaps there was a certain degree of resignation in all this, for by the time gas rationing went on the books, the American people were well on their way to coming under government edict in virtually every aspect of their daily lives. Prices, wages, and rents were tightly controlled to fight inflationary pressures. At one time or another during the war years there was rationing of (among other things) meat, butter, kitchen stoves, fuel oil, fats, sugar, shoes, liquor, cheese, dried peas, canned goods, coffee, and typewriters, in addition to tires and gasoline. The citizenry found itself coping with ration stamps and coupons and red points and blue points and inspection records and stickers and booklets and leaflets and charts and certificates and regulations and applications and authorizations—a headache of red tape and paperwork unparalleled in the national experience.