Gray on Scott-Smith and Rofe, 'Global Perspectives on the Bretton Woods Conference and the Post-War World Order'

Giles Scott-Smith, J. Simon Rofe, eds.
William G. Gray

Giles Scott-Smith, J. Simon Rofe, eds. Global Perspectives on the Bretton Woods Conference and the Post-War World Order. The World of the Roosevelts Series. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 305 pp. $119.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-319-60890-7.

Reviewed by William G. Gray (Purdue University) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

At a time when the post-World War II liberal order has foundered, if not collapsed entirely, scholars are naturally fascinated by its origins. For all their flaws, the Bretton Woods institutions created in 1944 helped to foster relatively stable conditions in the international monetary and trading system after decades of turmoil. For historians of US foreign relations, this is primarily the result of independent foresight on the part of Franklin Roosevelt administration “architects.”[1] Others, most notably Benn Steil (The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order [2013]), tell the story of Bretton Woods as a clash between US and British visions, with the Treasury Department’s Harry Dexter White deftly outmaneuvering the vain economist John Maynard Keynes.[2]

The editors of the present volume, Giles Scott-Smith and J. Simon Rofe, seek to broaden and deepen this origin story along two distinct axes. First, they aim to incorporate the perspectives of more participants. There were, after all, forty-two countries at the Bretton Woods conference besides the United States and Britain. These national delegations did not act monolithically: they were composed of disparate individuals representing the interests of central banks, multinational businesses, and particular departments and ministries. Alongside this geographic breadth, the editors wish to recontextualize the chronology of the Bretton Woods institutions. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank did not just leap, fully formed, from the heads of delegates during three short weeks in July 1944. This volume considers important precedents to the solutions reached in New Hampshire—and an oft-neglected antecedent, the abortive International Trade Organization (ITO).

Both approaches build on arguments advanced by Eric Helleiner in his 2014 monograph Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods: International Development and the Making of the Postwar Order. Helleiner summarizes his findings in an essay for this volume, recalling how US improvisations in Latin America—“incremental institutional innovations” (p. 20)—served as templates for the Bretton Woods institutions. From 1936 onward, bilateral credit lines to individual governments anticipated the stabilizing role played by the IMF. Abandoned plans for an Inter-American Bank in 1939-40 were later used in drafting the charter of the World Bank. At the Bretton Woods conference itself, the Mexican delegation played a fairly prominent role, chairing one committee and insisting that the World Bank expressly be linked with the goal of economic development. Helleiner’s overview sets up the remainder of the volume quite well—and also provides a clue as to why many in Latin America took the Marshall Plan as a snub and an unwelcome redirection of US resources toward Western Europe.

What do we gain from a closer look at the priorities and policies of the “42 other governments” at Bretton Woods (p. 21)? Some contributors can point to specific alterations made to White’s draft documents. Kathleen Rasmussen depicts Canada as a crucial mediator, since Canadian financial experts were able to speak the language (metaphorically and literally) of both the United States and Britain. The government in Ottawa was one of the few to prepare an alternative concept to the Keynes and White models—though Canadian officials then tactfully refrained from circulating their proposal widely. Independent consideration of monetary problems did nevertheless equip Canadians to “shape White’s plan to better meet the needs of debtors and creditors alike” (p. 181). Christy Thornton, expanding on Helleiner, shows that the Mexican delegation achieved a significant revision in IMF decision-making.

Of course, consideration of individual countries’ behavior and priorities at Bretton Woods can point in the opposite direction as well, enriching the narrative of those countries’ own postwar histories. Thierry Grosbois observes that the formation of “Benelux” in 1943—a major step toward European integration—was undertaken to bolster the negotiating power of Belgium and the Netherlands in anticipation of Bretton Woods. Benelux teamwork paid off in spades, with each country achieving prominent roles at the conference and within the new institutions (Belgium’s Camille Gutt served as the first IMF director-general). The cooperation forged in 1943-44 also served the partners well for the long string of integration projects yet to come: the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, the Western European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Schuman Plan, and so on.

