Bibliography Notes: Oral History, Paul Nitze

Available online via the National Archives

We created the O’okiep mine in Namibia and a lot of other things, the Titan Mine in Peru, and God knows what other mines.

Paul Nitze had a long and impressive career working for the federal government which he recounted at length for the 1975 interview. For the purposes of my research interests we’re just focusing on the sections of this oral history interview where he talks about working on strategic mineral supply chains during World War II. Nitze began working in the Roosevelt White House in the 1940s on U.S.-Latin America policy, but during the war became increasingly involved in procurement of critical minerals from Latin America (his official title was Chief, Metals and Minerals Branch” for the Board of Economic Welfare).

For reasons that the oral history doesn’t get into (but oh dear reader, those reasons are spicy political history gossip) FDR had put his vice president, Henry Wallace, in charge of the Bureau of Economic Warfare. Nitze had zero background in minerals procurement and apparently learned that this had become his responsibility through an article in the New York Times about an executive order signed by FDR in June 1942. At the suggestion of then-MRC president G. Temple Bridgman, Nitze set about building up a team on the BEW side of mining engineers, geologists, and contract experts. Somewhat hilariously, he then complains that the problem was that the most conservative people in the world are mining engineers and geologists”–a consequence, Nitze muses, of their fastidious and precise tendencies (look, in the 1940s being a Republican didn’t mean being allergic to science, I guess). In any case, Nitze’s New Deal Democrat boss Wallce didn’t love that he staffed up the BEW with mostly Republicans, but the Democrat he could find with mining expertise quit a few weeks into running the operation.

A detail of this interview that I need to look into:

Now Wallace himself, as I say, was very much interested in our taking the lead toward the left and he insisted that in all these contracts we negotiate what was called the labor clause.” We wouldn’t enter into a contract with anybody unless they would commit themselves to engage in fair labor practices which, of course, was absolutely revolting to many of the people we were buying these things from, as interference in their internal affairs.

The interviewer doesn’t follow up to ask how anyone working for the federal government could have enforced these stipulations from Washington, or even made sure they were being followed. One thing I’m hoping to find in looking at copies of the contracts issued by the Metals Reserve Company is whether this so-called labor clause actually mad it in. Nitze makes it sound like it did, but it’s possible (honestly, I expect) that some revisions took place between whatever version of the contracts he put together and what finally got signed.

Assuming it is true, though, it’s also an interesting detail to include in critiques of U.S. minerals policy as colonial project. In his personal diaries, Wallace apparently expressed a desire for the U.S. to support South American industrialization. Later in the oral history, Nitze says that Wallace believed it was not only industrialization that he was interested in, it was liberalization of what he considered to be an illiberal society, which is the way it was.” A lot of countries in South America did have dictator governments and racist social structures having already been colonized by Spain and Portugal centuries before, so I can see Wallace’s intentions here. But as is probably very obvious, the kind of liberalization that comes from getting a (usually north American or European) company to do fair labor clauses for their (often indigenous or very poor) south American workers in a mine producing value primarily for the American military is pretty far from liberation (some dumb pun in there–liberalization being what happens when shooting for liberation but you end up taking an L?? Needs work).

(Another compelling detail of this interview is it’s one of the first items related to strategic minerals I’ve found that mentions the Catavi massacre by name (Wallace, apparently, was very involved in causing a domestic kerfuffle about it).)

Nitze stayed with the BEW through its transition to being the Foreign Economic Administration, a political shift that partly had to do with embarrassing Henry Wallace I guess? Nitze recounts an incredibly petty conflict between him and FEA director Leo Crowley that culminated in thousands of truckloads and hundreds of ships carrying ore to the United States stuck at the border because of unsigned contracts–a contract resolved, apparently, through someone’s strategic leak of a memo about the conflict to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (I am still trying to find this article; if anyone has a account and can do me a solid that would be amazing).

Although Nitze is careful to say that the wasn’t aware of any corruption or venality” in the BEW, he does tell an anecdote about Bolivia tin baron Mauricio Hochschild maybe trying to bribe him? It’s a little vague. Later (mind you, after telling stories about his insane petty bosses and weird shortages and stuff) he notes:

Your basic question was whether these things could have been better organized; that wasn’t my impression. My impression was that we did a goddamned good job; everybody did an excellent job.

Anyway. A final interesting thread from this interview, the last minerals-related topic in the document, is one about a group of people, I think it was in North Carolina” apparently upset at some point in the war that their mica deposits were not being developed and the BEW was buying minerals from Brazil and India instead. A staffer of then-sentator Harry S. Truman had apparently been giving BEW/MRC a hard time about this (Nitze claims the mica deposits were for the birds”). I’m pretty sure this mica mine in North Carolina isn’t the Spruce Pine mines that would later become a major source of high purity quartz because it seems like mica and feldspar were mined from Spruce Pine for the war effort, but I’m curious where this group of people” actually lived.

November 24, 2022