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GOP must find courage to stand up to Trump’s ruinous trade tactics

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As President Trump rebuffed and insulted our closest allies before, during and after the recent Group of Seven debacle in Quebec, his craven apologists have attempted to rationalize this blatant attempt to undermine our postwar economic and strategic alliances and to dismantle the rules-based world trade system that has prevented trade wars from becoming shooting wars ever since the devastation of the World War II and the Great Depression.

It’s dangerous nonsense, and they know better. Yet, congressional leadership is largely silent, though many know that something is badly wrong here. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), now in the twilight of his career in public service and perhaps his patriotic life, was right to try to reassure our allies that “Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.”

It is long past time that leaders find the courage to start saying and acting upon what they know. There is a direct lesson from Republican history to guide their way.

{mosads}Following passage of the controversial and catastrophic Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which raised import tariffs to historic levels, the 1930 midterm elections were disastrous for Republicans even before the full effects of the Great Depression had set in. The GOP lost 51 seats and control of the House and retained control of the Senate by only one vote.


Leading trade reformer and Newly elected Sen. Cordell Hull (D-Tenn.) began circulating a plan to roll back Smoot-Hawley before the new Congress was even sworn in.

He denounced the “narrow and selfish spirit of economic nationalism” of the 1920s as “the greatest threat to world peace today” and that “more seriously threatens the world with bankruptcy than war itself.”

Responding to Hull’s call, a coalition of Democrats and “insurgent” Republicans passed legislation in early 1932, calling for an international conference on trade and requesting that the president negotiate reciprocal trade agreements to reduce the Smoot-Hawley tariffs based upon mutual concessions with other nations.

President Herbert Hoover promptly vetoed the bill with a message familiar to today’s “America First” crowd: “One of our firm national policies has been that tariffs are solely a domestic question in protection of our own people.”

As to the notion of tariff reductions, he declared, “There has never been a time in the history of the United States when tariff protection was more essential to the welfare of the American people than at present.”

Hoover had already proven that he cared little for experts, ignoring the public letter signed by 1,028 economists from around the country sent to him urging him to veto the Smoot-Hawley Act. Indeed, he remained forever unrepentant about Smoot-Hawley, even after living through its damaging economic effects and the trade retaliation it spurred.

Today, President Trump adopts the protectionist/nationalist policies that were wisely discarded following the trade wars of the interwar years in the disastrous aftermath of Smoot-Hawley. While many congressional Republicans fully recognize the fallacies of these policies and the irrationality of leaving trade alliances and institutions that have served American interests for decades, they lack the courage to act.

They should look to the example of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) as a politician willing to adjust to world circumstances, acknowledge mistakes and courageously vote his conscience.

In the 1930s, he had been an isolationist and protectionist. He voted for Smoot-Hawley and against the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act promoted by then-Secretary of State Cordell Hull under President Franklin Roosevelt.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, he let go of his isolationist views and began taking a more internationalist stance on trade.

By 1946, when Republicans gained control of Congress and he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Vandenberg became an important ally to President Harry Truman in passing the Marshall Plan for reconstruction aid to Europe and in renewing the trade program, which led to the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — the predecessor of today’s rules-based world trade system.

There have been precious few Republican voices in Congress opposing the president’s efforts to dismantle the work of the last 70 years to bring order to the trading system that was in complete disorder before the World War II.

Where are today’s Vandenbergs? Where are tomorrow’s McCains? Who will have the courage to say what they know is true?

C. Donald Johnson is a former U.S. ambassador at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; a former Democratic member U.S. Congress; and the author of, “The Wealth of a Nation: A History of Trade Politics in America,” Oxford University Press (May 2018). 

Tags Customs duties Donald Trump Economic ideologies economy Great Depression in the United States Herbert Hoover International relations International trade John McCain Reciprocal Tariff Act Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act Tariff trade war

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