Vladimir Pechatnov offers another essay with implications well beyond the conference itself. In what may be the most empirically rich essay in the volume, Pechatnov establishes that Soviet experts understood a great deal about US and British monetary plans from an early date. The bureaucracies involved—mainly the trade commissariat (NKVT)—displayed energy and optimism in evaluating the potential advantages of the IMF and particularly the World Bank. After Henry Morgenthau glad-handed the Soviets into accepting a higher IMF quota, breaking the conference’s final deadlock, the Soviet ministries prepared to ratify and join the Bretton Woods organizations. Why did Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin suddenly block Moscow’s accession? Pechatnov acknowledges that he can provide no definitive answer, though he points to vigorous objections on the part of Gosplan, the state planning ministry. If the Soviets could not get financial assistance directly from the United States, what hope was there of satisfying the IMF with all its strictures? What most stands out in Pechatnov’s essay is the pragmatic and nonideological tenor of the internal discussions in Moscow: it was a “normal bureaucratic process not much different from that in democratic countries” (p. 104).

Eric Monnet’s essay ends with the frank admission that “it is difficult to find a theoretical or economic consistency behind the French position during this period” (p. 83)—meaning the entire two decades from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s. The one pattern he detects is that French complaints about the international monetary system were always loudest when France’s own economic position appeared relatively secure. Monnet devotes little space to France’s role at Bretton Woods, in part because it was so limited: the July 1944 delegation led by Pierre Mendès-France represented a provisional French government that was not yet recognized by any of the “big three” wartime allies. In contemporary American parlance, one might well conclude that French authorities felt little ownership of the Bretton Woods system: as early as 1948, they proved willing to forsake France’s borrowing rights in order to implement an autonomous dual-exchange system.

A few of the volume’s essays disappoint by relying too heavily on the published transcripts of the conference proceedings. Archna Negi starts out with a promising angle by arguing—against the general grain of the collection—that colonial India had no significant impact on the outcome of the conference. Negi is surely right to look past the impressive length and frequency of the Indian interventions; their most important demand, the right to convert India’s massive sterling balances into other currencies, went unheeded. On balance, though, Negi misses an opportunity to explore the internal bureaucratic development of the Indian position. As Ramachandra Guha observed a decade ago, the archival record of India’s recent history remains sadly underutilized.[3] Michael Franczak, too, relies mainly on the Bretton Woods transcripts, but his essay has the virtue of introducing a comparison across Australia, New Zealand, India, and China. To a surprising extent, Sun-Yat Sen’s 1918 book The International Development of China served as a lodestar for articulating the Chinese and Indian positions. Both countries emphasized internal development and showed little concern for exports to the world market, quite in contrast to the Australian and New Zealand delegations. Franczak’s work helps to illustrate the vast gulf in interests and expectations between the major powers of the Global South and the more complementary economies of the Western and British Commonwealth trading network.

Three essays adopt a “micro” scale by analyzing the position of key individuals: Johan Willem Beyen, Dean Acheson, and Cordell Hull. David Woolner ably retraces the steps taken by Hull to pull the Roosevelt administration out of the Smoot-Hawley tariff abyss, including the innovative Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act (RTAA) authority passed in 1934, a remarkable feat of congressional self-restraint that is now covered in exhaustive detail in Douglas Irwin’s monumental study Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy (2017). In considering the role of Acheson, not usually seen as a key player at Bretton Woods, Michael Hopkins highlights Acheson’s success in sidelining his rival Adolf A. Berle to become the State Department’s point man on international economic problems. He was well-placed to advocate for the Bretton Woods treaties before Congress and the wider public.

Ben Wubs makes the strongest case for an individual’s contribution at the conference by showcasing Beyen’s extensive experience as a banker and board member of the Unilever Corporation. As a former chair of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in Basel, Beyen endured considerable abuse from the Treasury Department, which viewed the BIS as a Nazi collaborator that deserved to be abolished. Although acting officially as head of the Dutch delegation, Beyen wielded his great personal authority to salvage the BIS—the “only international financial vehicle that existed in the world,” as Hopkins notes (pp. 203-4). In due time this mattered a great deal: the BIS went on to serve as the nodal point of the European Payments Union in 1950, a brilliant workaround for an era when European currencies were unable to implement full convertibility. Would the BIS have been scrapped in 1944 without Beyen’s presence in New Hampshire? Wubs does not state this counterfactual case explicitly, but it seems a plausible inference.

