It is the year 1930, and Republican Herbert Hoover is in his second year as President of the United States. Outside the White House, popular tunes on the radio include Embraceable you, by George and Ira Gershwin, and Ten cents a dance by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rogers. In cinemas Laurel and Hardy have made their transition to talking pictures with shorts like Hog Wild and Another Fine Mess. These would have supported new feature films such as Hells Angels and The Dawn Patrol, both evoking strong memories of the recent World War.
In May 1930 Hoover was a very worried man. In the previous autumn, the Wall Street Crash had sent shares into meltdown, triggering an avalanche of company closures and layoffs. By March 1930, US unemployment was already at 1.5 million. Now there was even worse news. On his desk lay a Bill called the Smoot-Hawley Tariff-and he, as President, was expected to sign it.
The Bill had been introduced into both Houses by Senator Reed Smoot (Rep, Utah) and Representative Willis C Hawley (Rep, Oregon). It was a response to cry from Republican heartlands to protect American jobs for American workers-and especially American Farmers. To this end, it introduced high tariffs on a vast range of imported manufactured and agricultural goods. Now it had passed both Houses of Congress, and so only needed the President’s signature to become law.
The trouble was that the whole rest of the world depended on trade with a thriving American economy. America was the only healthy economy left of any size after the Great War. A rise in US Tariffs would mean a collapse in trade for everyone else; and even the possibility that they might retaliate. 1,028 leading economists signed a petition asking the President to use his veto. The head of JP Morgan begged the President to reject this “asinine” legislation. Henry Ford spent an evening with the President in a last- ditch attempt to persuade him to use his veto. It didn’t work: Hoover knew that he needed the support of his Republican Party to govern at all. Not to have signed would have sparked a civil war inside the party. And so on 7 June 1930, the Smoot Hawley Tariff became Law.
The economic consequences unfolded at once. Over the next three years US imports decreased by 66%, and exports by 61%. An economy estimated at $103.1 billion in 1929 had fallen to $55.6 billion by 1933. The collapse in farm and other commodity prices brought starvation to the farming communities who had so strongly pressed for the Bill. In December 1931 US unemployment reached 9 million. By December 1932 it was 13 million.
The international consequences were disturbing. Led by Canada, all the major trading countries began putting up their own protectionist tariffs. Any hope of the world trading its way out of depression vanished. Unemployment rose to vertiginous heights, especially in Germany. There were consequences. In 1928 the Nazi Party had 12 seats and 2.6% of the vote. By 1932 they commanded 230 seats and 37.3%. Most worrying of all was Japan, which in despair abandoned the world community. Instead they looked for resources and markets by seizing Manchuria from China, initiating the eastern half of a war that would last until 1945.
What can we learn from all this, ninety years on? Never underestimate the power of ignorance and stupidity in human affairs. That nations have a right to defend their interests, but need to be very, very thoughtful about how they do it. And that the Talkies were here to stay.
By 1934 the new President, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, was already starting to lower tariffs again. But the damage had already been done. Japan was by now so committed to China that only military defeat would get them out. In Germany, Hitler was consolidating his power by becoming Fuhrer. Some years of peace lay ahead, but the lines that led to war were already laid down.
Perhaps we should leave the last words to WH Auden, who wrote these memorable lines on 1st September 1939, as Germany marched into Poland, and the most terrible conflict in history got under way
Accurate scholarship can/Unearth the whole Offence/from Luther until now/That has driven a culture mad……………………….I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn/That those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return
we apologise for being unable to find a royalty-free image of Messrs Smoot and Hawley
Hugh Brogan The Pelican History of the United States of America penguin 1985
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