The American Pageant (12th Edition)

Chapter 35 – Page 808-09

Our Critique

808 “At the same time, Roosevelt made at least one internationalist gesture when he formally recognized the Soviet Union in 1933. Over the noisy protests of anticommunist conservatives, as well as Roman Catholics offended by the Kremlin’s antireligious policies, Roosevelt extended the hand of diplomatic recognition to the sixteen-year-old Bolshevik regime.”

The four previous presidents refused to recognize the Soviet Union because of (1) its leaders and their bad character, (2) its more than $636 million of unpaid debt to the United States, and (3) its communist challenge to Christianity and to Western democracies. Why encourage such behavior with diplomatic recognition? FDR, however, believed he could charm Stalin and change Soviet attitudes. Such was not the case as the Soviets continued to renege on their US debt; FDR would, in fact, later lend Stalin much more, which would not be paid back either.

808 “Closer to home, Roosevelt inaugurated a refreshing new era in relations with Latin America. He proclaimed in his inaugural address, ‘I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the Good Neighbor .’ Old-fashioned intervention by bayonet in the Caribbean had not paid off, except in an evil harvest of resentment, suspicion, and fear.”

FDR’s departure from Wilson’s interventionism was, indeed, pleasant and Roosevelt should be commended for this. The United States has always been interested in legitimate trade with other countries, but Wilson went further and intervened heavily in the political affairs of other Latin American nations. The textbook sometimes labels FDR’s attitude here as “isolationist,” but it was not. FDR did not seek isolation, but legitimate trade with Latin America. However, he saw the problems with Wilson’s interventionism and launched the “Good Neighbor Policy.”

808–09 “Responding to the Hull-Roosevelt leadership, Congress passed the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act in 1934 . Roosevelt was empowered to lower existing rates by as much as 50 percent, provided that the other country involved was willing to respond with similar reductions.”

On the surface, reciprocal trade agreements seem very reasonable. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which was passed under President Hoover, was the highest tariff in US history. It stifled trade by discouraging imports from other countries, thus encouraging those countries to retaliate and refuse to accept our exports. As the textbook rightly said, “Tariff barriers choke off foreign trade, and … trade wars beget shooting wars.” But the solution to the problem is to have Congress pass a bill that reduces tariffs on most, or all, imports—which would promote trade by encouraging other nations to reduce their tariffs on our exports.

The Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act did something different. It “empowered” the president on his own whim to “lower existing rates” if the other country cooperated. First, notice that Congress no longer had its constitutional power to set tariffs; the president now had much of this power. And he could use it for political purposes if he wanted to. In March 1934, the New York Herald-Tribune wrote, “What is to prevent the Executive from using his tariff-bargaining powers so as to ruin industries which some of his advisers wish to see broken for any one of a number of possible reasons, either political or theoretical?” In fact, this threat to uncooperative industries was part of Roosevelt’s strategy, according to historian Gary Dean Best, who has written several books on FDR. The lesson is this: when the constitutional balance of powers is arbitrarily shifted to increase executive power, the dangers of tyranny increase. Given that Roosevelt later threatened to tax rich people at 100 percent of their income, such danger of tyranny from him is not just theoretical.