*** World War II -- economics food and raw materials country trends

World War II Economics: Food and Raw Material--Country Trends

World War II raw materials
Figure 1.--The United States in peace time was not only self-sufficent in food and raw materials, but a major exporter of food, oil, and many other raw materials. The only major raw material it had to import was rubber. With the mobilization of what President Roosevelt called the arsenal of democracy, American industry required massive increases in production and imports of raw materials. The were drives like the onese here organbized in 1942 to obtain metals on an emergency basis. But a major effort was requireed to obtain the raw materials need both domestically and overseas to supply American incredible industrial machine. America stood in sharp contrast to the Axis countries which were not only not self-suffient in food, but had virtually no domestic sources of critical raw material. And what is often not realized is that especially in the case of Germany, the World War II expansion actually created a German Großraum that has more natural resource problems than before the War.

The Allies at the start of World War II controlled the overwealming portion of the world's raw materials, especially the most critical ones like petroleum and rubber. They also controlled enormous areas of productive agricultural land. Not only did they control significant sources of raw material, but they had the naval power to obtain raw materials from countries they did not control and deny those resources to the Axis countries. Here the Axis powers were in a very poor situation. This put them at a disadvantage in waging any extended war. But it also created an incentive to launch a war to seize those resources. Britain and France because of their empires also had vast resources. The Soviet Union also had vast resources of oil and minerals as well as significant agricultural potential. As a consequence of conquest, the Axis powers attrmpted to increased their access to needed raw materials. The Germans improved their situation, but actually reduced their access to oil and many other minerals the Soviets had been delivering to them. If the Germans would have completed ther conquest of the Soviet Union they would have had the resources they needed. The Japananese did much better. They seized control of the resources they needed in ther Southern Resource area. The Allies had not realised the extent of Japanese naval power. Nor did the Japanese fully appreciate the American reaction and the rapidity with which American industry could redress the naval balance. While the Japanese seized control of the resources they needed. They would find getting those resources back to the factories on the Home Islands a much more difficult proposition.

Beligerant Powers

The totalitarian Axis and democratic Allied countries differeed in important ways. The primary difference is that the Axis actually wanted war and the Allies did not want to fight another world war. This proved to be a great advantage to the Axis. Economically there were also sharp differences. Among the Axis, only Germany was a major industrial and technolical power house, but Germany like the other Axis countries was not self suffucent in food production or have the raw materials needed to fight a modern war. The Allies in contrast not only had a larger industrial plant, but access to both the food and raw materials to produce the needed implements of war. Britain like Germany was not self sufficent in food production and had few natural resources other than coal, but it had the Royal Navy which could blockade Germany as it had done in World War I. The Royal Navy would be assisted by the expanding American and Canadian Navies to safeguard Britain's sea life lines. The other two major Axis powers (Italy and Japan) had much smaller economies and without Germany would not have dared launch the War. Like Germany, they were not self-sufficent in food productio and lacked needed raw materials. The totalitarian Soviet Uniion fought on both sides. They chose NAZI Germany as an ally because the Germans were willing to partition Eastern Europe with them (1939). Stalin wanted to join the Axis. Hitler was set against that because he was derermined to invade the Soviet Union and seize the resources (but not the people) of the East. The Soviets only switched side when the Germans invaded (1941). The Soviets before the War had an economy about the sane size as the Germans, although with more limited heavy industry (steel poroduction). It also had all the resources that Gernany lacked and which Hitler had made in clear in Mein Kampf that he coveted (1924). Of all the beligerants, the United States was the country most set against participating in another war, especially another European war. Few Amnericans fully recognized the threat not only to their own security, but Western Civiliaztion, posed by the totalitarian powers. Yet only American has the resources and industrial base capable of waging war on a world wide basis and prevent the victory of the totalitarian powers.

Regional Situation

World War II was in part a war over resources. The Allies had them and the Axis did not. Britain had few resources itself, but extensive resources in its African abd Asian coklonies. America and Canada had the vast resources of the North American continent and Latin American countries largely out of self interested supported the Allies. The question for the Allies was wheter it coukd keeo=p the sealanes open to move thise supplies, particularly to keep Britain in the War. The Axis countries were in cotrast resource defecit countries. Germany had virtually no resources ecxcept coal, but because of Britain's appeasement policy, was able to obtain the substnatial resources of Europe, including the Romanian Ploesti oil fields. And Germany's effient rail system was immune vfrom the Royall Navy blockade. Even so Germany's great weaknesses was the vast quantities of oil needed to fuel modern mechanized war. The Germans had the oil needed for short campaigns such as the Great Western Campaign (1940). When the Red Army survived the massive Barbarossa Offensive (1941), Germany simply did not have the fuel available for a protracted war. Even its large coal resource was inadequate to fuel the expanded NAZI Großraum. Jaoan has steadily expanded its empire since the First Sino-Japanese war (1894-95).nnThefinal piece iof the puzzle was the wave of invasions following Pearl Harbor that gave them the oil mand rubber of Soiutheast Asia and Oceania. The question for Japan then became the ability of its inadequate maru fleet to get those resource to the war industry factories of the Himne Islands.


