Cordell Hull Institute: Role of the Institute
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Who was Cordell Hull?

The Institute honors the vision, perseverance and leadership of Cordell Hull (1871-1955) in pursuing the idea of an international economic order as a basis for peace and prosperity in the world. This he did first in the Congress of the United States, as a Representative and Senator from Tennessee, then as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of State from 1933 through 1944.

Although his name is usually associated with the establishment of the United Nations, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945, Cordell Hull’s chief legacy was in another field altogether. Hull was instrumental in achieving the two most fundamental reforms of U.S. trade policy:

  • first, the adoption of unconditional most-favored-nation (i.e. “equal”) treatment in international trade, which Congress enacted in the Tariff Act of 1922
  • second, by persuading Congress in the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934 to abandon the “autonomous tariff” and delegate to the President the setting of tariffs and making of trade policy.

During and after World War I, Hull was influential in the U.S. House of Representatives where, as a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, he persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to press internationally for the establishment of a multilateral trade regime. Alas, governments in Europe resisted the idea, but they could not restore the pre-1914 système des traités based on unconditional MFN treatment, economic nationalism prevailed and the further disintegration of the world economy ensued.

On becoming Secretary of State in 1933, Hull's Reciprocal Trade Agreements Program, in the wake of the worldwide havoc and misery wrought by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, was a key factor in rebuilding international commerce.

Finally, during World War II, Hull inspired planning for the rules-based multilateral trading system that eventually came into being in 1948 under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

To this day, Cordell Hull’s legacy continues with the World Trade Organization, which administers the substantially amended GATT and the additional agreements reached in the Uruguay Round negotiations of 1986-94 on maintaining, developing and extending the multilateral trading system.

Filling a Gap in the Literature

For a further brief discussion of the "father of the multilateral trading system", see Cordell Hull's Role in the Evolution of the International Economic Order, a note in the Institute's online series, Trade Policy Analyses.

For a recent study, see Michael A. Butler, Cautious Visionary: Cordell Hull and Trade Reform, 1933-1937 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1998).

"The American love affair with Franklin Roosevelt and World War II will assure the proliferation of books on the man and the event. But Michael Butler has reminded us that there are issues of importance beyond war and peace and that to understand the diplomacy of the Roosevelt Administration we have to look beyond FDR himself.

"Cautious Visionary is a revealing story of how Secretary of State Cordell Hull navigated the treacherous waters of domestic politics and bureaucratic turf battles to build the foundation for the international economic order that has been the guiding star of American policy to this day. It surpasses every other study in its understanding of Hull and the process by which policy is created."

— JONATHAN G. UTLEY, diplomatic historian,
on Michael A. Butler, Cautious Visionary: Cordell Hull
and Trade Reform, 1933-1937

For more on Cordell Hull’s legacy, look in a public or academic library for the following out-of-print volumes:

  • Harold B. Hinton, Cordell Hull: a Biography (New York: Doubleday Doran, 1942)
  • Cordell Hull, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, two volumes (New York: Macmillan Company, 1948; and London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1948)
  • Julius W. Pratt, Cordell Hull: 1933-1944, two volumes in the series on American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy (New York: Cooper Square, 1962).



Role of the Institute
Who was Cordell Hull?
Who's Behind the Institute?
  • Board of Directors
  • Building on a Track Record
  • The WTO System

    Cordell Hull testifying on Capitol Hill in January 1940 on the extension of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Program (Courtesy National Archives).

    Cordell Hull Foundation

    Others that mark Cordell Hull's legacy are the Cordell Hull Foundation for International Education, located in New York where it sponsors teacher exchange programs; and the Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum in Byrdstown, Tennessee (next to the log cabin in which he was born). The Cordell Hull Institute is not affiliated with either.

    Cartoon from Punch, London, 28 January 1860, depicting Richard Cobden, the British champion of free trade, with his "new pupil" Emperor Napoleon III (learning to spell "free") at the time the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty between Britain and France was being negotiated. The treaty became the basis for the système des traités, the system of bilateral treaties of friendship, commerce and navigation based on most-favored-nation treatment that prevailed for half a century before World War I.