In 1940, the nation was still in recovery, just coming out of the grips of the Great Depression, when war was brewing in Europe. Although the United States’ involvement in World War II would not begin until 1941, the signs of the country’s entry into the conflict was evident in the pages of NPN throughout 1940. A July 10, 1940 article entitled “Oil’s Preparedness’ for War Today Compared with Position in 1917” discussed how petroleum played a significant role in World War I and how it would be able to sustain another war, as it stated, “Every division of the industry is 2 to 3 times at least as able as in 1917 to furnish essential petroleum products for national defense.”
Of course, petroleum would play an even greater role in World War II, and government officials knew it as well. Congress debated the marketing-divorcement bill at the end of the ‘30s, to prevent oil companies from being in the retail segment of the petroleum business. However, in the Sept. 25, 1940 NPN issue, the article “Ickes Offers ‘Deal’: Drop Divorce Suit, Accept Oil Control” appeared, which reported that the Secretary of Interior Harold L. Ickes proposed an “oil advisory commission” instead of going through with the suit. The National Defense Advisory Commission also came to the defense of the oil industry, as they stated “the divorcement suit would hamper national defense preparations.”
The Petroleum Administration for War
Despite protests from NPN’s editor, Warren C. Platt, who wrote “There is no more reason for any such ‘war defense control’ of oil than there is for ‘war conservation’ of second violins in all the opera house orchestras in the country,” the industry was about to enter years of government involvement.
In May of 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt established what was known as the Petroleum Administration for War. He appointed Secretary Ickes to head the agency, and days later, Ickes recruited Ralph K. Davies, vice-president of Standard Oil of California. The choice appeased NPN’s Platt, as he wrote in his June 18, 1941 editorial piece about Davies, “He is a real oil man of great experience and high standing who worked his way up to the senior vice-presidency of a ‘major’ oil company.”
In December of 1941, Ickes created the Petroleum Industry Council for National Defense (which was later known as the Petroleum Industry War Council), composed of 66 oil leaders and executives of major companies and associations. The council’s first meeting was on December 8—the day after Pearl Harbor. Among the topics discussed, as reported by the NPN Dec. 10, 1941 article “Ickes Promises Oil Council ‘Free Hand’ in its Affairs,” were obtaining anti-trust clearance from the Justice Department for its co-operative activities as well as plans for increasing the 100-octane aviation gasoline, a warplane fuel.
The challenges the oil industry were facing was summed up by a sobering article appearing in the Dec. 17, 1941, entitled “War’s Effect on Oil Forces Many Changes.” The article stated, “When Japanese planes bombed Hawaii they blasted any hopes remaining for ‘business as usual’ in the oil industry.
“Now that we’re in it, there will be an all-out drive to complete our defense preparations and wage an unrelenting war in two oceans. Every oil man’s business will be vitally affected by a thousand factors which are traceable to the Pearl Harbor bombing—increased military needs for critical materials, the all-important aviation gasoline program, blackouts, rubber shortage, tanker diversions, etc.”
That is exactly what happened in the next year, where gasoline rationing was employed as well as a restriction on tire sales. A national push for scrap rubber contributions was spurred by the shortage of it, since the Japanese controlled most of the world’s natural supplies of rubber. Eventually, American oil companies came through with developing a synthetically made rubber. Many pages of NPN during the war years were dedicated to explaining the new rules of gasoline and fuel oil conservation.
A Shining Moment for the Oil Industry
By the summer of 1944, already NPN was running articles about the fate of the industry after the war, such as the Aug. 30, 1944 article entitled “More ‘Gas’ For Civilians, Price Upsets Seen When Nazis Fall.” In the same issue, the president of Standard of Indiana, E.G. Seubert complemented the industry for its “co-operation, fortitude and already remarkable achievement” in the war effort. He also advised that governmental regulations be relaxed, which would eventually be enacted after the end of the war on Aug. 15, 1945.
The efforts of the oil industry also did not go unnoticed by the head of PAW, Harold Ickes. He is quoted in an Aug. 29, 1945 issue as saying “Everyone realizes now that we could not have finished the war in Europe when we did—if it had not been for these three important factors—first, enough high octane gasoline to keep the mighty air fleets of the United Nations in the air in overwhelming forces; second, the Big Inch pipeline; and third, the Little Big Inch pipeline.” These two pipelines were both completed in 1943 and vastly improved the infrastructure of the oil industry, transporting oil from Texas to the East.
Ickes went on to explain that his agency would not have been nearly effective as it was if the oil companies did not loan officials to the PAW: “The country owes a debt of gratitude to the oil industry—of all shades and divisions—for detailing men to us at our request. I am glad to say that in no single instance has a man assigned to us been unworthy of our trust; nor has any, so far, lost anything in position or future opportunity with his company.”
NPN Editor Honored
A great honor was bestowed upon NPN’s editor, Warren C. Platt, who was given a Certification of Appreciation by the War Department for his reporting during the war. According to the July 2, 1947 NPN article, “Mr. Platt was the first trade and technical representative of the industrial press to visit the European and Mediterranean Theaters as an accredited war correspondent.” From July 1944 to April 1945, he reported on the activities of the petroleum industry to supply the American military at war.
The oil industry, as well as the country, was looking up and preparing for the bright future with bigger postwar gasoline sales after the rationing halted. In the Sept. 26, 1945 NPN issue, the article “Service Stations for the Era of Increased Competition Will Be Larger, Will Have More Glass, Porcelain” reported on the immediate future of stations. As the title suggests, more glass and porcelain would be in vogue, having a utilitarian style, as well as larger stations with larger storage tanks.
In May 1946, the PAW was finally ended by President Harry Truman and a new oil and gas division of the Interior Department was created. The next month, the Secretary of the Interior established the National Petroleum Council as the peacetime successor to the Petroleum Industry War Council.
After the war, the nation also faced a serious need of improved roads. In the June 12 1946 NPN issue, the article “32 States Plan to Increase Gasoline Taxes to Help Raise Funds for Highway Program” reported how the states were trying to raise taxes on gasoline and motor vehicle license fees to pay for their share of a $3 billion federal highway construction program.
The second half of the ‘40s was dominated by the beginning of the Cold War, with the U.S. rushing to invent more and better technology than the Soviet Union. Despite the golden moments for the petroleum industry during WWII with its contributions of oil supply to the military and new inventions, such as synthetic rubber, the oil companies were still facing governmental scrutiny in the later years of decade, with renewed calls for the majors’ to divorce their marketing practices and the growing public opinion that the industry should be nationalized. However, America’s budding love affair with cars was just beginning and would bring much brighter days for petroleum retailers.