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Every hour of every day Americans see, smell, taste, or hear goods and services traded between the United States and other nations. Trade issues are front-page news but most Americans know little about the potential impact of global economic interdependence on their jobs, standard of living, and quality of life.

In Trade and the American Dream, Susan Aaronson highlights a previously ignored dimension of the United States trade policy: public understanding. Focusing on the debate over the three mechanisms designed to govern world trade—the International Trade Organization (ITO), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the World Trade Organization (WTO)—she examines how policymakers communicate and how the public comprehends trade policy.

Since 1947 the U.S. has led global efforts to free trade, and support for freer trade policies and for an international organization to govern world trade has become dogma among policymakers, business leaders, and economists. Relaying on archival research, polling data, public documents, interviews, and Congressional testimony, Aaronson shows that the public also matters in trade policy decisions. If concerns about the implications of economic interdependence remain unaddressed, American trade policy and an international trade organization are vulnerable to a surge of populism and isolationism.

While Americans became addicted to imported cars, radios, computers, and appliances, a growing number saw the costs of freer trade policies in the nation’s slums, poverty statistics, crime rate, and unemployment figures. Concerns about freer trade policies reached a crescendo in the mid-1990s, especially as Congress debated U.S. participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Aaronson suggests ways to create greater public understanding for the GATT/WTO and international trade. If national trade policy is to play in Peoria, Americans must first understand it.

Susan Ariel Aaronson is assistant professor of history at the University of North Texas and guest scholar of economics at the Brookings Institution, where she researched and wrote much of Trade and the American Dream. Her research on public understanding of global trade policy has been featured in Time, The Wall Street Journal, and on C-SPAN and National Public Radio.

"Essential reading for anyone who needs to know how trade policy is made." --American Historical Review

"An insightful and useful study of the public policy making process." --American Studies

"Looks at the history of the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade, the aborted International Trade Organization and the World Trade Organization. Aaronson acknowledges the importance of these international agreements and organizations, but she cautions that there is a tension between global economic interdependence and U.S. democracy." --National Journal

Publication Date



University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






International trade, International economic relations, Postwar trade policy, United States


International Economics


Forewords by Senator William V. Roth Jr. and Congressman Robert T. Matsu.

Trade and the American Dream: A Social History of Postwar Trade Policy
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