Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Battle of Bretton Woods

The Battle of Bretton WoodsThe Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil, 348 pages

In July of 1944, even as American and British troops fought side-by-side through the hedgerows of Normandy, representatives of the two governments squared off against each other in a resort hotel overlooking the small town of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.  They were gathered there, along with over 700 delegates from 42 other nations, to begin to construct a postwar international economic system.   Attention was centered on Lord John Maynard Keynes, the most famous economist in the world and the head of the British delegation.  As a result of the war the United Kingdom was "mortgaged to America", a situation their delegation was eager to mitigate or escape.  The US delegation, meanwhile, saw the British Empire as a potential postwar rival, and would pursue an economic strategy designed to promote its dismemberment and assure postwar American dominance.  The architect of this American strategy was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White, who organized and manipulated the conference, and who was also, unbeknownst to both his American and British peers, a Soviet agent.

Although the story of what happened at Bretton Woods - how it both succeeded and failed - is doubtlessly an important one, it mostly takes the form of interminable committee meetings and memoranda exchanges in which the most abstruse minutiae of international finance are discussed.  Somehow, Steil finds enough interest in the characters and enough humor in the proceedings to keep the reader awake despite these handicaps.

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