IN June of this year Congress will have to decide whether or not to extend the President's power to reduce tariffs through reciprocal agreements with foreign countries. When this question came up in June 1953, low-tariff and high-tariff forces fought to a draw. The Act was extended for one year only, pending a study of the whole area of foreign economic policy by the Randall Commission. The Commission's realistic report, submitted in January, has set the stage for a struggle which will probably exceed in bitterness and in duration any similar contest since the days of Hawley and Smoot. In concrete terms the question is this: Will the Eisenhower Administration continue the low-tariff policy begun by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cordell Hull 20 years ago, or will it revert to the highly protective policy with which the Republican Party has traditionally been associated?

During the war and early postwar years the tariff issue practically disappeared from the arena of public discussion. In 1945 the extension of the Trade Agreements Act aroused almost no debate in Congress. At that time, remarked a protectionist spokesman, it would have made no difference if we had had no tariff at all. Competitive imports were at low ebb, and domestic producers had more than they could do to meet the huge military and civilian demand. But changed political and economic conditions have now revived the tariff issue and introduced new considerations into the well-worn grooves of discussion. Also, the discussion has become more realistic. People are asking, what does the tariff actually mean to American industry? What are the real dimensions of the problem? What domestic industries, if any, have been injured by 20 years of tariff reduction? What industries might be injured if duties were further reduced? What are the possibilities of minimizing the injury and facilitating adjustment to the new competitive situation? It is on answers to questions like these that Congressional action will largely depend.

Secretary Acheson and his advisers, and more recently Secretary Dulles for the new Administration, in their appearances before Congressional committees, have repeatedly advocated a more liberal attitude in our economic relations with countries in the free world. The United States, they have argued, is a rich, powerful nation, but not, without great sacrifices, strong or rich enough to oppose single-handed the forces which our principal adversary, the Soviet Union, can marshal against us. To strengthen our European allies and keep their loyalty, we must admit their products more freely to our markets. We must have access to the raw materials of the underdeveloped countries of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Our policies with respect to tariffs, investments, air transport and shipping can make or break good relations with countries in the free world.

These views have found increasing support in certain sections of public opinion, among trade unions, civic organizations and business groups. But in Congress proposals to reduce tariffs still meet with strong opposition from Senators and Representatives of both parties for whom the tariff is still a local issue. The concern of Congressmen with the impact of imports on particular industries has real justification; it deserves more attention than it has received from advocates of tariff reform. For certainly no policy which injures, or destroys, a wide range of local industries can adequately protect the national interest. But for constructive legislation we need much more specific information than is now available about present-day competition of imports with domestic products, and we need to discriminate between short-run and long-run situations.

Today the American tariff problem is really three problems; three broad groups of dutiable commodities require separate consideration: 1, farm products; 2, commodities essential to national defense, principally the so-called strategic raw materials; and 3, factory products.


Tariffs on farm products present a difficult case because of the conflict between tariff reduction and farm policy. The present goal of that policy is to guarantee farmers a certain measure of prosperity and security while retaining them in their present occupations. But price supports, the principal method whereby the goal is to be attained, have raised the domestic prices of wheat, cotton, corn, tobacco and other commodities above the world market. As long as this disparity continues it doesn't make sense to allow free imports of those commodities from abroad. To do so would saddle the U. S. Treasury with the impossible task of holding up the level of prices in Canada, Mexico and all over the world, wherever farm products are available at costs which would permit shipment to this country.

The past 20 years have brought revolutionary changes in the techniques of agriculture which, had they been allowed to work out their effects unhampered by government intervention, would have reduced substantially the labor requirements on farms and the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture. Changes in the relative amounts of capital and labor invested in various farm enterprises would have brought about a better balance within the industry itself. Price-support policies have prevented these adjustments.

A new policy which frankly recognizes the existence of a surplus labor force in the American agricultural industry might bring about a gradual transfer of labor and capital, now marginally employed, into more efficient lines of production. During the transition, which might be a long one, farm incomes could be maintained by direct payments from the federal treasury, in place of price supports. With price supports removed, the gap between domestic and world prices of farm products would tend to disappear. The way would then be cleared for a gradual reduction of agricultural tariffs. Predominant farm opinion, however, is at present opposed to replacing parity payments with subsidies, and until this opinion can be modified it seems impracticable to talk about reducing agricultural tariffs.


