The Battle of Bretton Woods

John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Read an excerpt of The Battle of Bretton Woods.

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.

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Reviews and Endorsements

Winner of the 2013 Spear's Book Award in Financial History

Third prize in the Council on Foreign Relations' 2014 Arthur Ross Book Award

Shortlisted for the 2014 Lionel Gelber Prize

One of The Motley Fool's 10 Great Books on Economic History

2014 Axiom Business Book Awards Bronze Medal in Economics

Bloomberg News top pick of CEOs, policymakers, and economists for Best Book of 2013

Named one of the Financial Times' Books of the Year for 2013

Named one of Bloomberg News' Top Business Books of 2013

One of Kirkus Review's Best Nonfiction Books of 2013

One of China Business News' Financial Books of the Year for 2013

Should become the gold standard on its topic. The details are addictive.

New York Times

A superb history. Mr. Steil . . . is a talented storyteller.

Wall Street Journal

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.

Financial Times

Steil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, understands the economic issues at stake and has done meticulous research on the history. Every good story that has ever been told about the major actors involved and the happening itself is in his book, and a few more besides. For those who come fresh to the subject, and even for those who know most of it, it is an excellent and revealing account.

Robert Skidelsky, New York Review of Books

An object lesson in how to make economic history at once entertaining and instructive.

Financial Times, 2013 Books of the Year Reading Guide

This masterful account dismantles the idyllic picture of the 1944 Bretton Woods international economic conference, situating it firmly in the tense atmosphere of the final months of World War II.

Laurie Muchnick, Bloomberg Top Business Books of 2013

The publishing event of the season.

Tom Keene, Bloomberg Radio

A superb, carefully researched history that enables readers to view today and tomorrow from the vantage point of the past. Steil's story weaves together geopolitics and geoeconomics, money and currencies, trade and growth—all in the context of the institutions that shape policy choices and the people who struggle to make them. He even includes spies! Steil's closing chapter draws connections between past monetary orders and debates about new ones.

Robert B. Zoellick, former president of the World Bank Group

Benn Steil, a distinguished American economist and writer, has gone behind the myths of Bretton Woods and written a provocative, lively and perceptive book that pulls together economics, politics, diplomacy and history and relates it to our current crisis. . . . This book should be read by George Osborne, Ed Balls, the new governor of the Bank of England and Andrew Tyrie, the grand inquisitor of the [UK] Treasury select committee.

Keith Simpson, Total Politics

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.

Larry Kudlow, CNBC

[T]he 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.'

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

President Obama would be wise to take it to Martha's Vineyard this summer.

John Tamny, Forbes

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.

Sam Knight, Bloomberg Businessweek

Benn Steil not only produces the finest account of the conference that established the Pax Americana economic system after World War II, he does it with the skill of a fine novelist.

Jon Talton, Seattle Times

The Battle of Bretton Woods sets forth in smooth prose and concise detail an authoritative narrative of the who-what-when-why of the great monetary conference of some 70 years ago. It is jam-packed with heady discussions . . . If we're fortunate, Benn Steil will deliver a follow-up.

Kevin R. Kosar, Weekly Standard

[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.

Kevin Carmichael, Globe & Mail

[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.

John M. Barry, USA Today

[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.

John M. Mason, Seeking Alpha

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.

Irwin Stelzer, Sunday Times

[T]hought provoking and well written.

Kathleen Burk, Literary Review

Benn Steil shows that what happened in the mountains of New Hampshire that summer [of 1944] is not quite the story we have been told.

Neil Irwin,

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.

Keith Richmond, Tribune Magazine


. . . Ashok Rao, Vox

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. . . . Steil has tirelessly tracked down minute details of the Bretton Woods story and its epilogue [and] 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.

Financial Analysts Journal

[A] masterful (and readable) account of American realpolitik and British delusion.

Andrew Hilton, Financial World

Benn Steil's book combines an economic history with a portrayal of the characters involved in the epoch-defining talks at Bretton Woods . . . entertaining the reader with vivid personality portraits and a lively writing style.

Mike Foster, Dow Jones' Financial News

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.

Andrew Sawers, Economia

[H]ypnotically readable

Peter Passell, Milken Institute Review

[F]ascinating . . . [an] often riveting account of these two remarkable men [Keynes and White] and their attempt to design a stable global monetary system, an International Monetary Fund and a World Bank.

Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World

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.

Geoffrey Owen, Standpoint Magazine

[A] well-documented, engaging account of the Bretton Woods Conference. . . . The material on Harry Dexter White is fascinating . . . an essential reference [with] much to teach economic historians.

Joshua Hausman, Journal of Economic History

The Battle of Bretton Woods is a remarkable work that embraces many disciplines: 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 . . .

Anna Missiaia, Financial History Review

My visit helped place Bretton Woods in the real world. Steil's book does much the same thing. Individual persons are at the center of the story, which also comes loaded with tales of international intrigue, spycraft, and famous personalities. It's not just for history buffs and economics geeks.

Douglas French, Foundation for Economic Education

Benn Steil [of the] Council on Foreign Relations has written a fascinating book on the two main architects behind the Bretton Woods system . . . Steil's book is an outstanding piece of political science research . . . extremely well written and well documented . . . It is strongly recommended.

Morten Balling, SUERF

[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.

Barbara Rockefeller, Harriman Intelligence

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.

Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

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.

