Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts U.S.-Canadian Environmental Diplomacy in the 1920s
U.S.-Canadian Environmental Diplomacy in the 1920s

U.S.-Canadian Environmental Diplomacy in the 1920s

  • Brandon Kinney
  • July 26, 2018
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

When farmer J.H. Stroh lodged an official complaint on behalf of his orchard farm in Stevens County, Washington, in 1926, his grievance painted a grim picture: damage to crops, livestock, and even metal fencing, all of which threatened his livelihood. For Stroh and the farmers who followed suit, the culprit was the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company across the border in Trail, British Columbia, Canada. The American farmers charged that sulfur dioxide fumes being cast off from the lead and zinc smelter had drifted across the international border, bringing ruinous consequences. On August 7, 1928, the United States and Canada officially referred the case to the International Joint Commission (IJC), a council made up of members of each country, to investigate and deliver a report on the situation. In 1935, the Commission awarded damages to the Washington farmers in the amount of $350,000, and a second settlement for damages sustained after 1932 amounted to $78,000.

By deferring to the IJC, the United States relinquished control of the arbitration process and instead became party to an international case. Its participation in bilateral environmental diplomacy with Canada during the 1920s was significant for several reasons: in addition to being a leap forward in environmental conservatism, it was an about-face for American foreign policy during the Roaring Twenties.

U.S. Business Influence at Home and Abroad

In the decade before the Great Depression, the federal government was tremendously active in supporting the expansion of American companies abroad for a number of reasons. First, new technology provided new opportunities for securing resources and markets, whether it was lobbying on behalf of the Radio Corporation of America for developing radio communications in China, helping Firestone Plantations Company lease areas in Liberia for rubber, procuring oil concessions in Persia for the Sinclair Exploration Company, or fighting on behalf of the American film industry in Europe. In addition, the First World War ravaged the manufacturing capacity of much of Europe, giving American capital an outlet overseas, and American political culture took more interest in the international scene than any time prior. In many cases, policy was constructed with the influence of the private sector.

Private experts were involved in governmental affairs to a degree much larger than ever before. In 1918, the Webb-Pomerene Act exempted certain exporters from antitrust provisions, and the following year, the Edge Act did the same for bankers in order to promote expansion. Successive pro-business presidents sought out the private sector to help answer some of the largest questions in the 1920s, recruiting businessmen such as Owen D. Young and economists like Edwin Kemmerer. In 1921, industrialists, bankers, and businessmen united with academics and scholars to found the Council on Foreign Relations with the purpose of promoting public policy. In the words of George C. Herring, the Council on Foreign Relations “became a breeding ground for the ‘establishment’ that would shape U.S. foreign policy.”

The federal government helped supervise loans and investments going abroad (in part, it wanted to prevent loans going to a foreign nation’s military capabilities), and the closeness of cooperation between government and business often muddled the distinction between private and public endeavors. Foreign deals were done under the close supervision of government officials, and private citizens were recruited to unofficial roles to negotiate international agreements or even advise foreign governments. J.P. Morgan partner Thomas W. Lamont represented the Treasury Department at the Paris Peace Conference, where he had a hand in constructing the financing plan for Germany’s war reparations and lent his expertise to the development of the Dawes and Young Plans of the 1920s. Lobbying groups heavily influenced the reversal of earlier Progressive policies, leading to protective tariffs, the facilitation of investments overseas, and promoting open door policies overseas.

A Different Approach with the Environment

In contrast, environmental diplomacy during this decade with Canada showed at least tacit U.S. support for conservation efforts, which by definition promoted long-term environmental sustainability and the protection of resources over short-term business interests. Throughout the 1920s, the United States ceded its sovereignty and control over the arbitration process to numerous bilateral commissions populated in part by experts, scientists, and engineers from a foreign country. At a time when it most often acted unilaterally, deferring to intergovernmental bodies to resolve disagreements and maintain order along the shared boundaries and waterways represented a massive departure from its business-first policy.

This is not to say that the U.S. did not hold major economic and cultural influence over Canada: at least 70% of the films shown in Canada were American-made, and Canada was second only to Great Britain as a market for American goods. In 1920, trade with the U.S. represented more than one-half of Canada’s total global trade. American goods going to Canada in 1920 swelled to $904 million, dwarfing the $303 million in goods flowing in the opposite direction. By 1929, Canada was increasing its imports from the U.S. while decreasing imports from the United Kingdom. Due to a trade in metal goods such as automobiles, engines, machinery, and farm implements, exports to Canada increased by $54 million over the previous year.

Still, environmental diplomacy stood in bold contrast to the 1920s policy of exporting culture and securing economic concessions. It resulted in a number of enforceable treaties grounded in reports and scientific facts during a decade where the U.S. generally avoided binding treaties at all.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Influence on American Conservationism

Few individuals had a conservation legacy paralleling Theodore Roosevelt. When Elihu Root was named Secretary of State during Roosevelt’s second term as president in 1905, he was serving under a man who held conservation as “not only the preservation of natural resources, but the prevention of the monopoly of natural resources, so they should inhere in the people as a whole.” Roosevelt was among the first politicians to voice concerns about damage to the environment and the wasting of resources. As president, he was the first to seriously consider a policy of conservation. Among his efforts, he doubled the number of national parks to ten and declared thirteen new national forests. He proposed an ultimately unsuccessful North American conference for conservation. As Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Root was equally committed to conservation and pushed protection initiatives along shared boundary waters.