Turning to institutional players, Timothy Wintour provides a fascinating overview of internal debates within the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) had little use for the IMF, siding with Wall Street bankers who thought a revived gold standard—or perhaps a “key currency” method dictated by the world’s major currencies—could govern the world’s trading and financial system. In that sense, the Federal Reserve Board’s decision to back the Bretton Woods proposals amounted to a power play: “In supporting the Fund the Board reduced the potential for the FRBNY or any other regional Reserve Banks to challenge its position” (p. 236). There were ample substantive reasons why the “key currency” alternative would have foundered anyway; sidelining the world’s smaller currencies was hardly in the spirit of postwar international cooperation. Yet the Fed’s endorsement surely played a role in securing congressional approval.

Proportionally less attention is devoted in this volume to the chronological dimension of the postwar settlement. Rofe points back to the significant economic studies undertaken by the League of Nations in the 1930s, as documented exhaustively in Patricia Clavin’s landmark monograph Securing the World Economy: The Reinvention of the League of Nations, 1920-1946 (2013). Rofe notes that a key State Department aide, Leo Pasvolsky, drew significant inspiration from the league’s work when assessing the need for expansionary economic activity. However, given the constraints of brevity that applies to all the essays in the volume, the precise relationship between league expertise and Bretton Woods remains underdeveloped here.

Looking forward, Francine McKenzie considers the absence of trade at Bretton Woods and the subsequent evolution of the ITO project. The thorny question of imperial preference was simply too hot to handle in 1944, and subsequent efforts by the State Department failed to dislodge this massive British impediment to free trade. The patchwork General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) agreement reached in Geneva in 1947 was meant to serve as a mere waystation on the path toward a fully functional ITO. In McKenzie’s account, the US State Department simply ran out of time: the Cold War environment left Congress in no mood to back an international trade authority on equal footing with the IMF and World Bank. The waning glow of postwar cooperation surely did make ratification less likely. Yet more might be said about the State Department’s compromises with the Global South. As McKenzie points out, the ITO charter drawn up in Havana in 1947-48 transformed the organization’s basic function. Its new purpose was “to promote economic development through trade” (p. 274). Why did this happen, and was it still in keeping with the expectations set out at Bretton Woods?

Ruth Jachertz extends the discussion of GATT and the ITO by considering their interplay with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the late 1940s. For scholars immersed in the contentious debates in the 1970s about a “New International Economic Order,” it is striking to see that commodity price stabilization was already broached in Bretton Woods. The FAO took matters a step further by proposing a World Food Board with control over counter-cyclical buffer stocks. Yet the drafters of the ITO balked at ceding trade authority over agriculture to the FAO, stymying this project. Meanwhile, the US declined to push for free trade in agriculture within GATT, thus preserving the norm of protected agrarian markets. Food proved impossible to manage within the framework of the Bretton Woods order, a result, Jachertz notes, of the fundamental contradiction in the price expectations between producers and consumers.

Taken as a whole, the volume covers a lot of fresh ground. Some authors draw on their own previously published monographs, but most essays appear to represent new work prepared for a 2014 conference hosted by the indefatigable Scott-Smith.[4] What one might yet wish for, amid all the welcome empirical detail, is a stronger sense of how the Bretton Woods decisions related to the broader Zeitgeist of globalism and one-worldism.[5] For all the creative variety of approaches represented here, attention remains tightly focused on policy. The significance of Bretton Woods for twentieth-century liberalism is scarcely addressed. Were the IMF and World Bank neoliberal institutions from the start, and if so, in what sense? Quinn Slobodian’s brilliant new reading of Hayekian neoliberalism, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (2018), shows how members of the Mont Pèlerin Society actively lobbied to kill off the ITO. Did this reflect F. A. Hayek’s growing international influence, or does it say more about the fundamental contrast between the two 1944 institutions and their belated 1948 counterpart? One thing is certain: the authors assembled by Scott-Smith and Rofe have deepened the conversation about the place of the Global South in the economic structures enshrined at the Bretton Woods conference seven decades ago.


[1]. Patrick J. Hearden, Architects of Globalism: Building a New World Order during World War II (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002).

[2]. See also Eric Rauchway, The Money-Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

[3]. Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 11-13.

[4]. For a conference report written by Jonathan Shavit and published by H-Diplo in January 2015, see

[5]. See, for example, Or Rosenboim, The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Citation: William G. Gray. Review of Scott-Smith, Giles; Rofe, J. Simon, eds., Global Perspectives on the Bretton Woods Conference and the Post-War World Order. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2019. URL:

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