World War II Economics: Raw Materials--Rubber


Figure 1.--This is a scene at a rubber plantation on Sumatra in 1935, at the time part of the Dutch East Indies. Production from Malaya was even more imprtant. The Japanese seizure of Southeast Asia at the onset of the Pacific War not only gave them access to oil, but threatened to cripple the Allied war effort because so much of theworld's production of natural rubber came from the Malay Peninsula and adjacent Dutch East Indies.

One of the vital materials and least appreciated raw materials in World War II was Rubber Oil is the most discussed raw material znf it sas the major problem faced by the Axis. Ribber was, hosever the makof problem faced by the Allies. Rubber is a highly elatic substance polymerized by the drying and coagulation of the milky juices or latex of various plants, especially the tropical rubber plant. Rubber is now thought of primarily in connecton with automobile tires. The first uses of rubber were in fact associated with the clothing industry. Rubber was known to native Americans in Meso-America and brought back to Europe where its unique properties, especially its elaasticity were noted (16th-17th centuries). It was not until the early-19th century, however, that practical uses were found for this substance, launching a financial bubble. The reaction of rubber to hot weather, however, made it difficult to use until Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process. Besides its uses in clothing, rubber became a major industrial product. The most obvious was tires which became particularly important with the invention of the automobile and internal combustion engine. This began to become a factor in warfare when American trucks began to reach the Allies in large numbers during World War I. And rubber became far more important in World War II as it was the first highly mdechanized war in history. Tires are the most obvious use of ribber in the War, however, only a part of the rubber story. Thousands of products were made from rubber and many found there way into comnplex weapons like ships, air planes, and motorized vehicles. The Allies controlled rubber production at the onset of the World War II because most of it was produced in Southeast Asia, epecially British Malaya, but the Dutch East Indies (DEI) were also important. The Japanese carrier strike a Pearl Harbor and the ensuing Japanese offensive in Southeast Asia (December 1941), radically changed that situation. Japanese seizure of Mayaya and the DEI closed major suppliers to the Allies. The Allied response was wht the Germans were already doing--rapid development of synthetic rubber in America. The primary Japanese objective was oil, but rubber was an important bonus. American supplied all the oil Britain needed, but there were no major alternative sources of natural rubber. Rubber suddenly became a problem for the Allies. Only a crash expansion of a synthetic rubber industry and expasion of rubber production in other tropical areas (Brazil and West Africa) allowed the Allies to produce critical rubber products. Gas rationing in America was designed more to reduce rubber consumption than the need to conserve gas. And disapoingly for the Japanese militarists who launchd the Pacific War, the rubber, tin, and other resorces as wel as the rest of Southeast Asia (the Southern Resource Zone --SRZ) contrary to all expectations proved of little benefit to the Japanese war economy. This had been Japan's major reason for going to War. While there were initially problems with the American submrine offensive, by 1943 the American sumarines began to effectivlyh interdict the Japanese Maru fleet creating shortages in Japanese war plants. The Americans by 1944 seesntially destroyed the Maru fleet cutting off the CRZ raw materils which could no longer reaching the Home Islands.

Rubber

One of the vital materials and least appreciated raw materials in World War II was Rubber Oil is the most discussed raw material znf it sas the major problem faced by the Axis. Ribber was, however the major problem faced by the Allies. Rubber is a highly elatic substance polymerized by the drying and coagulation of the milky juices or latex of various plants, especially the tropical rubber plant. Rubber is now thought of primarily in connecton with automobile tires. The first uses of rubber were in fact associated with the clothing industry. Rubber was known to native Americans in Meso-America and brought back to Europe where its unique properties, especially its elaasticity were noted (16th-17th centuries). It was not until the early-19th century, however, that practical uses were found for this substance, launching a financial bubble. The reaction of rubber to hot weather, however, made it difficult to use until Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process.

Importance

Besides its uses in clothing, rubber became a major industrial product. The most obvious was tires which became particularly important with the invention of the automobile and internal combustion engine. This began to become a factor in warfare when American trucks began to reach the Allies in large numbers during World War I. And rubber became far more important in World War II as it was the first highly mechanized war in history. Tires are the most obvious use of ribber in the War, however, only a part of the rubber story. Thousands of products were made from rubber and many found there way into comnplex weapons like ships, air planes, and motorized vehicles. Rubber was needed for an amazing number of products and parts. Ribber was need for such diverse items as gas masks, life rafts, and countless parts in the vrious implements of war. American heavy bombers, fofr example used nrarly a ton of rubber. The marque mototrized vehicle in World War II was the tank. These were tracked vehicles which did not use tires. Blitzkrieg or in essence modern warfare was notg just fought with tanks. The tanks were at the point of the spear. To exploit the gaps in enemy lines opened up by the tanks, trucks were needed and needed in large numbers to move vast quantities of men and equipment. And these trucks needed rubber in large uanyies for tires. There were many other uses for rubber, but this was the single most important use and would make a difference in North America, the Eastern Front, and the allied drive to liberate Western Europe after D-Day.

