Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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Joining the World: The United States, Europe and the Making of American Trade Policy Before and After the Great War, 1900 to 1925
John A Moore

Last modified: 2014-03-10


     Between 1900 and 1925, the United States joined the exclusive list of world industrial powers.  The most significant symbols of this achievement were the successful Spanish-American War in 1898 and President Teddy Roosevelt’s dispatch of the Great White Fleet between 1907 and 1909.  However, the country’s ascendency was far more economic in nature than military, and Americans reluctantly forayed into international affairs, evidenced by a hesitant entry into the Great War.  The nation preferred trade policy to overt force to achieve its diplomatic and economic objectives.      

     This proposed paper addresses American trade policy during the period leading up to, and immediately following, the Great War.  Specifically, it examines three important tariff bills: the Payne-Aldrich Act (1909), Underwood Act (1913) and Fordney-McCumber Act (1922).  American policy shifted over the course of these bills, as the Payne and Underwood bills sought to lower protectionism, though with mixed results, while Fordney marked a sharp return to the highly protectionist policies characterizing the nation’s stance during the latter nineteenth century. 

     American trade policy shifted throughout this period due to a highly fluid political and economic environment.  Prior to the war American policy makers focused on how to best balance growing trade activity and an integrating global economy with the potential dangers posed by Europe’s military buildups and expanding imperialism.  After the war the national government confronted the different question of how to reset international trade relations in a dramatically different post-war world, one altered by changed balances of political power, damaged economies, and massive reparations liabilities.  In addition, the Great War changed economic circumstances by changing the United States from a debtor to creditor nation.       

     The presentation will use primary source data to consider a topic largely neglected by historians.  Examples will include, but are not limited to, examining the roll call votes and debates associated with the tariffs, census data, trade data and print media in identifying the variables that shaped the American policy debate.  

     The thesis question considers the way that global military and trade circumstances impacted American trade policy during the first quarter of the twentieth century.  American economic growth significantly increased its economic prestige and power by 1900, in marked contrast to the nineteenth century.  In turn, the paper also considers the impact of new American policies on the rest of the world.  Even though contemporaneous events such as the Federal Reserve Act, the Sixteenth Amendment and the Versailles Treaty have received greater attention from historians, American trade policy between 1900 and 1925 significantly influenced domestic and international affairs well into the twentieth century.     

     I believe that this topic is fitting for the 2014 EBHS conference in light of the fact that it tangentially addresses an important economic topic that addresses international affairs during the Great War era during the centennial anniversary year of its beginning.  Ultimately, American trade policy during this era proved detrimental to international order, and Yankee economic nationalism significantly contributed to the postwar tensions that paved the way towards renewed war in 1939.