MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
World leaders are gathering in London this week to confront the international economic crisis. President Barack Obama will meet tomorrow with Chinese and Russian leaders before taking part in the G-20 Summit on Thursday. There was a similar conference 76 years ago. It, too, was in London, and it took place just as the world was grappling with the Great Depression.
Back in 1933, the statesmen all agreed that drastic measures were needed, but they just couldn't figure out what to do and the conference collapsed in failure.
NPR's Tom Gjelten takes us back.
TOM GJELTEN: The world was in desperate shape. Banks were failing everywhere. People were out of work and hungry, global trade had come to a screeching halt. The World Economic Conference in London in June 1933 was seen as a last chance to turn things around. King George himself greeted the delegates in somber tones.
King GEORGE V (Great Britain): At this time of widespread economic distress, it is with a feeling of deep responsibility that I welcome you to this country.
GJELTEN: The thousand or so conference attendees filled the lofty hall of London's Geological Museum. Almost every nation on Earth was represented. In his keynote address, George V pleaded with the delegates to look beyond narrow national interests.
King GEORGE V: In the face of a crisis, which all realize and acknowledge, I appeal to you all to cooperate for the sake of the ultimate good of the whole world.
GJELTEN: The mood was dark, but there was hope: The United States had a dynamic new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had taken office just three months earlier, and the world was waiting to see what he would do.
Amity Shlaes is the author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression."
Ms. AMITY SHLAES (Author, "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression"): In 1933, you want to imagine Europe on the brink. Hitler has just been elected, France is wondering what next, we have Mussolini in Italy, all this is going on, and countries are looking to the U.S. to show leadership.
GJELTEN: Actually, it was the United States that was largely responsible for the collapse of global trade. The Smoot-Hawley Act, passed in 1930, raised tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods and triggered retaliation by countries around the world. A top priority of the London conference was to reverse the protectionist trend. The U.S. delegation was led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Before leaving, he asked Roosevelt to undo Smoot-Hawley.
Ms. SHLAES: What Cordell Hull was saying was, please let me have some new, freer trade legislation in the U.S., then I can come with something in my hand to London, and maybe we can agree again and stop our reprisals and our tariffs.
GJELTEN: Another parallel with today, countries have again moved toward protectionist policies from the Buy America Provision in the U.S. stimulus bill to import tariffs in countries like Korea. Martin Wolf, economics commentator for the Financial Times newspaper, says during times of high unemployment, it's natural for politicians to want to protect domestic industries.
Mr. MARTIN WOLF (Economics Commentator, Financial Times): They start looking around, and they think goods coming into their country, that's not helping us. They look at domestic workers, and they think, how can I make work for these people? They find dealing with their foreign counterparts very difficult, it takes a long time, so they start to take action at home.
GJELTEN: In 1933, the temptation to protect U.S. workers was so strong that Franklin Roosevelt was unable to overturn Smoot-Hawley. Amity Shlaes, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Cordell Hull was on a ship en route to London when, to his great dismay, he learned he would have nothing new to offer on trade.
Ms. SHLAES: Hull said, here I am traveling to London in the hopes of negotiating free trade, and my hands are empty. By the end of his journey over, he was already disappointed. And yet he knew, and he was prophetic, that trade was an important part of peace.
GJELTEN: The London conference lasted about six weeks but accomplished little. Cordell Hull went home in despair. Hitler proceeded in Germany with the program he called national socialism. Other European governments concluded that the United States was ignoring the developing threats on the Continent. The Depression deepened, and within a few years, the world was at war. Could it happen again? Not likely. There's no Hitler lurking in the shadows. International organizations now bind countries together. And Martin Wolf of the Financial Times says we're all wiser.
Mr. WOLF: Though it's a long time ago, at some level, everybody does know what happened in the '30s. There is a pretty strong sense, even now, that this is not an experience we want to repeat. We know how bad it is, and it's terrifying we've got so close. We really don't want to repeat all that.
GJELTEN: Still, there is a lesson to be drawn from the London conference of 1933. King George urged nations then to work together for the good of the whole world. They chose not to, and the whole world paid the price.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.