National Archives notes: reading between the lines on quartz crystal trade, part 1

I did a short trip to the National Archives in College Park in December to do a small sprint of research in the collection of materials from the Metals Reserve Company. I’m only just getting to typing a lot of the notes from that trip, which means I’m also only just getting to sharing things found during it.

One collection of papers I knew I was curious about was correspondence between the MRC and Leonard J. Buck, MRCs Special Representative” in Brazil. As part of their global procurement operations, MRC established contracts with commodity brokers to have them essentially work exclusively for the federal government to acquire minerals for the war effort. Buck was the representative in Brazil, which meant that he and his team negotiated purchases and arranged import of minerals to the USA for the federal government. Buck’s correspondence at NARA is organized by commodity and then chronologically, so the work of post-archive reading has been to put all my notes on specific communications into a spreadsheet and sort them chronologically to get a more comprehensive picture of Buck’s activities overall.

There’s not a lot of material about Leonard Buck out in the public record. We know he was the son of a Bethlehem Steel vice president, he had a degree in mining engineering, and he eventually went into the minerals trade. His New York Times obituary from 1974 describes him as an ore dealer” and horse breeder (he also had an award-winning cocker spaniel named Champion Torohill Trader’). Today, there’s a public botanical garden in New Jersey named after him, which takes up most of the results from Googling him (the Wikipedia entry on this park is interesting because it describes him as a geologist?). The botanical garden might have originally been a private estate he maintained? This isn’t clear, or necessarily all that important for my immediate purposes. What’s important is that this guy was a central player in mineral procurement for the United States in one of the biggest mining countries in the world and we seem to know barely anything about him or about how he did that job.

The problem with trying to reconstruct how Buck did his job via written correspondence, of course, is that there are gaps. Letters sometimes refer to telephone conversations or cables or even absent letters, providing little context as to the substance of those prior communications. But there are some glimpses within Buck’s communications of a shrewd hustler. This letter from December 26, 1941 to MRC general counsel Harvey J. Gunderson is instructive insofar as it concerns Buck’s frustrations with his compensation:

I am in receipt of your letter of December 23rd in regard to the sale of Brazilian metals and carefully note your position that only one commission should be paid for the work involved in any single purchase, by which I presume you mean one commission to cover both purchase and sale of one or all of the products, if you so instruct.

When I offered my services as your Special Representative in Brazil, I told you that I thought 2% was a fair compensation and I still believe so. In the first place, I gave up considerable business in Brazil in order to be of assistance to you. As you know, I exported many of the minerals from Brazil which I am now buying for your account, while others in the same position as myself have continued to conduct their normal business and in some instances have earned as much on one or two transactions as I am being paid totally for the work I am endeavoring to carry out to the best of my ability for you.

This extent of complaining about lost wages makes it hard for me to believe that Buck got into this arrangement out of love of country or commitment to fighting fascists. At the same time, Buck understood he was in a strong bargaining position when it came to the urgency of the procurement work. Throughout the collection there are a number of letters from Buck to his contacts at MRC seeking their help in view of the work we are endeavoring to do for you” in preventing one of Buck’s top employees from getting drafted, claiming that the employee’s absence would seriously disrupt the business routine of my organization.” The employee, Ernest E. Hahn, received several deferments of military service, presumably because being good at managing a commodity broker’s finances was as valuable as killing Nazis. I digress. Back to the 1941 letter:

I have tried to buy the minimum I can—not the maximum—and have spent considerable time asking industry to take certain products directly rather than burden your account with excessive inventories. According to the agreement made with Brazil, I should purchase approximately $13,500,000 worth of goods as your agents over a six-month period, and as industry has been buying relatively small amounts, the purchases I have made equal less than half of our obligation. It therefore hardly seems fair to ask me on the one hand to keep purchases down to a minimum (which I am endeavoring my utmost to do) and at the same time reduce the commission per dollar value purchased, and also request me to give up any business that I may have been conducting with the country in question. Therefore, I think it is almost impossible for auditors to determine what is a fair contract.

Buck was not really endeavoring his utmost” to keep purchases down to a minimum; a month later internal MRC correspondence notes that Brazilian mica dealers complaining about Buck overpaying for the product, and there’s a fair amount of letters tersely reminding Buck to actually clear his purchases first with the government.  The final audit of the MRC also found that Buck was overpaid in the tens of thousands of dollars.

As regards the sales commission for selling any of these products, my desire was to secure specialists or use the specialists we already have in our employ to dispose of the various products in order that the maximim value be received from sales. Quartz Crystal is a glaring example of where appreciable amounts of money may be saved with the proper sales effort on the non-usable material.

This is actually a pretty good point, and relevant to my specific research, so let’s talk about it. Quartz crystals were needed to make oscillators for military radios, and both the silicon dioxide purity and the visible facing/symmetry of the original quartz determined whether crystals could be used for oscillators. Most of the quartz mined in Brazil didn’t actually reach the radio standard, and after the war the U.S. military had lots of unused crystal inventory that had to find other uses (One of those uses may have been fused quartz, used to make the kind of crucibles used in, surprise surprise, high purity silicon ingot manufacture). Buck’s being kind of a baby in this letter about not being paid enough but he’s not wrong.

As I see the situation, it is a question of what is a fair compensation based on percentage commission on the dollar value of the amount of materials purchased. If it is to be based on costs, it would appear that I am to be penalized for efficiency, which I do not believe is your intention.

Again, this is just really funny because in the end Buck a) got overpaid and b) one of the consequences of the government just blanket buying quartz crystal not knowing for sure its quality was that they drove up the price of lower-grade quartz! Efficiency, sure.

The conclusion of this letter is really my favorite part, though—check out the nice war would be a shame if somebody didn’t win it” energy:

Until I hear further from you, I will do nothing about the sales of the various products, but may I take the liberty of personally reminding you that Western Electric is in need of Quartz Crystal and the matter of sale to them should be decided at your earliest convenience.

Oh dear, he’d really like to get Western Electric those crystals but the government being a big meanie and not paying him fairly for doing such a good (??) job really is getting in the way! Poor Leonard.

I have way more material from this collection to annotate that further articulates Buck’s general vibe which may or may not end up turning into other blog posts. Realizing how long this one quickly became, I’ll end here and return to the tedium of annotation and organizing.

January 7, 2023