October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
How Americans Met the First Great Gasoline Crisis—Nearly Forty Years Ago
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.…”
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?”
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.
Presiding over all this, and squarely in everyone’s field of fire, was Leon Henderson and the Office of Price Administration. In size the OPA was second only to the Post Office Department; in bureaucratic complexity it was unmatched. It was, said one observer, “born in strife and lived in turmoil.” Yet no one could complain that it was a distant bureaucracy, out of sight and out of reach. There was a total of fifty-six hundred local OPA boards to administer the various programs and controls, staffed largely by unpaid volunteers from every walk of life and generally bipartisan in political persuasion, for neither party wanted to shoulder the blame.
The gasoline rationing plan devised by Henderson’s OPA differed fundamentally from most other wartime rationing programs. Since petroleum was a key strategic weapon of war, and since a major goal was to save tires, gas for civilians was rationed according to individual need rather than parceled out on the equitable one-to-a-customer principle followed with such items as meat or sugar or canned corn. Every car owner received a basic so-called A ration, initially four gallons a week, good for perhaps sixty miles of driving. If he could persuade the local rationing board that he simply had to have more fuel, he would be eligible for a supplementary B or C ration. The B allotment generally went to those who could prove they had farther to drive to work than A-ration gallonage permitted. The key test for a C ration was “relation to the war effort or the public welfare,” as the OPA put it. War-plant workers fell into this category, as did doctors and others involved in “public welfare.” There was an unlimited “emergency” category for police, volunteer firemen, civil defense personnel, and the like, and a special T ration for truckers. Tied to the system was a compulsory tire-inspection plan whose web of regulations had to be followed religiously in order for a vehicle to be eligible for a recapped or new tire.
All the world would know how well anyone had done at their local ration board, for lettered windshield stickers were handed out along with gas-coupon booklets in each category. At the gas pump, the attendant would remove the appropriate number of coupons, on which the car’s license number had to be written, from the customer’s ration booklet. Coupons were valid only for a specified period, to prevent saving up for a sunny day.
Motorists by the millions promptly descended on their local boards to seek the supplementary gas rations. Processing war workers was simplified by plant transportation committees that approved mileage claims and organized car pools, whose members countersigned the applications. Both the virtues and the faults of the decentralized ration-board system soon were evident. Exaggerated claims of need could more easily be deflated by those who knew the local situation, and car owners found it hard to fool a neighbor sitting on an OPA board. On the other hand, there were many instances of neighborly favoritism and string pulling. (There were also small human dramas. A woman in Dunkirk, New York, wrote a pleading letter to her local board asking it not to grant her husband the B sticker he sought, for he only wanted it “to go out with other women.”) Under the circumstances, it was probably about as fair a system as could be devised, and patriotic support of the war effort played a very real part in these across-the-counter negotiations. About half the nation’s car owners obtained B or C classifications, and in the vast majority of cases they were legitimately awarded.
Along with the millions of windshield stickers and ration books came a flood of admonitory posters and leaflets and advertisements. Posters bluntly asking “Is This Trip Necessary?” were everywhere. Another poster warned, “When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler! Join a Car-Sharing Club TODAY !”—a theme given emphasis by a picture of a joy rider breezing along in an open convertible, oblivious of the ghostly figure of the Führer on the seat beside him. A typical magazine ad depicted a slacker dozing on a couch above copy that read,“… Sure, you out-smarted the ration board on gas all right… and kept a certain Army plane in Africa out of the war.” The OPA’s leaflet explaining the rationing program was embellished with a drawing of a satanic-looking Japanese soldier guarding a great pile of tires, with the caption “ This is why your mileage is rationed.”
So the American car culture settled gingerly into its new, poor-relation status. Since the mid-twenties the automobile had been seen as a necessity of life; now it was just that and nothing more. There was little gas for anything beyond getting to work and accomplishing other spartan tasks the OPA labeled “general utility.” “It takes practically the whole day, every day, to figure out how to get certain things done without using any gas,” observed The New Yorker ’s E. B. White.