World War II in Europe (1939-41)

Hitler and Stalin lsunched orld war II by invading Poland (Seotember 1939). The Allies controlled rubber production at the onset of the World War II because most of it was produced in Southeast Asia, epecially British Malaya, but the Dutch East Indies (DEI) were also important. This mean that Britain had all the rubber it needed. The Germans had to live off stockpiles and synthetic rubber production. We are not sure yet about the Soviets. We think they had to import rubber. What British and Dytch policy was we are unsure. Neutral Americ continued yo import rybber from Malaya and the DEI. The German U-boat campaign affected deliveries, but did not cut them off. The Japanese saw a huge opportunity as the British had to shift their floeet to to the Atlantic to keep the vita sea lanes between Canada and the Unitged States open. This meant that the only poweful force between he Home Island and the SRZ was the American Pacific Fleet that Preident Roosevlt moved forwrd to Pearl Harbor (1940). The lure of the SRZ was compeling to resource-poor Japan. The Japanese militarists which seized control of the country, concluded that With the SRZ added to their expanding Empire, they could complete the conquest of China and with their powerful fleet and island bastions resist any effort from the United states which did not hve the stomsche to wage war to retake the European colonies. They assumed that the United tates wiuld be fully occupied resisting the Germans who had conquered much of Western Europe and by late -1941 were close ti destroying the Soviet Union and Red Army.

The Pacific War: Japanese Offensive (December 1941-June 1942)

The Japanese carrier strike a Pearl Harbor and the ensuing Japanese offensive in Sotheast Asia (December 1941), radically changed that situation. Japanese seizure of Mayaya and the DEI closed major suppliers to the Allies. With the American fleet imobilized at Pear Harbor, the Japanese were able to sweep through the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia. Guam was quickly taken. Resistance at Wake sland suprised the Japanese, but after the initial assault was repulsed, a second assault took the island. MacArthur's defense of the Philippines was compromised when most of his planes were destroyed on the fround at Clarke Field. General MacArthur commanded the most important American military force west of Pearl. His handlong of the defense of the Philippines wasdisapponting at best, bordering on incompetence. He failed to strike back at the Japanese in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor by bombing Jpanese bases in Formosa. He also allowed much of the available aircraft to be destroyed on the ground. [Schom] The horror of the Batan Death March created an impage of the Japanese military in the American mind that fueled a hatred for the Japanese. [Schom] Hong Kong quickly fell. The Japanese also seized the oil-rich Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia). Allied naval forces fought a series of engagements to stop the Japanese, but could not match the powerful Japanese naval forces. Nimitz and Halsey tried to distract the Japanese with hit an run carrier raids. The Japanese moved south from IndoChina, seizing Malaya, withis invaluable rubber plantations and then the bastion at Singapore. Next came the DEI and the oil fields which the Japanese coveted.

Rubber Shortages: Allied Response

The primary Japanese objective was oil, but rubber was an important bonus. American supplied all the oil Britain needed, but there were no major alternative sources of natural rubber. Rubber suddenly became a problem for the Allies. The Allied response was thus what the Germans were already doing--rapid development of synthetic rubber in America. Perhps the greatest weakness of the German war industry was the lack of oil resources. As a result they developed a mjof synthetic oil industry. Ribber production was an adjunct of that effort. The Germans begn this effort before the War. The United States, however, other than a variety of resarch efforts, had to start from the ground up. This, however, took time. The immediate resoonse was to reduce rubber consumption and launch rubber drives to collect old tires. and other rubber products. The highly unpopular gas rationing in America was designed more to reduce rubber consumption than the need to conserve gas. Only America had the industrial capacity and world-swide reach to deal with the ensuing crisis. Britain had the techical know-how to produce symthetic rubber, but not the industrial capacity to do so. British industry was fully mobilized in the War effort against the Germams. The United States after Pear Harbor, however was just beginning to mobilize its vast industrial plant. And one of the priorities assigned was go create a syntheic ribber indudtry virtuall from scratch. The crash expansion of a synthetic rubber industry and expasion of rubber production in other tropical areas (Brazil and West Africa) allowed the Allies to produce critical rubber products. Forttuntely the United states was just beginning to assemble the massive military forces and industrial output rquiring rubber. That man there was some time with which to begin synthetic production. One of the most immediare problens as the Japanese swept into the DEI and New Guinea was Australia. Here the Australian rmy was in the Middle East and the Australins did mnot have oil, rubber, or an important weapons indudtry. It would be the American synthetic rubber production and expanded natural rubber projects that would supply the Allied war effort, American forces, British forces, and allies like Australia. We are not yet sure about Soviet rubber sources.

American Submarine Campaign

Despite all the publicity given to German U-boats, it was only the Americans that launched a succesful submarine cmpaign in World War II. Disapoingly for the Japanese militarists who launchd the Pacific War, the rubber, tin, and other resorces as wel as the rest of Southeast Asia (the Southern Resource Zone --SRZ) contrary to all expectations proved of little benefit to the Japanese war economy. This had been Japan's major reason for going to War. While there were initially problems with the American submrine offensive, by 1943 the American sumarines began to effectivlyh interdict the Japanese Maru fleet creating shortages in Japanese war plants. The Americans by 1944 seesntially destroyed the Maru fleet cutting off the CRZ raw materils which could no longer reaching the Home Islands. Interetingly, the Japanese had a veery large, ell equipped submarine force, and the Amricans had the longest most exposed mariyime supply lines. Inexplivably, the Japanese did not use their submsrines to interdict American supply lines. They did not think this was how warriors waged wars. The submarines were used to attack American war ships to some affect, but notg enough to swing the course of the War. As the U.S. Pacific flert began to fight its way back, more and more Japanese island grrisons were cut off and eventually began o starve. The Omperial Nzvy used mny of its submines to supply cut off garrisons. It was an incredibly poor use of advance war ships with limited cargo space. Jspan began the War without adequate marus to conduct the war, the supplies dliver by the submarines had virtually no impsct on the wr otgher thn reduce Japanese attazcks on Amdrican sar ships.

Sources

Schom, Alan. The Eagle and the Rising Sun: The Japanese-American War 1941-1943 (Norton, 2003).







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Created: 5:33 AM 6/8/2014
Last updated: 9:27 PM 1/18/2015