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1.4 The Great Depression, Smoot-Hawley, and the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act (RTAA)

Learning Objective

  1. Understand the trade policy effects of the Great Depression.

Perhaps the greatest historical motivator for trade liberalization since World War II was the experience of the Great Depression. The Depression ostensibly began with the crash of the U.S. stock market in late 1929. Quite rapidly thereafter, the world economy began to shrink at an alarming pace. In 1930, the U.S. economy shrank by 8.6 percent and the unemployment rate rose to 8.9 percent. With the contraction came a chorus of calls for protection of domestic industries facing competition from imported products.

For U.S. workers, a tariff bill to substantially raise protection was already working its way through the legislature when the economic crisis hit. The objective of higher tariffs was to increase the cost of imported goods so that U.S. consumers would spend their money on U.S. products instead. By doing so, U.S. jobs could be saved in the import-competing industries. Many economists at the time disagreed with this analysis and thought the high tariffs would make things worse. In May 1930, 1,028 economists signed a petition protesting the tariff act and beseeched President Hoover to veto the bill. Despite these objections, in June of 1930 the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (aka the Tariff Act of 1930), which raised average tariffs to as much as 60 percent, was passed into law.

However, because higher U.S. tariffs also injured the foreign companies that were exporting into the U.S. market and because the foreign economies were also stagnating and suffering from rising unemployment, they responded to the Smoot-Hawley tariffs with higher tariffs of their own in retaliation. Within several months, numerous U.S. trade partners responded by protecting their own domestic industries with higher trade barriers. The effect was a dramatic drop in international trade flows throughout the world and quite possibly a deepening of the economic crisis.

In subsequent years, the Depression did get much worse. The U.S. economy continued to contract at double-digit rates for several more years, and the unemployment rate peaked in 1933 at 24.9 percent. When Franklin Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, he spoke against the high tariffs. By 1934, a new attitude accepting the advantages of more liberal trade took hold in the U.S. Congress, which passed the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act (RTAA). The RTAA authorized the U.S. president to negotiate bilateral tariff reduction agreements with other countries.

In practice, the president could send his agents to another country, say Mexico, to offer tariff reductions on a collection of imported items in return for tariff reductions by Mexico on another set of items imported from the United States. Once both sides agreed to the quid pro quo, the agreements would be brought back to the United States and the Mexican governments for approval and passage into law. Over sixty bilateral deals were negotiated under the RTAA, and it set in motion a process of trade liberalization that would continue for decades to come.

The RTAA is significant for two reasons. First, it was one of the earliest times when the U.S. Congress granted trade policymaking authority directly to the president. In later years, this practice continued with congressional approval for presidential trade promotion authority (TPA; aka fast-track authority) that was used to negotiate other trade liberalization agreements. Second, the RTAA served as a model for the negotiating framework of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Under the GATT, countries would also offer “concessions,” meaning tariff reductions on imports, in return for comparable concessions from the other GATT members. The main difference is that the RTAA involved bilateral concessions, whereas the GATT was negotiated in a multilateral environment. More on the GATT next.

Key Takeaways

  • The Great Depression inspired a great wave of protectionism around the world beginning with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in the United States in 1930.
  • The Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act (RTAA) was the start of a wave of trade liberalization.
  • The RTAA was important because it gave trade policymaking authority to the U.S. president and because it served as a model for the GATT.


  1. Jeopardy Questions. As in the popular television game show, you are given an answer to a question and you must respond with the question. For example, if the answer is “a tax on imports,” then the correct question is “What is a tariff?”

    1. The common name given to the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930.
    2. The term used to describe the U.S. presidential authority to negotiate free trade areas.
    3. The name of the 1934 U.S. legislative act that authorized the U.S. president to negotiate bilateral tariff reduction agreements.
    4. The highest U.S. unemployment rate during the Great Depression.
    5. The name of the U.S. president who signed the Tariff Act of 1930.
    6. The number of economists who signed a petition protesting the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.