1930: Tariffs and Walls

Reed Smoot and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, 1930

Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, April 1995

During the 1930s the economies of all of the industrialized nations suffered dramatic declines in production, trade, and employment levels. Already weakened by the human and economic toll of World War I, war debt repayment, and trade imbalances with the United States, foreign nations were confronted in 1930 with the highest tariff barriers in U. S. history. The chief architect of the American protectionist legislation was Utah’s Senator Reed Smoot.

When Smoot entered Congress in 1903 the nation was operating under the Dingley Tariff of 1897, at the time the highest in the nation’s history. Smoot, appointed to the Senate Finance Committee in 1908, quickly became an expert on tariff issues, mastering the complex and arcane tariff schedules on a variety of goods and becoming a firm and unyielding advocate of high duties. The Utahn was particularly concerned throughout his political career with the tariffs on sugar and wool, two major Utah products that competed with imports. While Republicans held power they were able to keep the tariff relatively high. When Democrats took the presidency and both houses of Congress in 1912, tariffs were sharply reduced.

 The return of Republicans to national power in 1920 led to a resumption of protectionist legislation. By now a power in the Senate, Smoot was a close economic adviser to Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. In 1923 the Fordney-McCumber Tariff raised rates again, including those on Cuban sugar, a direct competitor with Utah’s beet sugar industry. With Smoot’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Finance Committee even higher rates were assured. In 1930 President Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff which boosted average duties on imports to 53 percent, the highest in American history.

In retaliation, some twenty-five nations raised their duties, making American goods more expensive.

Here's what happened following the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff act. (Image: Bank of America Merrill Lynch)

Here’s what happened following the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff act. (Image: Bank of America Merrill Lynch)

Smoot never fully acknowledged the unintended consequences of his legislation. In fact, he argued in the depths of the depression that the rate might not be high enough. 

Sources: James B. Allen, “The Great Protectionist: Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 45 (1977); Mary Beth Norton et al., A People and a Nation (Boston, 1990). READ MORE

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