Daniel Altman, Big Think

[A] very well-written history, with lively personalities [which] also serves as a great overview of the analytical issues in international monetary arrangements.

Diane Coyle, The Enlightened Economist

[T]his thought-provoking book is about much more than the 1944 conference that established the architecture of the postwar international monetary system, leading to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Foreign Affairs

A gripping account . . . John Le Carre meets international monetary history: this is clearly a different kind of page-turner.

Jayati Ghosh, Economic & Political Weekly

Seduced by Keynes's rhetorical repudiation both of the 'austerity' implied by [promptly paying off Britain's war debts] and the 'temptation' of accepting a loan, the British shipped Keynes to Washington . . . to seek 'justice', to wit, the third option. In his recent history of the period, Benn Steil deftly paints what ensued.

Patrick Honohan, The Irish Times

Steil breathes new life and controversy into a familiar story by emphasizing the intellectual and political clash between John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White.

James McAllister, H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable

Steil rarely puts a foot wrong. His analysis of policies and personalities . . . reflects a sophisticated understanding of the inner workings of financial diplomacy.

Stephen Schuker, H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable

[A]n ably crafted narrative.

Darel Paul, H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable

[The book] is a welcome departure from less political, or more American-centric, accounts of Bretton Woods.

William Glenn Gray, H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable

[E]ngaging and instructive . . . Benn Steil has written a book full of historical insight and human color.

Robert L. Hetzel, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Econ Focus

[T]his is a beautiful narrative of the making of Bretton Woods, based on serious archival research and with some nice old photos as illustrations.

Ivo Maes, History of Economic Ideas

[A] fascinating account of the developments leading up to the Bretton Woods conference and its immediate aftermath, from the point of view of the two main characters involved: John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White. The book is based on extensive archive work, so often the participants speak for themselves, which makes for interesting reading.

Isaac Alfon, Central Banking Journal

Steil's book . . . shows how normally abstruse economic and diplomatic history can be made palatable and even alluring to the general reader.

Christopher Silvester, Spear's

Benn Steil's remarkable book . . . is an account of how the IMF first came to be, back in the sleepy New Hampshire summer of 1944. . . . The Battle of Bretton Woods is an essential volume in any understanding of John Maynard Keynes, who though now seven decades gone is as influential a mind as we may yet see in the twenty-first century.

Brian Domitrovic, Library of Law and Liberty

[A] powerful tale depicting a clash of economic ideas and political motives amidst a war-torn era . . .

Brittany Baumann, Eastern Economic Journal

[A] terrifically written, gossipy account of the origins of Bretton Woods … Since the world spent several decades under the clumsy (and, to the U.S., costly) Bretton Woods regime, and since you sometimes hear people harkening back to that time as a golden age (which it surely was not), … it is an important read for our day.

Dan Littman, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland

It's always nice when you can combine outside reading for fun with something that is educational . . . [a] good read that is also good for you.

Daniel Shaviro, Jotwell

[A]n amazing true story . . . highly entertaining.

Ian McMaster, Business Spotlight

This highly accessible and exhaustively researched book tells a truly gripping tale of how, against formidable political odds and global chaos nearly 70 years ago, two iconic economic theorists created a legal framework based on controversial theories that resulted in the basic structure of our global marketplace today.

James Srodes, DC Bar

A valuable addition to the economic history literature.


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.

Richard Steyn, Financial Mail

Benn Steil provides a well-researched and interesting account of the historic monetary conference . . . His efforts make for an enjoyable read . . . Steil is perhaps at his best when articulating how the Bretton Woods system differed from the classical gold standard – a difference that would ultimately lead to the failure of Bretton Woods . . . Steil's excellent book should serve as a gentle reminder of which monetary systems have worked well in the past – and which should not be repeated.

William J. Luther, Social Science Research Network book review

With extensive original research, Benn Steil has rewritten the history of the conference . . . Steil has made a major contribution to economic, intellectual, and political history, which is accessible to a wide audience and presents an endlessly fascinating portrait of two complicated men.

Carl J. Strikwerda, The Historian

The Battle of Bretton Woods offers a tantalizing peek into another time of financial stress compounded by a world war. . . . The chess match between White and Keynes is well worth the price of admission – the price of the book and the time it takes to read it.

Don R. Leet, American Economist

The Battle of Bretton Woods is a well-researched and excellently written book that is recommended for everyone interested in economic and diplomatic history.

Tobias Leeg, Political Studies Review

An informed citizenry includes an understanding of our economy and how it is integrated into the global financial system. For this, it is important to start from the . . . discussions that occurred among 44 nations in the idyllic and calm resort at Bretton Woods, N.H., in 1944. [Benn Steil's] new book details not only the meeting but the deep arguments between the British economist John Maynard Keynes and [American Treasury official] Harry Dexter White . . . This is a serious book of political economic history.

Cmdr. Youssef Aboul-Enein, DCMilitary

Benn Steil has crafted a fine history. . . . Characterized by fine and entertaining writing, The Battle of Bretton Woods is economic and political history in engrossing detail.

Satyajit Das, Naked Capitalism

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

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

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

Beautifully and engagingly written, deeply researched, and of great contemporary interest, this book addresses how Bretton Woods really worked. One virtue of the book is that it places the United States and its chief negotiator, the enigmatic Harry Dexter White, at the center of the narrative. It also documents more fully and convincingly than any previous account the extent of White's espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, a story that enhances an already gripping narrative.

Harold James, author of Making the European Monetary Union

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