Our domestic outputs of oil, lead, zinc, copper, manganese and certain other minerals essential to national defense are not adequate for our needs. Whether or not we admit foreign products in this class more freely will be largely dependent on considerations of national security. On economic grounds a protective tariff on minerals is hard to justify. The infant industry argument does not apply, for a mine from the beginning is an aging industry with wasting capital assets. It is true that certain American producers operate at high costs which make it impossible for them to meet unrestricted foreign competition. But their principal handicaps are in the order of nature: narrow veins, refractory ores, bad location with respect to markets. Tariff protection cannot remove these disadvantages.

Present tariff policy is fairly liberal with respect to minerals. Many of them are on the free list; the others bear either low or moderate rates of duty. This policy tends to concentrate domestic production in low-cost mines whose output is far from adequate even for our peacetime requirements. In wartime we should have to rely on our stockpiles and on imports from low-cost sources of supply in relatively safe areas. In short, we are not basing our security on national self-sufficiency in strategic minerals but on a foreign policy that will guarantee access to the resources of Canada, Mexico and other Latin American countries, and Africa, and on the maintenance of a navy and merchant marine adequate to bring these raw material resources to our shores.


Defense considerations also enter the discussion of the tariff on factory products. It is axiomatic that the primary aim of our commercial policy should be to serve the national interests. Among those interests national security at present has top priority. It follows that if certain industries are actually essential to national defense they should be safeguarded, no matter what the cost. On this everyone agrees. But at this point agreement ends and controversy begins. What industries are "essential" and how do you safeguard them?

Low-tariff men tend to narrow the definition, limiting it to those items which are critical in wartime and which domestic producers, with moderate tariff protection, cannot adequately supply even in peacetime. Another criterion is that in an emergency the supply of these items could not be readily expanded. Protectionists interpret "essential" broadly, including thereunder not only such non-controversial items as optical goods and scientific instruments but also a great variety of manufactures supplied to the armed forces. The pottery industry has claimed to be essential because in the last war it supplied ceramic land mines, and the makers of knit gloves contend that without their product no army could fight a war in winter.

On the proper method of safeguarding essential industries the spread of opinion is equally wide. The protectionist formula is to keep them in a healthy condition by restricting, or excluding, competing imports. Tariff reformers object that most of the manufactured products that could reasonably be considered "essential" are regularly used by civilians in their peacetime pursuits. An import duty high enough to free domestic manufacturers from the pressure of foreign competition would impose an unwarranted burden on consumers. It would be more economical to support the domestic producers by subsidies paid to them directly out of the federal treasury. If the American makers of optical instruments cannot compete with the Japanese and the Germans, let the government pay them annually an amount necessary to keep them in business. By this method the taxpayer would know the exact cost of maintaining essential industries, a fact concealed by the tariff. Moreover, American consumers, colleges and hospitals, research institutions, practising physicians and high school and college laboratories could purchase duty-free microscopes and other scientific equipment at much lower prices.

The bulk of American factory products cannot be included, even by broad interpretation, in the strategic category. With respect to them the decision whether import duties should be raised, or lowered, or kept as they are will depend in part on economic considerations, on estimates of the ability of domestic producers to stand up to foreign competition. But psychological factors will strongly affect popular attitudes, for among certain elements in our population the tariff is an institution sanctified by tradition.

A generation ago no sane person would have ventured to predict that it would be politically possible to cut import duties in half within the space of 20 years, or that such drastic reversal of commercial policy could take place without triggering an economic depression. Yet both these things have happened. The tariff was reduced, and the reduction did not destroy American industry. National income, employment, wages and prices did not fall; instead, in 1954 they are all above 1934 levels.

But these facts obviously are not conclusive. Protectionists rightly object that 1934 to 1953 was an unusual period in our economic history. Our experience with the Hull program is like that with the Underwood Tariff of 1913; in both cases wars prevented a test of what low tariffs might accomplish in a normal period. From 1939 to 1945 World War II reduced production for civilian use in the principal competing countries and cut off their exports. Postwar recovery was so slow that for several years after the surrender British, French and Italian manufacturers, as well as German and Japanese, were unable to take advantage of our lowered import duties. During this period, domestic producers were practically immune from foreign competition.