Pleasure-seeking habits changed radically. The Sunday driver was gone from the land. Dr. Benjamin Spock (C ration) would remember with amazement “how easy it was to drive around in New York City and to park the car.” Resorts reported dramatic declines in customers, and many shut down for the duration. Thousands of roadhouses and restaurants and the other paraphernalia of the highway culture also closed their doors. In 1943, visits to national parks fell 68 per cent below prewar levels. Emily Post unbent etiquette’s rules enough to decree that it was no longer necessary to drive to the station to pick up one’s weekend guests. Lovers’ lane was replaced by those stand-bys of an earlier generation, the front parlor and the porch swing. Neighborhood bars and movie houses were jammed, as were any race tracks that could be reached by bus or trolley. But most of the time the average citizen simply stayed home, marooned “on his front porch,” Time reported, “with a well-stuffed wallet.” It was the fat wallets that caused particular frustration, for personal income was rising at an astronomical rate. Although wages were controlled, there was full employment for the first time since the 1929 crash and all the overtime pay anyone could want, yet there was little to buy and, thanks to gas and tire rationing, nowhere to go.
In the emergency the gasoline engine’s old rivals enjoyed a brief renaissance. Here and there a rejuvenated Stanley or Doble steamer could be seen, and elegant tall black electrics glided silently along city streets otherwise empty of traffic. Bicycling was encouraged by publicity photographs of the OPA’s portly Leon Henderson puffing a cigar as he pedaled his “victory bicycle.” Soon bicycles by the thousands could be found in factory parking lots—although most were old ones, for bicycle manufacture was on the wartime proscribed list. And horses were back, too, pressed into service to pull delivery wagons.
This is not to say that America’s car owners ever stopped trying to change the rationing rules. Pressure groups and lobbyists and politicians laid siege to OPA headquarters in Washington, where a “gasoline eligibility committee” met regularly to contend with their petitions and to set policy guidelines for the local boards. The committee would have welcomed Solomon and his wisdom to its sessions.
The American Bar Association, for example, maintained that all lawyers were upholders of the public welfare and thus entitled to C-ration stickers, but the OPA ruled only in favor of country lawyers, leaving city attorneys to make do with A or B allocations. The medical field, too, needed definition, leaving such practitioners as chiropodists, naturopathic healers, and masseurs out in the cold as far as extra gasoline was concerned. However, healers of ailing cars, such as used-car-parts brokers, won C allotments. B stickers might be granted for church volunteer work, but pleas for C stickers to attend church services fell on deaf OPA ears. Attending a funeral was not excuse enough for additional coupons. Boy Scout executives were praised for contributing to the morale of the nation’s youth, but were denied extra allotments. The pleas of hunters and fisherman that with C rations they could add to the country’s food supply were rejected. And while the administration urged everyone to plant a “victory garden” to relieve the strains of food rationing, the OPA ruled that unless those gardens were larger than fifteen hundred square feet, even the most patriotic yeoman was not entitled to extra gas to reach his plot.
The job of overseeing all this proved too much even for Leon Henderson: worn out, ill, and “bleeding from his political wounds,” he resigned in December, 1942, and was replaced by Prentiss M. Brown, a former Michigan senator. It was during Brown’s tenure that the gas-rationing program took a new, tough, and highly unpopular turn. On January 7, 1943, a fiat was issued banning all pleasure driving on the Eastern seaboard, regardless of a motorist’s windshield sticker. This was necessary, the OPA explained, because of continuing fuel-transportation problems.