Africa was a treasure trove of natural resources, including important industrail materails. And all of this was in Allied hands. The major exception was the French Empire which afrer the German invasion (1940) fell under Vichy control. The German adventure in North Africa did not change this (1941-43). And the Free French gradually gained control of all the French colonies. Belgium which was also overun (1940), but authorities in the Belgian colonies from the beginning attached themselves to the Allied cause. Although often not mentioined in World War II histories, African raw naterials was vital to the Allied war effort. One author writes, "Africa's minerals played arole in the Allied rearmament and wartime munitions produyction that far exceeded the continent's political imprtance and general levelof economic development. Indeed, it is possible to argue , because of its dominance in supply of certain critical minerals that African production was absolutely essential for the Allied war effort." [Dumett, p. 382.] A wide range of African metallic ores and other raw materails were thus available to the Allied war effort. African shipments included a substanial percentage of the world (i.e. Allied supply): chrome (39 percent), cobalt (90 percent), copper (17 percent), gold (50 percent), managanese (19 percent), uranium (100 percent), vanadium (24 percent), and industrial diamonds (98 percent). There was also imprtant quantities of asbestos, phosphate, and tin. Particularly important were the Belgian Congo (Congo), Gold Coast (Ghana), Morocco, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), South Africa, and Southen Rhodesia (Zimbabawe).

America, Latin

Latin America was a major exporter of raw materials. Many were of vital importance to war economies. There were still simmering differences with the United States, such as the Mexican final nationalizatioin of foreign (mostly American) oil interests (1937). An American embargo backfired when the Mexicans began large-scale sales to NAZI Germany. Once Hitler and Stalin launched the War, hiwever, such sales were no longer possible. And despite varying attitutdes, almost all of the region evebtually joined the United States in the War. The key factor here was that the German U-boats were sinking cargo ships vital to the regional economies. And because the United States and Britain were taking on the German U-boats as well as offering good prices for raw materials, the region eventually swung to the Allied side. The major hold out would prove to be Argentina, but they still shipped to the Allies, especially meat to Britain. As long as Britain stayed in the War, however, the Royal Navy cut the Germans off from any such exports. And at any event, the Germans did nbot have the foreign currency reserves for such purchases over any extended period--one reason the Germans were so fixated on gold. The big Kauna in connection with Latin America of course was Venezuela. In the era before Middle Eastern oil was a major factor, Venezuela next to the United States was the mnajor oil producer. There were many other important materials sources in the region. The two most important minerals were bauxite (aluminum ore) from Surinam and copper from Chile and Peru. Another vital material was rubber which was inshort suppoly after the Japanese seized Malaya and Borneo. The United States launched a synthetuic rubber industry. In the neantine, rubber production was expanded in the Amazonian basin of Brazil. Other important materials were plantinum from Colombia, nickle from Cuba, and nitrates from Chile and Peru. And smaller quantities of many other metals and other material from every Latin American countries.

America, North

North America's wealth of natural resources—and the United States' industrail capacity to mobilize and equip the Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen was a huge factor in the Allied victory. Famed GI reporter, Ernie Pyle watching the Sucily landings wrote, "Suddenly I realized what all this was. It was America’s long-awaited power of production finally rolling into the far places where it had to go." And vital to that production was vast quantities of natural resources. North America had huge reserves of critical raw material, naby of them developed. Most of North America is the United States and Canada. (We consider Mexuco underbLarin America). The United States had large producung mines of the two most important industrial metals--iron and copper as well as the coal needed to process it and run the railroads. There were also producing mines of many other metals. And mining increased in low grade fields that were not worth mining before the War. As a result, bauxite mibes in Arkansas were expanded. Such was the demand by America's massive industrial complex. Thus large quantities were imported. And control of the sea lanes from Latin America and Africa made this possible. Canadian mines added to the North American output. Especially important was America's oil resource which combined with Venezuelan fields developed by American oil companies provided the Allies all the oil they needed for modern mnechanized war in sharp contrast to the Axis. Also vital were the vast agricultural lands of America and Canada. The Great Plains had recovered from the Dust Bowl and with new methods were harvesting huge crops. This had saved Europe from starvation after World War I and would do the same after World War II.