But after 1947 the situation changed. Economic recovery in Western Europe made possible renewed exports of factory products. The result was that United States imports of semi-finished and finished manufactures more than doubled in value in the four years 1946-1950, rising from 1.8 billion dollars to 3.6 billion. The following two years brought a further increase of 1 billion dollars. Rising prices explain the gain in imports only in part. When proper allowance is made for this factor, we find that the quantity of manufactured goods imported in the six years 1946-1952 increased by about two-thirds.

This upsurge in imports was made possible by an unprecedented expansion in the American market. The expected postwar depression did not appear. Instead, the American economy continued to furnish 60,000,000 jobs at high wages, farmers' incomes remained high and thus the wartime upward trend in national income was projected into the peace. The outbreak of war in Korea brought a new rearmament boom.

The postwar prosperity, however, was not shared uniformly by all manufacturers. In some lines, sales and profits lagged behind the general trend; in others they actually declined. Producers in this situation were distressed by the reappearance in the American market of a great variety of foreign manufactures, chinaware and glassware, watches, woolens and worsteds, gloves and leather goods, chemical products and many smaller items. With revived interest in tariff protection, these producers, particularly since 1945, have strongly protested against extensions of the Trade Agreements Act. Although defeated in their efforts to repeal the Act they were able, through the Peril Point and Escape Clause amendments, to limit its effectiveness.


In today's tariff battle, on the low-tariff side are ranged the exporting interests and bankers engaged in financing international trade, importers' associations and groups representing the interests of consumers. On the other side are the groups which believe they would benefit from the restriction of imports; the independent oil companies, the producers of coal, lead, zinc and other minerals, some farmers and some manufacturers. Logically farmers, it would seem, should be sharply divided on the tariff issue. Cotton, corn and tobacco are products which in one form or another are still heavily dependent on export markets. Wool growers, dairymen, cattlemen and producers of sub-tropical fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are exposed in varying degree to foreign competition. For the present, however, this conflict is smothered by an all-embracing price-support policy which cannot be reconciled with freer trade in farm products.

The attitude of organized labor is somewhat ambiguous. The leaders of the two largest national organizations lean strongly toward freer trade. Representatives of the American Federation of Labor, originally a high-tariff organization, and of the Congress of Industrial Organizations consistently supported the Trade Agreements Program in Congressional hearings and before the Randall Commission. Their statements, however, contained warnings that duties might have to be continued on imports from foreign countries, such as Japan, where low wages were paid by highly efficient enterprises. Also, the attitude of individual unions, the watchmakers and the pottery workers, for example, is strongly protectionist.

Among businessmen and in the public at large there is evidence of growing skepticism about the tariff. A 1953 survey conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations among leaders of opinion in 25 cities showed that a substantial majority of the 825 respondents believed that import duties should be reduced, even at the cost of injury to protected industries. The opinion of the 360 businessmen in the group did not diverge greatly from the rest of the sample.[i] Similar results are shown by the Research Institute of America's recent poll of 500 business and labor leaders. Sixty percent favored further lowering of tariffs. When asked whether tariffs should be lowered "despite the possibility of injury to the particular American industries involved" 44 percent said "yes;" 35 percent "no;" and 21 percent were unsure.[ii]

Traditionally, the tariff has been regarded as an instrument for the protection of manufacturers. Their interests have been thought of as solidly opposed to those of farmers and consumers. But today, according to the president of the American Tariff League, the tariff struggle is ". . . a conflict between industry and industry. The industries which are convinced they do not need tariff protection are pitted against those from whom they would remove that protection and wipe them out, if necessary, and put their employees on the dole and relief, as a result."

Manufacturers of chemicals, watches, woolens and worsteds, pottery, glassware, cutlery and certain other products are still staunchly protectionist. With the exception of chemicals and watches, the business units in these industries are typically firms of small and medium size. Their factories are often situated in small towns and cities where they furnish a substantial part of the available employment. Some of the largest American industries organized on a mass-production basis, making automobiles, typewriters, calculating machines and office equipment, have gone definitely over to the free-trade side. Manufacturers of electrical equipment and special types of machinery are on the fence. Some of their products are marketed successfully all over the world; others, they fear, would meet stiff competition at home were the tariff to be further reduced.

