Kathryn Steen. The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry: War and Politics, 1910-1930. North Carolina: University of North Caroline Press, 2014. Illustrations. 418 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-1290-4.
Reviewed by Benjamin Coates (Wake Forest University)
Published on H-Diplo (March, 2015)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Synthesizing the Wartime Industrial State
Despite the popular aphorism, you can tell a lot about this book from its cover. First there is the title. It ignores the popular monograph naming trend: “Catchy Overbroad Title: Descriptive, Highly Focused Subtitle.” The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry: War and Politics 1910-1930 does not claim to be anything more than what it is, a narrowly focused but well-contextualized study of an important segment of the chemical industry.
But then there is the cover art: a colorized print of a propaganda cartoon produced by the US Chemical Warfare Association in 1925. It depicts a crazed, blue-skinned Hun Goliath—identified as the “German Chemical Trust”—storming across the Atlantic, one hand wielding an upturned sword, the other clutched in a bloody fist. An edifice marked “Organic Chemical Industry” stands on American soil. From its ramparts fly flags proclaiming “Public Health,” “Wartime Safety,” “Industry,” and “Agriculture.” A valiant David, identified as Francis P. Garvan (the president of the Chemical Foundation, more about him below), represents America’s only hope. He holds a shield marked “Fearless Vision” and wields a sling-stone marked “Self-sacrifice.” The cartoon suggests that making chemical products had implications not merely for science and industry but for national virtue and survival as well.
In addition to carefully documenting the developments within the industry, Kathryn Steen also investigates wartime ideology and political economy, topics of central interest to historians of the United States and the world. While the book’s treatment of “War and Politics” (its subtitle) is often more suggestive than revelatory, it provides a valuable case study that highlights important and overlooked effects of World War I in American history.
Though the book’s subject might seem daunting, Steen admirably renders complex science legible to nonspecialists. “Organic” molecules, she explains, are composed mostly of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Before World War I, synthetic organic chemists captured key precursor chemicals like toluene, phenol, and benzene as coal byproducts. Processing them at various temperatures and pressures yielded a wide variety of products: chemical dyes (for adding durable color to textiles), pharmaceuticals (of which Bayer’s aspirin was far and away the most important), high explosives like TNT, and even mustard gas and other “war gases.” (Later, the industry would use petroleum-based hydrocarbons to make plastics, antifreeze, synthetic fabrics, and countless other products that we use every day.)
Before World War I, dye production constituted by far the biggest segment of the industry. It required cutting-edge technology, and Germans dominated the field. They collaborated with universities and created in-house research labs to invent new products. By 1900 the German “Big Six” firms (BASF, Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa, Cassella, and Kalle) controlled 80-90 percent of global production (p. 23). By contrast the American industry was tiny. In 1913 it employed only 528 people, whereas German dye firms employed some 16,000 in production and 40,000 overall (p. 30). Moreover, American firms’ meager production relied on German precursor chemicals.
By 1930, however, the American industry had become independent and powerful. The core of the book is devoted to explaining how World War I—and the wartime mobilization of the American state—made this transformation possible. This is mostly a story about the intersection between industry and state building. Steen does not seek to break new theoretical ground, but rather uses the industry to illuminate trends identified by authors like Louis Galambos (The Creative Society—and the Price Americans Paid for It ), Stephen Skowronek (Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920 ), and Ellis Hawley (The Great War and the Search for a Modern Order ). It turns out that synthetic organic chemistry is quite a useful subject for exploring the corporate-state synthesis of the early twentieth century. Readers will find a carefully written account based on exhaustive research in an impressive number of archives.
World War I jump-started the American dye industry because it cut off the supply of German dyes, on which America’s textile manufacturers depended. American firms stepped in to fill the gap. Some, like Dow Chemical, concentrated on mass production of individual dyes. Others, like National Aniline and Chemical Company, consolidated smaller firms. DuPont, long experienced in explosives production, branched out to make dyes. By 1919 American companies produced enough dye to meet market needs, but they failed to match the quality or price of the German manufacturers. Observers expected that German firms would quickly regain market dominance once the war ended.