When Root entered the scene, the economic livelihoods of many fishermen were in jeopardy as catches were rapidly depleted by 1906. Canadian estimates showed that salmon hauls were down 50% in 1906 compared to 1902. Root’s conservation efforts with Great Britain (which had dominion over Canada and had to give its assent to any agreement) resulted in a signed Inland Fisheries Treaty in 1908, but the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the treaty in the face of vocal opposition from American fishermen. Regardless, the treaty’s effects were lasting: Article I called for an International Fisheries Commission to resolve issues, with one person appointed from each government. It was a clear forerunner of the International Joint Commission, established one year later under the successfully ratified Boundary Waters Treaty. Through the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt and Elihu Root, the foundation was laid for groundbreaking environmental efforts over the next few decades.

The Lasting Effect of the International Joint Commission

The International Joint Commission was established by the Boundary Waters Treaty in 1909, but it became characteristic of Canadian-American diplomacy in the 1920s. Heralded as a “permanent peace organization,” it was a bilateral organization made up of both Canadian and American members. One journalist claimed that the referral of the Trail Smelter case to the IJC “illustrate[d] the spirit of amity along the Canadian border.” The IJC advised public transboundary works projects, resolved disputes between citizens, and regularly ruled on cases concerning water pollution. For example, it approved Winnipeg’s application to use Shoal Lake as a water supply in 1914 and accepted the plan of the United States to dredge a channel of the St. Clair River in 1917.

The North American neighbors were also obligated by the treaty to request approval before beginning any work that might affect the level of a shared body of water—something that occurred frequently in the 1920s. When both countries wanted to improve navigation along the St. Lawrence Waterway in 1920, they appealed to the IJC. A joint engineering board offered its recommendations, and after multiple stops and starts, a proposed treaty failing in the Senate, the Great Depression, and World War II, the Commission’s recommendations were finally applied in 1952.

In a second example, in 1927, Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew alerted Canada to concerns he had over the construction of dikes and dams on the Roseau River and its tributaries. Grew feared that construction could affect water levels and possibly flood parts of Minnesota. Canada agreed to temporarily suspend construction until the IJC could report on the situation, and the Commission eventually cleared the projects to move forward. By the mid-1920s, the IJC had extended its influence over concerns of air pollution as well. Though the process of arbitrating disputes could be painfully slow and were often subdued by resistance over local and national interests, the U.S. respected and deferred to the recommendations of the IJC, even when it went against the short-term interests of its citizens.

The International Fisheries Commission and Beyond

In 1923, Canada and the United States signed and ratified the North Pacific Halibut Treaty. In addition to being a landmark example of bilateral cooperation on environmental conservation, it was the first treaty signed by Canada on its own (without Great Britain affixing its ceremonial signature). Designed to protect Pacific halibut fisheries, it established closed seasons for conservation purposes as well as an International Fisheries Commission (IFC), which shared its name with the proposed commission of the failed treaty in 1908. The new IFC employed experts and scientists tasked to investigate and make recommendations on preservation efforts each country should take. Five years after the convention was signed, a fact-finding investigation by the IFC warned that the fisheries were still “in very serious condition.” Catches in the mid-1920s were reduced to 16% of the abundance caught in 1906 despite (and due in no small part to) an increase in the equipment used for fishing. This report prompted renewed conservation talks. Out of the diplomatic and political quagmire that followed, a second convention based heavily on the recommendations of the IFC was signed in May 1930, with ratifications being exchanged a year later.

The IFC’s dire report reintroduced a separate, but not unrelated, concern over the condition of sockeye salmon of the Fraser River system. In 1922, Warren G. Harding had been given Senate approval to negotiate for the “protection from unnecessary destruction [and] wasteful practices,” but talks stalled until after the IFC’s findings in the Pacific. Initial negotiations ran into trouble after Washington State made the business concerns of its constituency known, but these apprehensions were largely allayed when the treaty proposed that two of the three American commissioners had to “be at all times residents and citizens of the State of Washington.” A convention between the United States and Canada was eventually signed in 1930, but with the Great Depression bearing down on the world, it was not ratified until 1936 and did not go into effect until the following year. The treaty established the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission (IPSFC), which was empowered to limit or prohibit the taking of salmon in the water it covers.

The legacy of Theodore Roosevelt’s initiatives and the environmental diplomacy of the 1920s continue to the present day. As recently as July 2018, the International Joint Commission was issuing a report to help prevent pollution in the Great Lakes. The Pacific Salmon Commission, a part of the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission, recommended a new agreement in May 2008, which went into effect starting in 2009 and expires at the end of 2018. Writing at the onset of the 1920s, Manton Wyvell was heartened by the developments he saw with the unprecedented bilateral conservation efforts represented by the International Joint Commission. Just two years after the Treaty of Versailles ended European bloodletting, Wyvell—who served as counsel to the IJC on behalf of the United States—described the commission as a way of enlarging the “machinery for peace,” which for him was the “highest duty of statesmanship.”