Division within the ranks explains the ambiguous position of the National Association of Manufacturers. Its representative, when appearing before the Randall Commission, announced that the Association took no attitude on tariff reform, neither for nor against. The membership, he reported, "was so evenly divided that no majority opinion could be established sufficiently strong to carry influence with those concerned with the development and implementation of national policy." Among the Association's 20,000 members an increasing number assert their confidence in the ability of American enterprise and American efficiency to meet foreign competition on even terms, at home or abroad.

In March 1953, when the Connecticut Development Commission sampled opinion among manufacturers on the extension of the Trade Agreements Act, less than 10 percent replied, although other surveys had produced returns as high as 80 percent. Seven Connecticut industrial groups, however, reported that they had been "severely damaged by tariff cuts made since 1934. These are the producers of clocks and watches; pins; wood screws; fine wire mesh; bicycle wire spokes and pointed textile wires; shears, scissors and pruners; and saddle and dog hardware." These industries employ about 22,500 people, about 5 percent of all persons engaged in manufacturing in the state.

The programs of high- and low-tariff groups show clear-cut conflict. Tariff reformers favor further simplification of customs procedure, repeal of the federal Buy American Act[iii] and similar state and local legislation. They urge permanent or long-term extension of the Trade Agreements Act, and the continuation of gradual reduction in import duties by means of tariff bargaining. To give greater stability to the tariff structure, some would repeal the Peril Point provisions and abolish the Escape Clause.

For some 70 years the principal protectionist organization, the American Tariff League, has fought for higher tariffs. Among its 300 members, textile and chemical manufacturers are strongly represented, as well as smaller-scale industries such as pottery and handblown glassware in which labor represents a large element in cost. Of more recent origin and wider scope is the Nationwide Committee on Industry, Agriculture and Labor on Import-Export Policy which represents the tariff interests of a number of trade unions, including miners, chemical workers, potters and hatters, as well as their employers; also, Atlantic and Pacific coast fishermen, cattlemen, wool growers, and Florida and California fruit and vegetable growers.

To the American Tariff League and the Nation-wide Committee, "tariff reform" means tightening, not loosening, the restrictions on imports. The League proposes that Congress should take back from the President the tariff-making powers it conferred in the Act of 1934 and abandon bilateral and multilateral negotiations as a means of fixing rates. With the aid of a strengthened Tariff Commission, answerable only to itself, Congress would resume exclusive control of tariff making. The League would also strike out the unconditional most-favored-nation clause in our trade agreements, thus reverting to conditions prevailing before 1923, and would tighten up our tariff system all along the line. Imports would be restricted by quotas when tariff duties prove ineffective, and anti-dumping and countervailing duties would be vigorously enforced.

Heretofore much of the tariff discussion in this country has proceeded on parallel tracks. The free traders emphasized the need for expanding our exports and cultivating better relations with foreign countries, while the protectionists concentrated on the need to maintain prosperous American industries. The results were necessarily sterile as far as public education was concerned. But now we are witnessing head-on collisions. Tariff reformers are calling in question the protectionists' assumptions. "Let's get this tariff question into its proper perspective," they say. What, after all, they ask, is the importance today of protection to American manufacturing? What industries would be affected if imports should increase? Do any really have to suffer? Can't they adjust their operations, with or without public assistance, so as to meet successfully the new competition?


A glance at statistics may give a first approximation of the dimensions of the problem. Total imports of dutiable commodities in 1952, including products of agriculture, forestry, fisheries and mining, as well as manufactures, had a value of 4.5 billion dollars. Imports of dutiable finished and semi-finished manufactures were 2.2 billion dollars. Even when generous allowances are made for transportation costs, duties and importers' markup, this sum seems inconsiderable when compared with the output of American factories, valued in 1952 at 275 billion dollars.