Easterners were indeed plagued by spot shortages, which sometimes left motorists, even those with full ration books, woefully contemplating “Out of Gas” signs at filling stations. Any tank truck making a delivery run was customarily trailed by a long line of cars. But to ban what little driving pleasure was left to a law-abiding A-card holder struck many people as petty and unfair. The New York Automobile Club charged OPA inspectors with “Gestapo methods” in harassing motorists embarked on innocent errands. Those attending a concert or a wedding reception or a ball game (even though major-league baseball had Washington’s blessing as a booster of civilian morale) risked the loss of their rations. Grumbling increased in June when, under orders from Harold Ickes, who was in charge of overall petroleum priorities, the weekly A ration was cut to three gallons and the B and C allotments to two and a half gallons apiece. The OPA did not help its case with such puritanical rulings as one that banned all trips to summer homes, but allowed a single journey to close up a summer place—provided that the driver came straight back and did not tarry one extra minute to enjoy himself.
Chester Bowles, the advertising executive who was then head of rationing in Connecticut and who would replace Prentiss Brown as OPA head in October, called 1943’s pleasure-driving ban a “fiasco.” “From the beginning,” Bowles recalled, “it was clear to us that this edict was totally unenforceable, and the public soon came to realize it.” The completion of the “Big Inch” oil pipline (and the near completion of the “Little Big Inch”) from Texas to the East Coast gave the OPA a face-saving excuse to lift the ban in September. In all probability it had saved very little gasoline, succeeding only in souring the public’s view of those in charge of rationing.
In any event, gas rationing was proving to be startlingly effective. During 1942, largely because of the emergency rationing in the East, civilian consumption fell from 18.0 billion gallons to 14.4 billion, a drop of 20 per cent. In 1943, the first full year of nationwide rationing, consumption fell another 20 per cent. Car owners in 1941 had driven an average of 9,663 miles; in 1943 the figure was down to 6,366. (A portion of the dramatic drop was due to the fact that there were 3,700,000 fewer cars on the road, as vehicles wore out or were put up on blocks for the duration.) And thanks to rationing and the lowered speed limit, it was far safer to drive during World War II than it ever had been before; there were over sixteen thousand fewer traffic deaths in 1943 than in the last year of peace.
Gasoline rationing, in short, was accomplishing exactly what was intended of it: keeping Americans on the road in spite of themselves; keeping the Arsenal of Democracy racing along in high gear; and keeping the huge military machine fully supplied with rubber and gasoline. The driving public, however, began to reveal an ambivalent attitude toward the rationing as the war dragged on. Part of this was simply the result of war weariness. Part was a general resentment of the tangle of red tape involved in rationing and controls. OPA rulings such as the pleasure-driving ban certainly irritated public opinion. Finally, even the most patriotic citizen could not always resist sampling a touch of the freedom so long taken for granted in the car culture.
Consequently, beating the system became a common pastime. Initially at least it was a system fairly easy to beat. The lowest caliber violation was the use of a friend or relative’s unneeded gas coupons, a practice winked at by most gas-station attendants, for it was relatively harmless and produced no actual net change in the amount of fuel allocated for civilian use. More serious was the patronage of the black market. Chester Bowles stated the case nicely when he wrote that “gasoline rationing presented a dangerously ripe field for black market operations.” There were black marketeers dealing in every imaginable scarce or rationed wartime commodity, but nowhere were they more commonly found than around the nation’s 225,000 filling stations.
The criminally inclined found the gasoline black market irresistibly attractive because of the ease of operation, the high profits, and the low risks. All that was needed was a supply of “hot” gas coupons and a complaisant station owner. The easiest way to obtain hot coupons was to steal them, and the OPA’s rationing system offered numerous opportunities for the resourceful thief. The coupon chain began at the printing plant, from which coupon booklets were shipped to local OPA boards, where they were doled out to car owners. The coupons were collected from customers by the fillingstation operator, who periodically turned them in to his wholesaler; the gallonage the coupons represented was the basis for the dealer’s next gasoline delivery. From the wholesaler the coupons went to the supplier, and from there to a collection point, usually a bank, where they were logged in and destroyed.