Asian is the largest continent which huge stores of raw materails. many at the time of World War II were undeveloped. A large area of Asia is Russian Siberia and Central Asia. And resources there were only beginning to be developed. The Soviets were oroducing oil in the Cacauses between Europoe and Asia. The Japanese had seized Korea (1909) and would seize Manchurcia (1931). This won them important natural resources, especially coal, iron, and mineral resources as well as agricultural land. China has extensive deposits of coal, as well as aluminum, magnesium, antimony, salt, talc, barite, cement, coal, fluorspar, gold, graphite, iron, steel, lead, mercury, molybdenum, phosphate rock, rare earths, tin, tungsten, bismuth and zinc. Many of these resources were undeveloped at the time. And developing the resources was complicated by Japan's inability to bring the war to a conclusion, largely because the Japanese Army was not mechanized and Jaoan was unabke to overcone the logiustical problens posed by moving intoi the Chinese interior. China like Siberia, Manchuria, and Korea did not have an developed oil fields. Thus what was not available ti the Jaoanese at the time was oil and rubber, both needed for modern warfare. Japan was depedent on America for oil and could not complete its conquest of China or wage war on America without another source of oil. This it obtained Pearl Harbor by seizing the Southern Resource Zone, areas of Southeast Asian and Oceania. This Japan suceeded in seizing after a stunning military offensive (early 1942). The problem for Japan would be to get the resources back to the factories of the Home Island. And after Midway (June 1942), Japan began to lose control of the sea lanes back to the Home Islands. While the Japanese conquiered Southeast Asia, they were nor able to expand beyond Burma into India. India's major mineral resources include coal, iron ore, manganese ore, mica, bauxite, chromite, and thorium. Thirium had a role in the Msnhattan Project, butv at the time its military value was largely unrecognized. There was a small oil field in Assam (north eastern India).


The Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe, primarily in Western Europe. There were important natural resources in the Continent, but by the 20th century the quantiies needed as cwell as the diverityy had steadily increased. And European counrries were importing raw materials. Sime of the imports came from other European countries. Germany got much of its iron ore from Sweden. Continental countries were dependent on Britain for coal. And all of Western Europe was deperbdent on America and Venezuela for oil. Belgium, Britain, France, and the Netherlands had overseas empires to provide needed raw materials. Germany did not which was a major weakness as Hitler was planning his conquests. Germany was devoid of major natural resources, except for coal. Because of Britain's appeasement policy, Hitler was able to exaopand to countries to add to its natural resource base, including copper a key resource. Ion ore was purchased from Sweden. Metals like chrome and tungsten were purchased from Turkey and Portugal. The vfall of France brough a huge quantity of nattural resources in the country's statehic reseeve. The Soviets supplied large quantities of natural rsources to the Germans as partif their alliance. The major weakness to the NAZI Großraum was energy. The Germans had enough coal for the Reich, but not enough for the poccupied area of the Grossraum which had been importing coal from Britain. This was a factir in the declining productivity of the occupied areas. The Germans were especially defecient in oil. The Ploesti oil fields in Romania amd synthetic productiononly did not supply the quantity needed. The need for oil was one of the factors leading to the Geramn invasion of the Soviet Union. Here was a vurtual cornocopia not only of oil, but other stratehic. materials, and grain. And wshat the Soviet Uniion did not have, after the German invasion, the United States provided through Lend Lease.

Middle East

The Middle East is not a region gifted with raw materials. Israeli Prime-minister once quipped that Moses woindered for 40 years anad found the one area of the Middle East without oil--forcing the Jews to use their minds. Actually most of the Middle East does not have oil, but it is the region's primary natural resource. At the time of World War II. most of the big Middle Eastern fields had not been developed. There were producing fields in Iraq and Iraian fields came on line just as war broke out. The quantities, however, were small. There were Axis afinities in both Iraq and iran, associated with both anti-coloniaism and anti-Semitism. The Grand Mufiti before finding refuge ijn Berlin was active in both countries after the British expeled him from Palestine. The Kirkuk–Haifa oil pipeline (Iraq–Haifa pipeline or Mediterranean pipeline) was a crude oil pipeline from Kirkuk oil fields of Mosul in northern Iraq through Transjordan to Haifa in Mandatory Palestine where refineries were located. The pipeline was opened (1935). It operated throughout World War II, but was closed when the First Arab-Israeli War broke out (1948). While the quantities were relatively small, they were large emough to supply the Royal Navy operating in the eastern Mediuterranean and indian Oceamn as wll as the British Army defending Egypt. The great bulk of Allied oil came from the United States and Venezuela.


Oceania is all the Pacific Islands, but most are located in the Souyh Pacifiuc, and lonlong with Southeast Asia (Indo-China, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and Burma) were a treasure trove of natural resources--most imporantly oil which Japan needed to fight the Pacific War. Japan called the area the Southern Resource Zone (SRZ). Oil was one of many resources including tin, rubber, rice, and much more. Japan decided on war to seize the area controlled by the British and Dutch. And of all the resources, it was oil on Borneo that was the great prize. At the time of the Japapanese attack, the country had only 1.5 years of oil reserves. And because the Philippine Islands stood between the SRZ and the Japanese Islands, the Japanese decided that they also had to attack the Unites States leading to the carrier attack on Pearl harbor (1941). The POhilippines had some resources, but it was its location that was the primary reason that it and Pearl harbor was attacked.


Dumett, Raymond. "Africa's strategic minerals during the Second World War," The Journal of African History Vol. 26, No. 4, World War II and Africa (1985), pp. 381-408.

Griffith, Thomas E. Jr. Strategic Attack of Nationjal Electrical Systems, (Air University Press: Maxwell Air Force Base Alabama: October 1994), 64p.

Sun, Jian, 中国经济通史 Economic History of China Vol 2 1840–1949 (China People's University Press: 2000.).


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Created: 8:49 PM 11/21/2017
Last updated: 1:32 AM 12/17/2020