July 22, 2011
This compulsory rationing came after early voluntary efforts failed, and was necessitated by the high supply demands of World War II.
The supply of gasoline wasn’t the only motivation behind the limitations, though.
Japanese forces had conquered Malaya and the Dutch East Indies in early 1942.
These were both major rubber-producing nations, and by conquering them, Japan had eliminated 91% of the U.S.’s rubber supply.
While many countries in South America also produced rubber, the import from South America required cargo ships, which were more strongly needed for military purposes.
Thus, America was facing a serious rubber shortage.
Why didn’t the government just ration car tires instead?
It did, actually, starting in December of the previous year.
The rubber shortage was so critical, though, that the government restricted driving as a means to reduce wear-and-tear on tires (and thus reduce the consumer demand for tires).
The rationing program operated by classifying individual citizens based on their need.
No gasoline was issued unless you received a classification (and a gasoline ration card and rationing stamps along with it).
To get these, one had to appear before a local War Price and Rationing Board, an arm of the U.S. Office of Price Administration (OPA).
The individual then had to certify a need for gasoline and ownership of no more than five tires (per the tire rationing, all tires in excess of five per driver were confiscated).
The classifications were displayed on a windshield sticker.
An “A” sticker, which most drivers had, was the lowest priority of gasoline rationing and entitled the car owner to about three gallons a week.
“B” stickers were issued to workers in the military industry who drove to work.
“C” stickers were granted to persons deemed essential to the war effort (such as doctors, clergy, and mail carriers).
Several categories had no restrictions: “T” for truckers, “R” for non-highway farm vehicles, and “E” for emergency vehicles such as ambulances, and police and fire vehicles.
Lastly was the “X” category, an unlimited sticker for VIPs.
Needless to say, the “X” category was controversial and highly unpopular, especially when it came to light that 200 Congressmen received them.
In any case, the measures, despite their severity, saw no constitutional challenges.
In fact, even after the OPA banned “pleasure driving” by A, B, and C gasoline ration card holders, there were no challenges.
This could be because citizens recognized the importance of the war effort.
The hostile public response to any suggestion of rationing during the 1973 and 1979 oil crises further support this notion.
Today, it’s hard to imagine any response to the prospect of gasoline rationing but outrage and panic.
As such, the only stabilizing factor on gasoline supplies is market forces (i.e. price increases).
While the possibility of the need for gasoline rationing in the near future is unlikely, it’s even more unlikely that such measures would survive public scrutiny.
For more on price and supply controls during World War II, check out this previous Legal History post on price and wage freezes.