Courtesy Reuters

Imports in the American Economy

EXPORT or die" is a challenging phrase, but like so many catchwords expresses only half the truth. When Hitler told the Germans in early 1939 that they must export or die, and when The Economist several years later used the same words to describe England's postwar situation, neither nation was overburdened by its own productive capacity and neither was in the position of having to dispose of surpluses abroad or see its economic life stifled by their weight. Actually, "export or die," as they used the expression, meant "import or die;" it meant that a highly industrialized country had to buy from abroad each year large supplies of foodstuffs and raw materials. Lacking these supplies, millions of its factory workers would lose their jobs and millions of its closely packed urban population would suffer actual starvation. Furthermore, cut off from outside supplies of strategic materials, its military potential would be drastically reduced. Thus, for a nation to stop the inflow of goods might so reduce its economic and political strength as to cause it to lose its status as a Great Power. States in this situation must have imports to survive, but they can get imports only by exporting; hence in this sense it is true that they must export or die.

Americans are not in the habit of listing their country among the have-not nations. Traditionally, we have taken great pride in our "inexhaustible resources," our vast area of arable land, our great forests, and our abundant and varied deposits of minerals. We are accustomed to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, as not dependent in any critical degree on a large and uninterrupted flow of goods from abroad. It is true that wartime shortages of rubber and tin and many other metals jolted our complacency, but most Americans still would consider "import or die" a ridiculous exaggeration if applied to their own country. A poll on the question, "Are imports vital to the American economy?" would probably show that a majority

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