Caught in Webs of Credit: Corporations and Resource Interdependence after the First World War

Between the World Wars, industrialized economies worried about securing access to scarce, strategic metallic minerals for their blast furnaces. Memories of the material shortages endured during WWI created anxieties about resource exhaustion and scarcity, cementing an enduring vision of a world of finite raw materials controlled by a small number of great powers. This paper covers the post-WWI economic boom and bust through the lens of manganese markets. Mineral resources were a source of economic and political power. Little-studied, but critically important, minerals like manganese were only needed in small amounts, but they were essential to the foundations of national prosperity and security—steel and military production. But all major steelmakers depended completely on imports of manganese ores, which were scattered around the world and concentrated in remote locations. This paper analyzes state and corporate efforts to stimulate, resurrect, and control manganese mining industries in the USA, Soviet Union, Gold Coast, South Africa, India, and Australia. I use this case study to explicate mineral geoeconomics and interdependence during the post-WWI period. The war had stimulated production of otherwise uneconomic manganese ore deposits on the one hand, creating disequilibria in the peacetime market. But on the other hand, the dangers of resource interdependence prompted state- and business-led efforts to systematically survey foreign territories to discover and develop new mineral sources. I show how multinational steel and smelting companies went abroad during this time to secure political and commercial control over these vital mineral inputs, despite market volatility. Drawing on state, corporate, bank, and organizational archives, I show how the expression of US power in the world grew out of imbricated private- and public-sector anxieties over access to foreign resources.