Politics and War > Prompt Action in a Great Crisis
NOT SINCE THE NAPOLEONIC WARS, President Seth Low told an emergency meeting of the Chamber, had international commerce been so “badly deranged” as in the current predicament. It was just past noon on August 13, 1914. “We know something,” he continued, “of the effect upon a steamship of collision with an iceberg. With the outbreak of war in Europe between the great Powers, the international commerce of the world was halted as suddenly as a ship by such a collision.”
The United States, and its business elite, had immediate tasks: increasing maritime insurance to cover wartime risks, creating a merchant marine. And there were opportunities; if the Napoleonic Wars were any guide, a neutral nation stood to gain nicely from its position outside the fray. For the members, the war also brought personal tensions. “This Chamber,” said Low, “like our country, is happily, sincerely the friend of every one of the nations that are at war. The membership of the Chamber is representative of them all. Let every man, therefore, as he speaks, set a guard upon his lips, lest, even by inadvertence, he should give pain to a brother member.”
“Prompt Action in a Great Crisis” was the headline over the lead article in August’s Monthly Bulletin. Committees were convening. Legislation was a-drafting. Bulletins went by cable to offices and embassies around the world. But, of all the action prompted by the Great War, none spoke of such disjuncture as the Chamber’s unanimous decision to cancel its annual banquet. “The Chamber has borne and will bear to the utmost its share of the world’s heavy burden,” a letter to the members read, “but it can not make merry when so many are sad.” The funds were reallocated from the banquet committee to the Red Cross.
By 1917, Seth Low’s comparison to the Napoleonic Wars had proven apt but inadequate. As a noncombatant, the United States was reaping commercial benefits; but there was no precedent for the scale of its enrichment. Superlatives hardly sufficed to describe fiscal year 1916-1917, a period during which foreign commerce approached eight trillion dollars, and internal trade topped $45 billion. Railroads reported “phenomenal incomes.” Extractive industries found themselves with “extraordinary purchasing power.” Profits for steel and iron manufacturers “were simply fabulous.”
Products of the “farm and forest” were devoured by the European nations until the American trade surplus “attained the phenomenal figure” of more than $3 billion dollars. As goods shipped out, incoming gold stacked high in the vaults beneath Lower Manhattan, ensuring that New York would replace the old capitals as the center of world finance. City bankers smashed their own previous records year after year. The 1917 returns were a third again as high as those for 1916, which had been twice as much as had been cleared in 1908. It was, in the Chamber’s words, “one of the most remarkable developments in the international trade and finance of the world.”
On April 6, 1917, the day the United States declared war on Germany and the Central Powers, the Chamber of Commerce unanimously passed a statement on the Russian Revolution. With millions in outstanding loans already owed by Moscow, the merchants heralded the liberal revolutionaries as a stabilizing force in a staggered polity, celebrating the fact that the Russian people had “thrown off that autocracy by which they ha[d] been governed, to adopt a new and democratic form of Government.” The new regime, proclaimed the Chamber, “promises so much for the liberation of the Russian people and for their general economic welfare, not only in their own country, but also in the further development of the business relations between the Russian people and the people of this country …”
Once the nation entered the fighting, the Chamber’s members felt the need to justify their profits with a demonstration of patriotism. In January 1918, the members were asked to tally the members of their families and firms who were on active duty. Few could match the House of Morgan, which listed four family members and 160 employees in the various branches of the service, as well as charity organizations.