The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order

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When turmoil strikes world monetary and financial markets, leaders invariably call for 'a new Bretton Woods' to prevent catastrophic economic disorder and defuse political conflict. The name of the remote New Hampshire town where representatives of forty-four nations gathered in July 1944, in the midst of the century's second great war, has become shorthand for enlightened globalization. The actual story surrounding the historic Bretton Woods accords, however, is full of startling drama, intrigue, and rivalry, ...

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The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order

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When turmoil strikes world monetary and financial markets, leaders invariably call for 'a new Bretton Woods' to prevent catastrophic economic disorder and defuse political conflict. The name of the remote New Hampshire town where representatives of forty-four nations gathered in July 1944, in the midst of the century's second great war, has become shorthand for enlightened globalization. The actual story surrounding the historic Bretton Woods accords, however, is full of startling drama, intrigue, and rivalry, which are vividly brought to life in Benn Steil's epic account.

Upending the conventional wisdom that Bretton Woods was the product of an amiable Anglo-American collaboration, Steil shows that it was in reality part of a much more ambitious geopolitical agenda hatched within President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Treasury and aimed at eliminating Britain as an economic and political rival. At the heart of the drama were the antipodal characters of John Maynard Keynes, the renowned and revolutionary British economist, and Harry Dexter White, the dogged, self-made American technocrat. Bringing to bear new and striking archival evidence, Steil offers the most compelling portrait yet of the complex and controversial figure of White--the architect of the dollar's privileged place in the Bretton Woods monetary system, who also, very privately, admired Soviet economic planning and engaged in clandestine communications with Soviet intelligence officials and agents over many years.

A remarkably deft work of storytelling that reveals how the blueprint for the postwar economic order was actually drawn, The Battle of Bretton Woods is destined to become a classic of economic and political history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The Battle of Bretton Woods is a remarkable work that embraces many disciplines: history, economic history, political economy and international relations. Benn Steil is able to merge the different perspectives from all these disciplines, taking the reader into both the political battle and the economic thinking that took place at Bretton Woods."--Anna Missiaia, Financial History Review
The New York Times - Fred Andrews
The Battle of Bretton Woods should become the gold standard on its topic. The details are addictive.
Financial Times - Tony Barber
Steil's book, engaging and entertaining, perceptive and instructive, is a triumph of economic and diplomatic history. Everything is here: political chicanery, bureaucratic skulduggery, espionage, hard economic detail and the acid humour of men making history under pressure.
Marginal Revolution - Tyler Cowen
This is an excellent book. . . . [It] also contains some explosive revelations about White's work as a Soviet spy, very well documented I might add.
New York Times - Fred Andrews
The Battle of Bretton Woods should become the gold standard on its topic. The details are addictive.
Big Think - Daniel Altman
If you think economics and finance are dry subjects at best, Steil's book offers a refreshing surprise. It's a political thriller in which the protagonists, one whom you think you know and one whom you probably don't, are much more intriguing (in both senses of the word) than they first appear.
Wall Street Journal - James Grant
A superb history. Mr. Steil . . . is a talented storyteller. - Neil Irwin
[I]n a new book explaining what really happened at Bretton Woods, Benn Steil shows that what happened in the mountains of New Hampshire that summer is not quite the story we have been told.
CNBC - Larry Kudlow
This is a fantastic book. Gold and money, two of my favorite topics. It's also brilliantly insightful history, and a gripping spy thriller to boot.
Globe & Mail - Kevin Carmichael
[Benn Steil's] new book The Battle of Bretton Woods is perhaps the most accessible study yet of a key moment in world economic history that nonetheless is poorly understood.
Standpoint Magazine - Geoffrey Owen
The clash between Keynes and White forms a central theme in Benn Steil's absorbing book, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the not-so-special relationship between the US and Britain.
USA Today - John M. Barry
[F]ascinating. . . . Steil . . . spins the tale of how U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, allowed White, a little-known economist who wasn't even on the U.S. Treasury's regular payroll, to dominate the department's monetary and trade policies beginning in the 1930s.
Seeking Alpha - John M. Mason
[A] well-written, fascinating history of the Bretton Woods conference on the international monetary system in July 1941. The book is deep, well researched, and hard to put down. Benn Steil . . . has produced a book that will help us to understand history, but also one we can use to contrast with the current international economic situation. . . . This is a very good book.
Sunday Times - Irwin Stelzer
I do hope the title of this riveting read does not put off readers who mistake Benn Steil's latest work for an arcane discussion of exchange rates, the gold standard and the stuff of debates in commons rooms. This book is more than that, much more. It is a tale of a battle of titans and of a war between nations, each intent on establishing the economic architecture that would ensure its postwar economic domination of world finance.
Financial News - Mike Foster
[V]ivid personality portraits and a lively writing style.
Tulsa World - Glenn C. Altschuler
[F]ascinating. . . . [R]iveting. . . . The Battle of Bretton Woods is chock-full of provocative and timely observations. - John Tamny
President Obama would be wise to take it to Martha's Vineyard this summer.
Economia - Andrew Sawers
Benn Steil has just completed a fascinating book that looks at what really happened in the small New Hampshire town of Bretton Woods in 1944. Perhaps most surprising is that the real story that emerges isn't a tale of how 44 countries came together to rebuild the world. And the real story has different lessons for the 21st century than ambitious idealists might expect.
Milken Institute Review - Peter Passell
[H]ypnotically readable . . .
Harriman Intelligence blog - Barbara Rockefeller
[A] splendid book. . . . If you want to understand the gold standard, the always-doomed dollar standard, why the IMF is in Washington, how the US deliberately humiliated Britain over debt before, during and after WWII as part of a very real currency war (but also out of genuine anti-colonial sentiment that the British never understood), this is the book for you. . . . Every year publishers come out with a couple of purportedly serious books on FX, some by VIPs, and I read them all. This is the only one since Paul Volcker's Changing Fortunes in 1979 that is worth the price. It is non-partisan, well-written, thorough, and chock-full of the historical perspective that can so easily and so often get lost in the hurly-burly of the daily market.
Total Politics - Keith Simpson MP
[A] provocative, lively and perceptive book that pulls together economics, politics, diplomacy and history and relates it to our current crisis.
Bloomberg News - Sam Knight
In his masterful account, The Battle of Bretton Woods, Steil situates the conference firmly in the tense, heightened atmosphere of the final months of World War II. . . . Steil's book comes alive in his description of [Keynes' and White's] contrasting experiences at the conference.
Financial Analysts Journal
This thorough, fascinating account of the international conference that culminated in the 1944 agreement to maintain stable exchange rates skillfully places it in its economic and geopolitical context. . . . Steil not only recounts the intricacies of the deal making but also details the economic dimensions of Bretton Woods. . . . With the help of 10 research assistants, Steil has tirelessly tracked down minute details of the Bretton Woods story and its epilogue. . . . [Steil] offers excellent insight into the tribulations of the key players. He also tells the interesting tale of how, if not for the well-founded suspicions regarding Harry Dexter White's cooperation with Communist spies, the tradition of an American heading the World Bank and a European heading the IMF would have been reversed.
Literary Review - Kathleen Burk
[T]hought provoking and well written.
Tribune Magazine - Keith Richmond
Steil understands the economics at the heart of the tortuous negotiations, but he is also very good at explaining the politics, the power and the passions—the professional and personal rivalries—of the people at the negotiating table. He turns what could have been a dry account of economic accords into a thrilling story of ambition, drama, and intrigue.
Enlightened Economist - Diane Coyle
[A] very well-written history, with lively personalities, [which] also serves as a great overview of the analytical issues in international monetary arrangements.
Financial Mail - Richard Steyn
Absorbing . . . as an account of history-making at the highest level, this entertaining, informative, gossipy and, for the lay reader, often challenging book provides an excellent read.
Business Spotlight - Ian McMaster
[A]n amazing true story . . . highly entertaining.
Financial World - Andrew Hilton
[A] masterful (and readable) account of American realpolitik and British delusion.
Kirkus Reviews
The director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations revisits the 1944 conference that created "the new global monetary architecture" for the postwar world. As the American Army entered Rome and the Russians drove the Nazis out of Minsk, delegates from 44 Allied nations gathered in Bretton Woods, N.H., to hammer out the ground rules for international economic equilibrium following the defeat of the Axis powers. The American delegation, led by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and his right-hand man for international affairs, Harry Dexter White, pressed for a "New Deal for a new world," looking to strengthen government control of monetary policy and central banking and to install the dollar as the "world's sole surrogate for gold." The war-shattered British, mindful of their historic prerogatives, opposed the White plan, but their only leverage lay in the intellectual brilliance of John Maynard Keynes, the 20th century's most influential economist, and the possibility that they might simply walk away and, thereby, cripple any agreement. Steil (co-author, Money, Markets, and Sovereignty, 2009, etc.) sets the stage for this contest between the cuttingly eloquent Keynes and the acerbic, technocratic White--neither man tailored for diplomacy--with especially deft potted biographies of each and a look at the infighting between the U.S. State and Treasury departments in the lead-up to the conference. For general readers, the author masterfully translates the arcana of competing theories of monetary policy, and a final chapter explains how, while some of the institutions created by Bretton Woods endure--the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund--many of the conference's assumptions were swiftly overtaken by the Marshall Plan. Throughout Steil's sharp discussion runs the intriguing subplot of White's career-long, secret relationship with Soviet intelligence. A vivid, highly informed portrayal of the personalities, politics and policies dominating "the most important international gathering since the Paris Peace Conference of 1919."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691162379
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/23/2014
  • Edition description: New in Paper
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 145,539
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Benn Steil is senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. His previous book, "Money, Markets, and Sovereignty", was awarded the 2010 Hayek Book Prize.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Chapter 1: Introduction 1
Chapter 2: The World Comes to the White Mountains 9
Chapter 3: The Improbable Rise of Harry White 17
Chapter 4: Maynard Keynes and the Monetary Menace 61
Chapter 5: "The Most Unsordid Act" 99
Chapter 6: The Best-Laid Plans of White and Keynes 125
Chapter 7: Whitewash 155
Chapter 8: History Is Made 201
Chapter 9: Begging Like Fala 251
Chapter 10: Out with the Old Order, In with the New 293
Chapter 11: Epilogue 330
Appendix 1: Harry Dexter White Manuscript Photos 349
Appendix 2: Statement of Harry S. Truman on Harry Dexter White, 1953 351
Cast of Characters 355
Notes 371
References 407
Index 427
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2014

    History with details

    If you're interested in history or economics, this book is fun to read. There are details about background conversations and activities at the Bretton Woods conference. I am not an economist and don't understand much beyond the basics, but the author explained things very well. It's a big book, but the writing is so tight that it moves along nicely.

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