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7 Contentious Trade Wars in U.S. History

From the Boston Tea Party to the banana wars of the 1990s, U.S. trade battles have yielded mixed results for Americans.

While some trade war tactics have led to revolutions (Boston Tea Party), others have failed miserably (Smoot-Hawley Act). Here’s a look at seven U.S. trade wars that made an impact—for better or for worse—on our country.

1. The Boston Tea Party

Major players: American colonists, British Parliament

Tools of the trade (war): Tea

"Taxation without representation." That was the rallying cry December 16, 1773, at Griffin's Wharf in Boston, when colonists waged a political protest over taxes levied by Great Britain, including the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767 that taxed everything from newspapers and playing cards to paint, glass and, yes, tea. Following the 1770 Boston Massacre, Britain repealed all but the tea tax, leading to a colonial boycott of the British East India Company and tea smuggling. The night of the infamous tea party, organized by the Sons of Liberty (which counted John Hancock, John Adams and Paul Revere among its members), a reported 116 men tossed 342 chests of tea—92,000 pounds of the stuff valued at around $1 million by today’s standards—overboard.

Consequences: The British Parliament and King George III enacted the Coercive Acts, which among other orders, closed Boston Harbor until the tea was paid for, stopped free elections in Massachusetts and required colonists to house British troops on demand. In response, the other colonies sent supplies and were spurred to declare the right of the colonies to govern independently. The Revolutionary War began soon after, on April 19, 1775.

2. The Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930

Major players: United States, Canada, Europe and other nations

Smoot-Hawley Act

A political cartoon of President Herbert Hoover explaining his farm relief program to a farmer. 

Tools of the trade (war): Thousands of imported goods

President Herbert Hoover originally set out to deal with a farm crisis during the early years of the Great Depression, proposing tariffs on agricultural imports. But Senators Reed Smoot and Willis C. Hawley offered their own legislation, and added a slew of industrial tariffs. This was despite a petition signed by 1,000 U.S. economists calling, unsuccessfully, for Hoover to veto the plan. The world responded with tariffs on U.S. exports, adding more strain to the already-devastated economy.

Consequences: Considered a disaster by many, the Smoot-Hawley Act led to retaliation from other countries, including Canada. It contributed to U.S. exports falling by 61 percent in 1933, and stalled economic recovery during the Depression. Thanks largely to the failure of Smoot-Hawley, Hoover lost the next election to Franklin D. Roosevelt (Smoot and Hawley were also ousted) and Roosevelt’s Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934 replaced Smoot-Hawley, allowing the president to negotiate tariff reductions.

3. The Chicken Tariff War of the 1960s

Major players: United States, France and West Germany

Poultry producer M. H. (Bill) Simmons sitting amid a flock of his chickens in 1963.

Poultry producer M. H. (Bill) Simmons sitting amid a flock of his chickens in 1963.

Tools of the trade (war): Chicken, brandy, trucks and more

With the rise of mass-produced, factory chicken farming in America, the world responded by buying up cheaper U.S. poultry, and chicken imports in Europe soared. That didn't sit well with France and West Germany, who imposed tariffs on the birds, leading to big losses in the U.S. poultry industry. With feathers, well, ruffled, the United States, led by President Lyndon Johnson, fought back with a 25 percent tax on “light trucks,” including Volkswagen buses, French brandy, potato starch and dextrin.

Consequences: The Japanese auto industry also took a big hit from the tax, which remains on light trucks. Some brands, including Toyota and Isuzu, have found loopholes, such as erecting assembly plants on U.S. territory, to circumvent them.

4. The 1987 Trade War with Japan

Major players: United States and Japan

Tools of the trade (war): Cars, electronics, motorcycles

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan doubled the import prices on $300 million-worth of Japanese computers, power tools and TVs. The administration said the tariffs were in response to Japan's failure to comply with an agreement that the country would allow more U.S. imports into its markets and would stop under-pricing American semiconductor computer chips. In the 1980s, Japanese autos were also subject to high tariffs.

Consequences: Japan chose not to strike back. The country’s minister of international trade, Hajime Tamura, told the press, “Hoping to prevent this issue from causing severe damage to the world's free-trading system, the Japanese government has decided, from this broader perspective, not to take any retaliatory measures immediately.” Economists Anna Zhou and Ethan Harris of Bank of America Merrill Lynch say the tariffs did not slow the United State’s trade deficit. Japanese cars saw a 3 percent dip in America and, in 1984, U.S. consumers paid an estimated $53 billion more because of import tariffs.

5. Canada-U.S. Lumber Wars

Major players: United States and Canada

A West Virginia employee moving logs at the Cyblair Sawmill in 2017. Lumber prices were trading at a 13-year high amid rising demand for housing and as the threat of U.S. tariffs on softwood imports from Canada sparks supply concerns. 

A West Virginia employee moving logs at the Cyblair Sawmill in 2017. Lumber prices were trading at a 13-year high amid rising demand for housing and as the threat of U.S. tariffs on softwood imports from Canada sparks supply concerns. 

Tools of the trade (war): Softwood lumber (think pines, cedars, firs)

Canada harvests wood from public lands, with market prices decided by the government. The United States logs mostly on private lands, with the market driving the price. In 1982, the United States argued that Canada was unfairly subsidizing its softwood lumber. The standoff led to years of disputes and continued tariffs (or duties).

Consequences: While Canada was expected to pay hundreds of millions in softwood lumber tariffs in 2018, U.S. consumers also faced record lumber prices as the home construction industry boomed. According to the publication Random Lengths, which covers the lumber industry, the cost of western Canadian lumber was up around 40 percent by 2018.

6. The 1993 Banana Wars

Major players: United States, Europe, Latin America

1993 Banana Wars

A Honduran worker carries a box with bunches of bananas at the warehouse of a market in Tegucigalpa in 2006. The Honduran government presented a demand to the World Trade Organization, against the European Union, for it to reconsider the new export duties imposed on bananas.

Tools of the trade (war): Bananas, European luxury goods

Bananas aren’t really grown all that much in the United States outside of Hawaii and Florida, but all those banana farms in Latin America? Many are owned by American companies. The United States complained back in 1993 when Europe was imposing high tariffs on fruit coming from Latin America so that its former Caribbean colonies could have an advantage in the market. In retaliation, the U.S. placed tariffs on items such as French handbags, British linens and Danish hams.

Consequences: After filing eight complaints with the World Trade Organization, the European Union, in 2009, agreed to gradually ease the tariffs, and, in 2012, the banana war finally ended. “I never in my life thought I would spend so much time on bananas,” then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright once declared.

7. The 2002 Steel Tariff

Major players: United States, Europe

Steel Tariff

Steel at the Corus site in the U.K. on the day that a union leader warned that more than 5,000 jobs could be axed because of new United States tariffs on steel imports.

Tools of the trade (war): Steel, oranges

In an effort to boost the country's steel industry, George W. Bush imposed temporary tariffs of 8-30 percent on steel imports. Canada and Mexico were exempt due to NAFTA issues, but the European Union quickly retaliated with tariffs on Florida oranges, American cars and more. A complaint against the United States was also filed with the World Trade Organization, which found the U.S. in violation of tariff rate commitments. Bush ended the tariffs in 18 months, earlier than the planned three-year period.

Consequences: Widely considered a wash by economists, the tariffs led to higher steel prices and, according to the Institute for International Economics, the loss of up to 26,000 jobs in steel-using industries. Other analysts, however, say steel jobs were added and that the industry saw a small uptick in profits. 

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