But then the American state stepped in. Tariffs (in 1916 and 1922) protected the infant industry. Wartime contracts for dyes (for military uniforms), explosives, and poison gas kept struggling companies afloat. Mobilization was massive. Whereas US firms produced four hundred thousand pounds of TNT on War Department contracts in July 1917, by the armistice their factories churned out over eleven million pounds a month (p. 88). Production at this level meant high profits and healthy postwar capital reserves. It stimulated the development of new domestic sources of precursor chemicals. It also produced a cadre of synthetic organic chemists familiar with a wide range of compounds and manufacturing conditions, ready to labor for industry at war’s end.
The bluntest way to help the American industry and hurt the Germans was to seize the latter’s assets and give them to the former. The 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act created a new government agency, the Alien Property Custodian (APC), to hold German property during the war. Under the leadership of A. Mitchell Palmer and his deputy Charles P. Garvan (who assumed APC leadership when Palmer became attorney general in 1919 and turned his focus to deporting leftists), the APC developed an obsession with promoting the American chemical industry at the expense of Germany. It seized the factories and patents of Bayer’s American subsidiary and sold them off. The subsidiary’s president was interned as an enemy alien. Even after fighting ended, Garvan continued his crusade. In 1919 he founded the Chemical Foundation, Inc., and named himself president. The foundation became “the foremost proponent and defender of the US synthetic organic chemicals industry” (p. 178). Garvan directed the APC to sell 4,500 seized German patents to the Chemical Foundation for a measly $271,850 (p. 175). Lawyers from National Aniline and DuPont suggested which patents to buy. The foundation then leased the patents to American firms, allowing them to produce new dyes. This raised over $8 million by 1941, and the foundation spent much of the money on lobbying Washington for more favors for the industry.
America’s promotional state thus gave its synthetic organic chemical industry a big boost. Was this responsible for the industry’s rise? Many of the firms profiled here (including Dow, DuPont, and Union Carbide) became and remain world leaders. But their major successes did not come from dyes or even organic pharmaceutical manufacturing. Rather, after the war American companies developed new lines of products based on petroleum byproducts (nylon, leaded gasoline, antifreeze, etc.). Still, the experience and capital produced by the war helped propel them into new research lines. In Steen’s estimation, World War I was a “catalyst.” In chemistry-speak, she explains, a catalyst is “a tool to change the speed of reactions, but not necessarily the outcome” (p. 287). This conclusion seems reasonable. Those seeking an in-depth exploration of how the simultaneous boosterism and repression of the wartime state affected a specific industry will find in Steen a capable guide.
The American Synthetic Organic Chemical Industry also sheds light on the complex interplay between nationalism and internationalism in the 1920s. Prewar faith in transatlantic exchange and scientific cooperation gave way to a wartime and postwar belief in the importance of an “American” industry: an “autarkic” view that aimed to synthesize chemicals from American raw materials and American knowledge in American factories (p. 4). Steen calls this “isolationism.” This term is problematic. Historians have repeatedly denigrated its analytical utility, for American trade and foreign investment expanded during the 1920s. As Steen herself chronicles, US chemical firms eagerly cooperated with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to promote foreign exports. They also leveraged the tariff system to steal secrets from German (and other European) manufacturers. Under the 1922 tariff, the president could change tariff rates in light of foreign manufacturing costs. Chemical manufacturers could request the US Tariff Commission to examine these costs by sending teams of investigators to foreign factories. This amounted in practice to industrial espionage. Germans denounced these investigators as “industrial spies” but they had to submit or lose access to the American market (p. 211). Rather than “isolationism,” then, it would be better to conceptualize the industry’s worldview as reflecting a newly assertive nationalist economic expansionism, as explored in Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through 20th-Century Europe (2005) and most recently in Adam Tooze’s The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (2014).
