Bretton Woods: While WWII Raged in 1944, 44 Delegations Met to Create a World Currency, Bank, and Trade Organization. They Fell Short of That Goal, but What Will Happen This Time?

By Scaliger, Charles | The New American, December 22, 2008 | Go to article overview

Bretton Woods: While WWII Raged in 1944, 44 Delegations Met to Create a World Currency, Bank, and Trade Organization. They Fell Short of That Goal, but What Will Happen This Time?


Scaliger, Charles, The New American


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Even by the rarefied standards of wealthy New Englanders, the Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, is a luxurious retreat. Built in 1902 by 250 skilled artisans for the then-princely sum of $1.7 million, the sprawling Spanish Renaissance-style resort, nestled in the shadow of Mount Washington, the northeast's highest peak, has long been a favorite of celebrities and presidents. But even the man who built it, industrialist Joseph Stickney, could not have foreseen the role his creation would one day play in reshaping world history.

On July 1, 1944, delegations from 44 countries gathered from across the globe at the Mount Washington Hotel to convene what was formally styled the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, but which would be remembered popularly as Bretton Woods. The fruit of the labors of two men in particular, American Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White and British economist John Maynard Keynes, the Bretton Woods conference, as much as any of the events in that momentous year, was to lay the foundation for a new international order after the Second World War, one that persists to this day.

The Bretton Woods conference attracted less interest than might have otherwise been the case, given the tenor of the times. The momentous Battle of Normandy had taken place less than a month earlier, while on the eastern front, the Red Army was poised to wrest Minsk from the Germans. In Southeast Asia, the Battle of Imphal was raging, and in American sports, a black athlete named Jackie Robinson, later to become a baseball star, was arrested on July 6 and later court-martialed for refusing to sit at the back of an army bus.

The Players

Against such a backdrop, the Bretton Woods gathering, with its focus on arid, little-understood economic and financial topics, was of little interest to much of the American public. Those journalists assigned to cover the conference found the participants less than forthcoming about much of what went on behind closed doors in the Mount Washington Hotel.

For those in the know, however, the event was one of the most significant gatherings of international power elites the world had ever seen. Heading the American delegation was Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, although he played a less significant role in the conference than his assistant, economic wunderkind Harry Dexter White. It had been White who, following a teaching stint at Lawrence University in central Wisconsin, had come to Washington in the mid-1930s and ended up in charge of the Treasury's Division of Economic Research. As a result of working to set up an Inter-American Bank to stabilize currency values, White had conceived of an idea for a global entity to regulate monetary values and protect individual currencies from failing.

Also prominent in the American delegation was Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Later to become Truman's Secretary of State, Acheson was involved in the creation of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan, and is regarded as the man most responsible for persuading President Truman to intervene in the Korean War. He also became known in some circles as something of a communist sympathizer: he was blamed for encouraging the Maoist takeover of China, and he expended a great deal of energy defending accused communist spy Alger Hiss and many communists and communist sympathizers fingered by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

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Mariner Eccles, former Utah banker-turned-chairman of the Federal Reserve, was also part of the American delegation, as was Fred Vinson, one time-congressman and then-Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization, who later became President Truman's Treasury Secretary.

Heading the British delegation was John Maynard Keynes, the eminence grise of British economics and the only economist (if Karl Marx is excepted) whose surname is affixed to a major system of economic thought. …

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