"Nations of the World Turn to Roosevelt," said the New York Times headline from April 12, 1933. It summarized the expectations that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's election had triggered in a world facing the economic strains of the Great Depression.
Credited with revitalizing a crippled banking sector and restoring public confidence, the new U.S. chief executive became pivotal to the upcoming League of Nations' Monetary and Economic Conference.
"Franklin Roosevelt, as President, knows as well as any man that there can be no general economic recovery without the concerted action of all nations," Time magazine wrote. "He also knows that the World Conference at London would fail dismally if 'opened cold' without preliminary negotiations. He believes in the efficacy of personal contact."
Roosevelt invited U.K. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to visit Washington and stay at the White House. MacDonald was followed by former French Prime Minister Edouard Herriot, and then political leaders from 42 other nations, including Germany, Italy, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.
Roosevelt planned a series of meetings focused on trade and tariffs. He hoped to keep the testy issue of war debts and reparations off the table. U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull had long been a fierce critic of high-tariff protectionist policies.
"The practice of the half-insane policy of economic isolation during the past ten years by America and the world is the largest single underlying cause of the world panic," he said. "The mad pursuit of economic nationalism has proved disastrous."
Yet just as MacDonald and Herriot were sailing across the Atlantic, the U.S. acted in its own interest and banned the export of gold. "The events of the last two days have materially altered the situation," MacDonald said.
When a radioman brought Herriot the news, one member of his party exclaimed: "We might as well turn around and go home." French bankers denounced the U.S. move as "a political fraud."
"The general conditions for which I and my experts were preparing have been completely transformed," Herriot said.
American unilateralism on the gold standard didn't derail the talks, however. Roosevelt and the prime minister spoke at length, and MacDonald's daughter Ishbel went sightseeing with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Addressing the National Press Club, MacDonald thanked "your very mild, forceful and courageous president" for joining him in seeking international accord on reducing unemployment and restoring trade.
Herriot showed elaborate diplomatic tact, as well. "I am willing, if my help is needed, to cooperate fully in a solution of the tremendous difficulties oppressing the American people, and in this effort consider it a precious privilege to cooperate with the eminent statesman whose courage, energy, vast intelligence and noble unselfishness deserve my own as well as the world's admiration."
No agreements were reached, but mutual understanding had improved. The opening date for the world conference was set for June 12 in London.
Roosevelt, MacDonald and Herriot shared support for tariff truces and currency stabilization, but a mystery remained: How could such matters be resolved cooperatively given persistent, worldwide political tensions?
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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