Comparison of aggregates, however, does not help us to determine the impact of increased imports on specific branches of American production. Imports of watches in 1951 were 95 percent of domestic production. In woolens and worsteds imports were only 4 percent. Imports of earthenware and chinaware were 26 percent. But even these figures need further refinement, for within a single industry there are important variations. Thus, in the pottery industry the competition of English bone china is much more marked than that of hotel ware. Moreover, some duties are prohibitive, or practically so; others have little or no effect in limiting imports. Also, one needs to take account of price policies. A foreign cartel might decide to raise its selling price when import duties were reduced, rather than increase its shipments. American firms might block an incipient flood of imports by lowering their prices and profit margins. For all these reasons estimates of the probable effects of tariff reduction must be made, and received, with great caution.

Howard Piquet, an economist who has given much attention to this problem, has estimated[iv] that if all tariffs and quotas were suspended for a period of three to five years, annual imports of dutiable commodities, including products of agriculture, forests, fisheries and mines, as well as manufactures, might increase between 1.2 billion dollars and 2.6 billion. The principal gains in imports of manufactured goods, he believes, would be in the following: woolens and worsteds, rayon fabrics, linen towels and handkerchiefs, cotton hosiery, machine-made lace, Axminster rugs, linoleum, handmade glassware, leather gloves and handbags, boots and shoes, optical instruments, clocks, scissors and shears, pocket knives, sewing machines, bicycles, cigarette paper, books, wrapping paper, jewelry, toys and dolls. The over-all increase in imports, within the three to five year period, he estimates at between 11 and 25 percent.

Estimates of the number of persons who might be displaced by further tariff reduction vary widely. David J. McDonald, president of the United Steelworkers of America and a member of the Randall Commission, has estimated that if tariffs should be reduced 50 percent from the present level "not over 100,000 workers might be threatened, directly or indirectly, with the loss of their jobs." He thinks that this figure might be reduced by product diversification and other adjustments on the part of the companies concerned.

Assuming that free trade prevailed for three to five years, Piquet estimates that 300,000 persons at the outside would lose their jobs. In a recent article in Life (January 4, 1954) John K. Jessup and Michael A. Heilperin place the figure of jobs that are clearly dependent on the tariff at "well under a million." Estimates from protectionist sources, on a somewhat different basis, run much higher. The representative of a leading chemical firm claims that "all the chemical industry," which in 1953 employed between 700,000 and 800,000 persons, is vulnerable to foreign competitive attack. A spokesman for a group of protected industries claims that 5,000,000 workers are employed directly in producing industrial and agricultural products that face foreign competition. The wide disparity in the estimates indicates that here is an important subject for research.


Much of today's tariff debate revolves about "methods of adjustment." Is there any way out for firms which would be injured by tariff reduction? Can they manage in some way or other to cut costs or shift production so as to stay in business, either at the old stand or in some new location? On these matters, as one would expect, the optimism of tariff reformers is matched by the pessimism of protectionists. Lower tariffs, the latter predict, inevitably mean unemployment and business failures. Tariff reformers, on the other hand, minimize injury and emphasize the ways and means by which domestic firms, with or without public aid, should be able to meet increased competition from abroad. Protection, they assert, has been a cloak for inefficiency; the removal of import duties should stimulate the introduction of improved cost-reducing techniques. A representative of the C.I.O. recently told a Congressional Committee: "The management of any plant . . . could probably, through a sound labor-management program of working to reduce costs and improve efficiency, make it competitive with foreign competition if it wanted to."

American industries throughout our history have been constantly engaged in adjusting their operations to new conditions. This has been the normal situation in our dynamic, expanding economy ever since the application of the steam engine to manufacturing and transportation reduced costs and gave rise to great shifts in established markets. In the past half century accelerated technological progress and the introduction of new products have created a new industrial revolution. Artificial fibers and plastics have created many problems for textile manufacturers. New forms of entertainment, the radio and television, have upset longterm plans of the moving picture industry. Compared with these changes, and the huge shifts from civilian to defense production and back again, say the advocates of tariff reform, the adjustments to free trade in manufactures would be insignificant. American business has survived change; in fact, it has thrived because of it. It is true that some enterprises, and occasionally whole branches of industries, have suffered short-term dislocation, but in the long run the dynamism of change and competition have brought prosperity and a rising standard of living.

Protectionists deny the validity of this line of argument. Competition between industries and regions in the United States, they point out, takes place within a framework of common legal and social institutions. The disparity in wages and labor costs between the South and New England is not so wide as between the United States and Japan. Inter-regional competition is less injurious than foreign competition, and adjustment is easier. Here is a field where much careful analysis is needed of the experience of individual firms in protected industries which in recent years have found their markets increasingly invaded by foreign producers.

