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A History Of Trade Wars


Some countries have threatened to retaliate for President Trump's announced tariffs this week on imported steel and aluminum. Well, trade wars have been going on pretty much since there's been trade. So we thought we'd get a brief history of them. And who better to turn to than our friend A.J. Jacobs, a man who once read the entire "Encyclopedia Britannica" to improve his smarts and who knows just a little bit about so many things? Hey, A.J.

A.J. JACOBS: Hey, Don.

GONYEA: OK, A.J., let's start with this - your history of trade wars goes all the way back to the year 1689. That's when British King William of Orange put steep tariffs on French wine. Tell us about it.

JACOBS: He wanted to encourage the British to drink their own booze - make and drink. It was not a great idea because without wine, Britain turned to the hard stuff - gin. So for the next 50 years, England was in the grip of the so-called gin craze. And newspapers wrote about the surge in crime and death and unemployment. Pundits were especially upset because women started drinking gin and allegedly neglecting their kids. And most bizarrely - this I love - there were reports of women who were so gin-soaked they spontaneously combusted - just exploded.

GONYEA: (Laughter) Really?

JACOBS: Now, this was - yeah, that - I mean, it was fake news obviously, but it was...


JACOBS: ...A powerful image - the women of England literally going up in flames.

GONYEA: Talk about unintended consequences, I guess.

JACOBS: There you go.

GONYEA: So now the Boston Tea Party is where we'll go next. It, too, was kind of a trade war, right?

JACOBS: Yes. Britain put trade restrictions and taxes on tea being shipped to the colonies. And this led to everyone's favorite act of cultural appropriation and vandalism, the Boston Tea Party. But it also inspired a lesser-known tea party - the Edenton Tea Party in North Carolina. And what's remarkable about the Edenton Tea Party is that it was all women - possibly the first women-driven political protest in U.S. history.

GONYEA: And I guess we can keep beating up on the British for just a moment here.

JACOBS: (Laughter) Why not?

GONYEA: The Brits were also behind the Opium Wars.

JACOBS: Yes. This was a trade war that turned into a real war. In the 1800s, the Brits were importing a lot of tea from China, and they didn't like the trade deficit, so they started to export opium to China, which caused an opium epidemic in China. China put a tariff on the opium and then banned it altogether. Well, this led to the very bloody Opium Wars, which actually began with sort of a version of the Boston Tea Party - a Chinese version. The Chinese seized and destroyed 1,000 tons of British opium, which is not easy.

GONYEA: All right. Let's finish up. I'm going to tee this one up for you with three words - Castro, Cuba, cigars.

JACOBS: There you go. JFK bought 1,200 Cuban cigars for personal use the day before he signed the trade embargo with Cuba. So we'll see if Trump buys eight tons of Chinese steel for personal use before the tariffs go into effect. And if I could just add a lesser-known addendum to the cigar story, after the embargo, JFK's press secretary Pierre Salinger visited the Soviet Union, and Khrushchev gave him 250 Cuban cigars, which Salinger smuggled through customs.

JFK found out about it, flipped out, made Salinger go back, surrender the cigars to customs. Salinger claimed years later, he was at the airport, and one of the customs guys was smoking his Cuban cigar. And he claimed they, quote, "destroyed his cigars one by one."

GONYEA: All right, A.J., may there be a Cuban cigar in your near future.

JACOBS: Thank you.

GONYEA: A.J. Jacobs is the author of, most recently, "It's All Relative: Adventures Up And Down The World's Family Tree." A.J., thanks for speaking with us.

JACOBS: Thank you, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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