Though Steen focuses mainly on political economy, she correctly argues that rhetoric, metaphor, and ideology shaped the conditions of possibility for political action. The war enabled a powerful rhetorical linkage between the synthetic organic chemical industry and patriotic nationalism. Garvan and others argued that the industry deserved government aid because its facilities, expertise, and trained chemists would be necessary to produce explosives and war gases in the next conflict. Garvan and his allies also portrayed German firms as a direct threat to American safety (hence the book’s cover art). They emphasized, reasonably, the military potential of German chemical expertise. But they also willfully erased any and all distinctions between German Americans, German citizens, German industry, and the German military. In Garvan’s words, Kuttroff, Pickhardt & Company, a chemical importer, stood for “everything that is evil in the whole Hun system” (p. 195).
Yet rhetorical arguments could cut both ways. In the 1920s opponents of the chemical industry advocated the return of sequestered German property. Not only did they invoke antimonopoly discourses (for instance, framing the creation of the Chemical Foundation as a nefarious industry plot), but they also invoked nationalist exceptionalism. Returning enemy property would show the world that the United States stood for private enterprise, free commerce, and international law. In the words of Rep. Henry T. Rainey, it would set a precedent “for all the nations to follow through all the centuries” (p. 231). Though Steen does not fully probe the implications of these competing narratives, her example does reveal the conceptual complexities of America’s international position in the 1920s.
Finally, Steen raises, though does not develop, other tantalizing implications of the industry’s growth. What did the boom in chemical production mean for those who labored there or lived nearby? “Rarely a week went by,” Steen observes, “without the main trade journal, Drug and Chemical Markets, reporting at least a destructive fire, if not a fatal explosion, occurring somewhere in the industry” (p. 70). Accidents often proved deadly. Other insidious dangers lurked. Those who produced poison gases for the army were especially vulnerable. Take lewisite, a new gas invented during the war that the trade press described as “seventy-two times more powerful than mustard gas” (p. 109). Military officials planning a new factory to produce Lewisite requested 50 percent more workers than usual, explaining that “a fair estimate is that from 10 to 25 percent of the entire working force will be on the sick list all the time” (p. 109). We never meet these workers in the narrative, but both the short- and long-term consequences for their health are troubling to consider. One imagines that local environments also bore the brunt of increasing domestic production; I thought of novelist Richard Russo’s fictional upstate New York town of Thomaston in Bridge of Sighs (2007), where the river changed color depending on which chemical dyes the local tannery employed, and where cancer struck local residents with uncommon frequency.
Steen notes that “the real and potential harm to people and the environment ... never became a significant issue” in the public debate over whether or not to expand the chemical industry (p. 71). One wishes that it received more attention in this book. Doing so would help demonstrate that “War and Politics” had implications beyond political elites and corporations. An alternative history of the chemical industry could reveal the effects of war mobilization on a more human scale. Chemical dangers, it would appear, came not only from aggressive Huns. They also lurked on both sides of the Atlantic.
. The image can be seen at https://books.google.com/books?id=CQ6pAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover.
. Among other works that treat the effects of wartime mobilization in this period, see Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); and Katherine C. Epstein, Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
. William Appleman Williams, “The Legend of Isolationism in the 1920’s,” Science and Society (1954): 1–20; Andrew Johnstone, “Isolationism and Internationalism in American Foreign Relations,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 9, no. 1 (2011): 7–20; and Brooke L. Blower, “From Isolationism to Neutrality: A New Framework for Understanding American Political Culture, 1919–1941,” Diplomatic History 38, no. 2 (2014): 345-376. Christopher McKnight Nichols seeks to rehabilitate the concept by demonstrating that “isolationists” were not really “isolationist,” in the common understanding of the term. Christopher McKnight Nichols, Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
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Benjamin Coates. Review of Steen, Kathryn, The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry: War and Politics, 1910-1930.
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