Tariff Commission reports show that some firms have dropped products on which they were not able to meet prices quoted by importers and have concentrated their production on less competitive items. In some cases the impact of low-priced imports may be so severe that no amount of ingenuity on the part of the competing American firms can prevent falling sales and unemployment. In a large urban community the task of finding substitute employment for displaced labor and capital should not be difficult. Many protected industries, such as handblown glassware, however, are situated in small, one-industry communities where unemployment would present serious problems. In some cases migration of a part of the labor supply to other cities or states might be unavoidable. The hardship of moving might be lightened by grant of public funds, but the psychological injury of breaking long-cherished associations would still remain. As one protectionist remarked, "You can't move human beings around with a bulldozer."

Migration, however, is the extreme remedy. In many communities vigorous action by citizens' committees coöperating with state and local authorities may succeed in bringing in new enterprises. Low-tariff advocates point to the success of these methods in New England towns whose textile mills have moved South. A classic case of readjustment is furnished by Iron Mountain, Michigan. When the iron mines, which had furnished practically the sole business enterprise in a community of 12,000, gave out, workers found employment in a newly established factory making wooden automobile bodies. When that in turn folded up, owing to a style change, new industries were brought in which lifted employment to a record height.

For defense industries unable to meet foreign competition, we have suggested, subsidy payments might replace the tariff. It has also been proposed that subsidies need not be limited to industries essential to defense, but that any industry from which protection was withdrawn might be entitled to compensation from the federal treasury. The purpose of the subsidy would not be, as in the case of defense industries, to maintain domestic production at a specified level but rather to provide a means of liquidating the industry which would be relatively painless for both owners and workers. The cost of the subsidies to the federal treasury and the loss of import revenue would be offset over a period of years by savings to consumers. Neither protectionists nor free traders, however, think much of subsidies. To determine equitably the amount of the payments would be a formidable task. Besides, an undesirable precedent might thereby be established so that many businesses, influenced unfavorably by various kinds of federal legislation, would present their demands.

Federal assistance, however, might take other forms. Loans might be made to affected industries to cover the cost, at least in part, of modernization of plant or other readjustments. Federal tax laws might be revised to allow accelerated depreciation. Defense orders might be given to plants undergoing readjustment. To protect the interests of employees in "injured" industries retraining facilities might be provided and special forms of unemployment insurance. For the older workmen the date of old age insurance might be advanced. A rather elaborate plan to facilitate adjustment, including these and other measures of government assistance, was submitted to the Randall Commission by one of its members, Mr. David J. McDonald. All other members, for a variety of reasons, withheld their support.

To date the process of tariff reduction has not aroused great protest, in part because the State Department in selecting items for cutting chose those which were least explosive. A factor of greater importance was the economic climate in which reduction occurred. In rapidly expanding domestic markets most of the increased imports were easily absorbed. Also, under the prevailing conditions of full employment and intense business activity, whatever domestic businesses were adversely affected could readily shift their operations or in other ways make necessary adjustments. It follows that the continuance of a high level of business activity is practically a sine qua non for "tariff concessions without tears," to borrow a phrase of Professor Slichter's. Advocates of tariff reform perhaps have this in mind when stepping up the pace of their campaign, for should American business slide from recession to depression their prospects for accomplishment would be dim.

[i] Joseph Barber, ed., "Foreign Trade and U. S. Tariff Policy," New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1953.

[ii]Saturday Review of Literature, January 23, 1954.

[iii] This legislation, enacted in 1934, requires federal purchasing agents in letting contracts to give preference to domestic bidders unless 1, the materials are to be used outside the country; 2, the materials are not available in sufficient quantity and of satisfactory quality in the United States; 3, procurement would be "inconsistent with the public interest;" or 4, the cost would be "unreasonable."

[iv] "Aid, Trade and the Tariff," New York: Crowell, 1953. The estimates, which are based on Tariff Commission data, assume the continuance of economic conditions at home and abroad as of 1951.

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  • PERCY W. BIDWELL, former Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; author of "The Tariff Policy of the United States," "The Invisible Tariff" and other works
  • More By Percy W. Bidwell