In 1930’s Seattle scrap steel was a case for trade sanctions

Bruce Ramsey,
Seattle Times 1999

Trade sanctions are not the only issue of the 1990’s Lorraine McConaghy, historian of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, led me to a tale from a far different time: the sale of scrap steel to Japan in the 1930’s.

The trade was reported in the Post-Intelligencer in December 1934 when Japan makes a symbolic move of buying shells from the old arsenal at Fort Stevens on the Columbia River. The exporter assures Americans that the shells are "not being converted into war material."

War is already on people’s minds. That month, Japan renounces a treaty restricting the size of its navy. But Japan is also a longtime trading partner, and the steel shipments continue.

In July 1937, Japan invades China. The same month a Japanese group offers to landscape Seattle’s Foster Island with five acres of cherry trees. The offer is not accepted, public sympathy is with China. But the U.S. exports are five times higher to Japan.

In August 1937, Seattle’s young congressman, Warren Magnuson says, "We should permit Americans to trade with either belligerent at their own risk." It is a common view.

Left-wing groups like the Washington Commonwealth Federation campaign for an embargo on fascist Japan. Few listen. Many an American out of work gets pocket money by scrounging old scrap metal.

The year 1938 begins with the Rape of Nanjing. Hitler seizes Austria. Steel shipments continue.

On Feb. 24, 1939, 20 Chinese-American children, whose parents are mainly cannery workers, begin picketing a Japanese ship at Astoria. Japan’s consul in Portland demands that the children be in school. When the school board so orders, their mothers replace the children. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union honors the pickets and refuses to load 21 rail cars of scrap.

The ship owners turn to a federal arbitrator, who rules that the workers are in violation of their contract. The workers ignore him. On March 3, Port of Astoria commissioners vote to ban shipments of scrap to Japan.

On March 5, a picket is thrown around a Greek ship at Portland. Again the longshoremen ignore a federal arbitrator. The employers’ association threatens to close the port. On March 15, Oregon’s governor says the State Department will handle the matter and asks the pickets to stop.

They do and the ship is loaded. That day, German troops march into Prague.

On March 22, about 75 picketers stake out a Japanese ship in Seattle. Work stops. The employers’ association calls this "a pure breach of contract" On March 28, after an appeal by Seattle Mayor Arthur Langlie to load the ship and an imminent ruling by a federal arbitrator, the longshoremen load the ship.

In Astoria, employers sue the port, saying it has no authority to stop foreign trade. The Port of Seattle’s attorney agrees with them.

On June 28, 1939, deputy U.S. marshals serve more than 50 restraining orders on picketers at Pier 91. The orders are on the petition of Bogle, Bogle & Gates, attorneys for the united British Steamship Co. On July2, longshoremen begin loading a British and a Danish Freighter.

Europe is now on the edge of war. Magnuson has long since changed his mind about the sale of steel scrap and supports an embargo bill, Japan threatens to stop buying U.S. cotton if the bill passes. Roosevelt opposes the bill, and on July 20 it dies in the Senate.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invades Poland and World War II officially begins. In April 1940, Germany invades Norway and Denmark; in May, It invades Holland, Belgium, and France. Between January and august 1940, Washington ports ship 70,898 tons of scrap steel to Japan.

On Sept. 26, 1940 in response to Japanese actions in Indochina, Roosevelt declares an embargo on scrap steel effective Oct. 15.

On Oct. 11 the Post-Intelligencer reports that rails from Seattle’s street car lines are being loaded on the Hie Maru. Mayor Langlie, who is running for governor as a Republican asks Customs to stop the ship. Magnuson, a Democrat, jeers at Langlie’s negligence. The Seattle City Council asks for federal intervention. The ship sails.

Roosevelt’s embargo does not include melted scrap. Three days before Christmas, a Japanese ship loads at least 10 cars of ingots at Pier 91 – a sale from Colorado Fuel & Iron Corp. to Mitsui & Co.

It is the end. A year later America is attacked at Pearl Harbor. Schoolchildren are soon encouraged to collect scrap for the war effort.

Now there’s a case for sanctions. Not many make the cut but that one does.




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