Tariffs Weaken more than Trade

Right in the Middle of his Speech

In this cartoon titled Right in the Middle of His Speech (Knott) we see a man identified as President Herbert Hoover falling through a stage labeled “G.O.P. Platform”. One of the planks, titled “Tariff Plank” has given snapped in two. Hoover is holding a sheaf of papers titled “Blessings of High Tariff”. From the title of the cartoon it is evident that Hoover was delivering his speech from these papers. At the bottom of the panel a sketched crowd of people are sitting on the ground, smiling at his plight. The cartoon is dated October 15, 1932 and the associated editorial is titled Tariffs Come Home to Roost (“Tariffs Come Home to Roost” 2). The unnamed author of the editorial lists the ways that the “Blessings of High Tariff” harmed the economy of the United States and Hoover’s chances of reelection.

Although the tariffs are not named anywhere in the comic or the editorial, there is only one tariff that was infamous enough to be the tariff on everyone’s mind: the Tariff Act of 1930, commonly known as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff or Smoot-Hawley. It was passed into law over two years before this cartoon was published, but the tariff was still very much on the minds of citizens and voters.

In 1932 people were blaming President Hoover for the Great Depression. Even today economists debate whether the Smoot-Hawley Tariff turned what might have been a global economic downturn into The Great Depression (“Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act”). At the time of its inception, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was protested by bankers, economists, and editorial writers across the nation. Over a thousand economists signed a petition to protest the Smoot-Hawley Tariff (“The Battle of Smoot-Hawley”). In 1930 the tariff on dutiable imports was 6% on average. However, at the time Knott published this cartoon in 1932 the forces of deflation raised the effective rate of tariff costs on dutiable imports by 59.1%. (“The Battle of Smoot-Hawley”).

Before Smoot-Hawley was signed into law the stock market had seen some notable recovery from its infamous 1929 crash, but the market took another nosedive as soon as it became clear that Smoot-Hawley would pass. Other nations responded quickly with tariffs of their own. For example, the editorial Tariffs Come Home to Roost mentions the Ottawa tariff, in which Canada raised the duties on American goods and lowered the duties on British goods. The results of this trade war was a significant decrease in trade globally and the movement of factories from the United States to Canada (Tariffs Come Home to Roost).

In 1932 Hoover was running for re-election. He was an extremely unpopular candidate as many people blamed him personally for the Great Depression. Despite this, the Republican party was continuing to run on a platform of economic protectionism and supported the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. The Democrats countered with a platform of lowering tariffs and “…[the Democrat’s] candidate, Franklin D Roosevelt, hammered Hoover during the campaign for signing the Smoot-Hawley bill” (Gordon).

This topic of election platforms moves directly into an analysis of Knott’s cartoon.  A political platform is the set of goals and policies for a political party. Individual portions of the platform are often called “planks”. Knott uses these terms to form a visual pun. The GOP platform here is literally unable to support Hoover as he tries to woo voters. Notably the plank that is the weakest and responsible for this disaster is called the “tariff plank”.  The implication is that it does not matter how solid the rest of the platform is, this one issue is enough to bring Hoover down.

Hoover’s literal downfall is not a private disaster either. There is a crowd gathered around, and the disaster is very apparent to the people who are watching it. The gathered crowd is dressed in casual clothing and sitting on the ground; they are not peers of the suit-wearing Herbert Hoover. The people are smiling as they watch Hoover fall. They seem amused that Hoover is finally seen suffering repercussions for the tariff that impacted them. On the stage there is a microphone, perhaps representing the rest of the country who might listen to such a speech over the radio. The entire nation is aware of what is happening.

Interestingly, it is not Hoover himself who is the cause of the failure. This is perhaps reflective of the fact that although he signed Smoot-Hawley into law, he objected to what it became after special interest groups and Congress finished drafting it. He went so far as to denounce the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, and only signed it into law under pressure from his party (Gordon). In the comic, Hoover is not failing the G.O.P. Platform of economic protectionism, the platform is failing his reelection efforts. The author of the editorial suggests that if Hoover were to “…confess in open meeting that he committed a great sin when he signed the tariff act against his better judgement” (“Tariffs Come Home to Roost” 2) it would be very successful with voters.

The wrong tariff at the wrong time can result in a trade war with global repercussions. The “Blessings of High Tariff” in the cartoon were enumerated in the accompanying editorial as “…poor business, low wages, and great unemployment” (“Tariffs Come Home to Roost” 2). Tariffs were and are a powerful tool for improving a national economy, but their deployment must be judicious. Knott chose to focus this particular cartoon on the personal, political repercussions of the tariff.

 

Works Cited

“The Battle of Smoot-Hawley.” The Economist, 18 Dec. 2008, www.economist.com/node/12798595. Accessed 27 Mar. 2018.

Gordon, John Steele. “Smoot-Hawley Tariff: A Bad Law, Badly Timed.” Barrons, 21 Apr. 2017, www.barrons.com/articles/smoot-hawley-tariff-a-bad-law-badly-timed-1492833567. Accessed 26 Mar. 2018.

“Herbert Clark Hoover.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Gale, 2004, pp. 483-485. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3404703059/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=71e4ab99. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.

Knott, John Francis. Right in the Middle of his Speech. 15 Oct. 1932. America’s Historical Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=L63Q49PFMTUyMjMzMzk1Mi42MTE4MzI6MToxMjoxMjguODMuNjMuMjA&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=4&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=4&p_docnum=1&p_docref=v2:0F99DDB671832188@EANX-10483D9233E8A080@2426996-10483D92A9E93CD3@17-10483D94E2A30003@.

“Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, edited by Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk, vol. 2, Gale, 2000, p. 933. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3406400866/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=370b678b. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.

“Tariffs Come Home to Roost.” Dallas Morning News, 15 Oct. 1932, p. 2. America’s Historical Newspapers, http://infoweb.newsbank.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=T58A4FEJMTUyNjM1MTgwMy42MjQ1MjI6MToxMjoxMjguODMuNjMuMjA&p_action=doc&d_viewref=search&s_lastnonissuequeryname=9&p_queryname=9&p_docnum=1&p_docref=v2:0F99DDB671832188@EANX-10483D9233E8A080@2426996-10483D92A9E93CD3@17-10483D94EA6FB419@Tariffs%20Come%20Home%20to%20Roost