Thieves operated all along this coupon chain, but they found the easiest pickings at local ration boards. Security tended to be lax, occasionally a bribe bought an “insider,” and the supply of coupons was sizable. Bureaucratic excess sometimes contributed significantly to this supply; OPA investigators found some boards stocked with five or ten or even twenty years worth of gas coupons, and one board was found to have enough coupons on hand for a 137-year war. During the first eighteen months of rationing, coupons worth 300,000,000 gallons of gasoline were taken in 650 robberies of OPA boards.
A second source of hot coupons was counterfeiting. The appeal the inch-square gas coupons held for veteran counterfeiters is suggested by the fact that the amount of phony currency seized in 1944 was only one-tenth of that picked up in 1939. Late in 1944 the OPA reported that fake coupons worth an average of 1,500,000 gallons a week were being discovered, no doubt only a fraction of what was being passed. Organized crime was deeply involved. In March, 1944, for example, the Boston police picked up members of Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang who were found to have twenty-six thousand phony A coupons sewn into the linings of their overcoats.
Hot coupons might be sold to individual car owners in bar or back-alley transactions, but most black-market operators preferred working with filling-station owners, where the deals—and the profits—were larger. A dealer usually was charged between eight and fifteen cents apiece for hot coupons. Favored couponless customers were then treated to extra gas at whatever markup above the controlled price the market would bear, with the dealer making up the shortfall in his coupon records from his black-market stock. The profits in this business were considerable for all concerned; in the spring of 1944 Newsweek quoted Bowles’s estimate that transactions in hot coupons were totaling one billion dollars a month.
In addition to the gasoline siphoned out of the allotments for legitimate needs, the black market posed a threat to the very rationale of the rationing program. If there was such a flourishing black market, reasoned the motoring public, then perhaps there was plenty of gasoline to go around after all—which, as military needs multiplied late in the war, was quite the opposite of the actual situation. The OPA’s vigorous crackdown on the black market began to take effect by the winter of 1944–45. The coupon chain was tightened up, more sophisticated methods were used to detect counterfeits, and OPA-run monitoring centers were inserted into the system. From there hot coupons were traced back to the dealers, who were fined or had their gas deliveries debited or, in the most serious cases, were shut down.
At its peak, about a year earlier, the gasoline black market was estimated to account for some 5 per cent of the daily civilian allocation of 50,400,000 gallons. Sociologist Marshall Clinard, studying the black market as a symptom of whitecollar crime, concluded that between one in two and one in five gas-station operators succumbed to temptation at one time or another. There is no way of knowing how many motorists patronized the black market, or what proportion of those who did made it a regular habit. Newspapers played up a tourist rush to Florida during the winter of 1943 that was fueled largely by hot coupons. OPA inspectors told of an A-sticker driver caught at a watering spot six hundred miles from home; when questioned, he piously claimed to be visiting his ninety-seven-year-old mother on her birthday, and was it his fault that she still liked to hang around summer resorts? Some commentators on the period have compared the level of black-market lawlessness to Prohibition, but that is a considerable exaggeration.
Chester Bowles, whose three years at the helm of the OPA gave him some perspective on the black market, concluded that 2 to 5 per cent of the population was “inherently dishonest”; another 20 per cent obeyed the regulations without questioning; and the remaining 75 per cent “genuinely want to be honest” but disliked being proof of Barnum’s assertion about suckers. When and where wartime gas rationing was fairly and equitably administered according to actual need, it seems clear that the vast majority of the people complied out of patriotic motives. When the system bumbled or took turns perceived as repressive, such as the pleasure-driving ban, the black market flourished. It should be remembered just how large a slice gasoline rationing took out of the car culture’s accustomed way of life—a consumption cut of 40 per cent in 1943 and 1944—which makes the overall record of compliance rather remarkable.
On V-J Day, August 15, 1945, as the nation joyously celebrated the war’s end, motorists found their tanks running over. Bowles went on the radio that evening to announce the immediate end of gasoline rationing. “Now,” he promised, “you can take your gasoline and fuel oil coupons and paste them in your memory book.” America’s love affair with the automobile could resume at last. Never again—or so everyone believed—would a frustrated motorist feel compelled to pray: