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In The Battle of Bretton Woods, Benn Steil Shows How the U.S. Established a New World Order in 1944

February 25, 2013

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As World War II drew to a close, representatives from forty-four nations convened in the New Hampshire town of Bretton Woods to design a stable global monetary system. Leading the discussions were John Maynard Keynes, the great economist who was there to find a place for the fading British Empire, and Harry Dexter White, a senior U.S. Treasury official. By the end of the conference, White had outmaneuvered Keynes to establish a global financial framework with the U.S. dollar firmly at its core. How did a little-known American bureaucrat sideline one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, and how did this determine the course of the postwar world?

The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order tells the story of the intertwining lives and events surrounding that historic conference. In a book the Financial Times calls "a triumph of economic and diplomatic history," author Benn Steil, CFR senior fellow and director of international economics, challenges the misconception that the conference was an amiable collaboration. He reveals that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Treasury had an ambitious geopolitical agenda that sought to use the conference as a means to eliminate Great Britain as a rival.

Steil also offers a portrait of the complex and controversial White, revealing the motives behind White's clandestine communications with Soviet intelligence officials—to whom he was arguably more important than the famous early Cold War spy Alger Hiss. "Everything is here: political chicanery, bureaucratic skulduggery, espionage, hard economic detail and the acid humour of men making history under pressure," writes Tony Barber, reviewer for the FT.

With calls for a new Bretton Woods following the financial crisis of 2008 and escalating currency wars, the book also offers valuable, practical lessons for policymakers today.

PRAISE FOR THE BATTLE OF BRETTON WOODS:

"A riveting, exceptionally well-written account of the birth of the postwar economic order, and the roles of two determined men who were competing to define it. The Battle of Bretton Woods is a must-read work of economic and diplomatic history with great relevance to today."
—Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve

"This is a fascinating study of monetary affairs and the politics of international finance, all tied up in the history of the Bretton Woods system and its ultimate demise. The book is full of lessons that are relevant today in a world that still resists international monetary reform."
—Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve

"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."
―Tony Barber, Financial Times

"A vivid, highly informed portrayal of the personalities, politics and policies dominating 'the most important international gathering since the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.'"
Kirkus Reviews

"Benn Steil has written a wonderfully rich and vivid account of the making of the postwar economic order. The Battle of Bretton Woods tells the fascinating story of the contest between the United States and Britain, led by the outsized personalities of Harry Dexter White and John Maynard Keynes, to reconcile their competing visions and interests."
—Liaquat Ahamed, author of Lords of Finance

"Benn Steil has written a fascinating book with far-reaching consequences. In seeing the creation of the postwar economic system through the prism of the harsh interaction between Keynes and White, he makes complicated financial issues easy to fathom. Above all, Steil conclusively establishes the truth of an astonishing paradox--that White, the architect of the global capitalist financial architecture, was also a secret agent of the Soviet Union!"
—Andrew Roberts, author of The Storm of War

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.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.