[T]he Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. . . has been probably the foremost factor in saving our industries from collapse. -- Chairman Reed Smoot, 1932 We have learned the lesson of the Smoot-Hawley tariff once. It would be stupid -- as well as tragic -- to start down that road again. -- President Harry S. Truman, 1968
Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley are two deceased members of Congress the world loves to hate. Their principal legislative achievement, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, continues to evoke such epithets as "infamous" and "notorious." To most Americans, that act, which incidentally remains the fundamental tariff law of the United States, conjures up images of rising tariff barriers, beggar-thy-neighbor nationalism, and ruinous trade wars. 1
Over the course of the twentieth century, only a few other traumatic events -- Munich, the German invasion of France in 1940, Pearl Harbor, Yalta, and Vietnam -- have seared the public consciousness similarly and become enduring metaphors for public policy failures. Yet the latter crises emerged from military defeats or perceived diplomatic failures, not from political combat over domestic legislation.
One prominent international economist, a former undersecretary of state