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

3.68 of 5 stars 3.68  ·  rating details  ·  233 ratings  ·  38 reviews
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 ...more
ebook, 472 pages
Published February 11th 2013 by Princeton University Press (first published January 1st 2013)
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Breakingviews
By Martin Hutchinson

Benn Steil calls his study “The Battle of Bretton Woods” but in reality the 1944 conference which created a new financial system after World War Two was more of a massacre of British interests by the U.S. Treasury’s Harry Dexter White.

Steil is a senior fellow at the American think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, and a well-known writer on financial topics. He tells the story as personal, political and economic. John Maynard Keynes, the principal British negotiator, wa
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Marks54
Books about Keynes are generally interesting and this one is no exception. This book is attempting to pursue many objectives, however, and after a while I was marveling at the balancing.

The book is first of all a history of the 1944 Bretton Woods conference in New Hampshire, where the outlines of the post WWII monetary system was agreed on. Such a conference brings together in one fell swoop macroeconomics and international currency and trade flows. Both of these areas are sufficiently wooly to
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Nilesh
If Harry Dexter White was not tainted by the spying incidents, he could have gone down as the person deserving most credit for engineering the US dominance in the global financial system today. Bretton Woods is perhaps the single biggest path-defining economic event of history, and this book beautifully lays bare what was won and lost at this conference.

If White's feats are unsung - let's say because of his nefarious spying activities - it is quite astonishing that Keynes is so little tarnished
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Jeffrey  Sylvester
The “Battle of Bretton Woods” by Benn Steil is a comprehensive account of the multi-nation negotiations that led to the creation of the post-WWII capitalist framework for Western nations. The primary actors in this drama were Britain and the U.S.A., the latter of which imposed terms as the world’s new creditor nation.

Essentially, Britain ran itself broke trying to maintain her empire during and immediately following WWI. Throughout the ordeal, Britain borrowed U.S. funds and gave a lot of these
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Nick Klagge
I can't say that I got much out of this book. It wasn't clear to me exactly where the author was trying to go with it. It certainly covers too much ground to be just a history of Bretton Woods. At times it seems like a book about Harry Dexter White, but it also ranges pretty far away from that subject at times. My feeling is that the book was basically supposed to be about HDW, but with a lot of Keynes and other stuff thrown in to make it seem more exciting. Neither HDW nor any other player is p ...more
Julian Haigh
Intriguing book about the 1944 Bretton Woods conference where the IMF and World Bank were established. The UK economist-diplomat J.M. Keynes and US bureaucrat-diplomat H.D. White are profiled in separate chapters highlighting White's moonlighting as a Soviet spy and Keynes' big ideas for a better international monetary system, including a new global currency, the bancor.

Instead, White was able to hijack the conference through controlled disorder in committees, forcing the American position of eq
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Peter Moreira
Steil is meticulous, and no one has equaled his factual presentation of the events leading up to, during and following Bretton Woods. I don't agree with all his analysis. For example, it was obvious to everyone that the Americans would use the conference to make the dollar the world's researve currency, so there's no reason to treat White like he had a secret agenda. And Morgenthau was not the uninterested buffoon that Steil presents here. But all in all, this is a tremendous and welcome piece o ...more
Frank Stein
There's been a fair amount of praise for and criticism of this book. Both reactions have concerned themselves largely with Steil's political stances (he's an unreconstructed goldbug) and some of his more strident claims (that Harry Dexter White was a significant impetus in Japan attacking Pearl Harbor). To my eye, these issues are secondary. The book largely treads on familiar ground, but it does so in a way that makes the journey seem fresh, original and even entertaining.

The exhausting negoti
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Kevin Kosar
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 of balance of payments, exchange rates, supranational currency, monetary reform, and tariffs... (a href="http://www.weeklystandard.com/article... more
John
This was an interesting follow-up to Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. It served as biographies of Harry Dexter White and John Maynard Keynes and as a history of the Bretton Woods Conference. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and what we now call the World Trade Organization were all created out of the Bretton Woods Conference. Oh, and the US came out the winner in terms of how the international system of finance should be set up for decades.

I chose this book speci
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Jared D.
The Battle of Bretton Woods is a book that I picked up because I would occasionally see 'Bretton Woods' mentioned in books that I read. I had an idea that it had to deal with the post-WWII economic framework directed by the United States but that is about all I really knew about it. I typically avoid books on economics but I knew that Bretton Woods had a profound impact on history, so I decided to do my best to understand it.

In a nut shell, Bretton Woods was an economic conference held in Brett
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Vishaka Datta
An extremely well-researched account of not only the negotiations at Bretton Woods, but also of the circumstances leading up to the historic meeting, and its aftermath.

I found the book quite an intense, yet absorbing read. The amount of detail provided on each page is immense and enjoyable at the same time. The short reference of characters and names at the end of the book (aside from the index) really helped in keeping track of the narrative throughout the book.

The only minus points are the s
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JQAdams
A book for school. The structure is kind of meandering: it sets up Keynes and White as the two big figures of the Bretton Woods conference, talks about their dueling proposals for what eventually became the IMF, and then admits that Keynes had basically no pull since Britain was so much more drained from World War II than the US was. So there are details of negotiations, but it's mostly about how White intentionally set up the conference to make sure he had control over the relevant committees. ...more
Tasos Nikitakis
Ben Steil's book is an exciting, accurate and insightful examination of the Bretton Woods monetary system treaty. An unprecedented feat, the treaty truly established a New World Order by cementing the dollar's status as a reserve currency. The story behind the making of the new system is an exciting tale with two remarkable heroes: Harry Dexter White and John Maynard Keynes. Keynes immediately spring to mind whenever Bretton Woods is mentioned, but it was Harry Dexter White that orchestrated the ...more
Margaret Sankey
Economic history of the momentous 1944 meeting that structured the modern international financial market. In a way, this is the sequel to Ahamed's book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, as the major countries attempted to fight a World War on economies shaken by the depression and 1929 crash. Steil is good at explaining the economic process to laymen, and includes juicy details about the participants in the conference (including the problem that a local mountain codger took shot ...more
Stephen Shapiro
An interesting history of the competing US and British plans for postwar international monetary policy, focusing on the politics (domestic and international) that underpinned both sides proposals. Some of the economics are pretty tough going; I found myself confused, and I had thought I understood both the gold standard and the postwar fixed exchange rate system.
Rob Mills
Steil is a fantastic writer and has done an incredible amount of research to compile this book (very impressive appendix). He takes time to really outline the personalities involved and the political intrigues going on at the time. He's not afraid to draw conclusions and, while a bit more reserved on out-and-out calling H. White a spy (he basically does), I thought his outlining of Keynes' priorities (namely his own legacy) to be most shocking (and thus interesting). The book was only 350 pages ...more
Teo Ekstrom
I came into this book not expecting what it was: a super in depth and detailed account of the creation of the Bretton Woods system of international finance. If you're not ready to read about the pro's and con's of Chinese economists pegging their currency to the USD, do not read this book. If you are, great! I'm sure this book will serve you well.
Chung-yee
Very detailed, excruciating detailed, narrative of the circumstances surrounding Bretton Woods. With the egos, politics, maneuvering and marinating of positions, it reads like a reality show plot. With lots of extraneous information, the book really needs a good editor.
Sunil
A well researched account of the historical and economic backgrounds that led to the Bretton Woods conference. A deep profile of the two principal actors- Harry Dexter White and Keynes, their personalities and the politics that played out during the actual negotiations.
Greg Haberkorn
So many questions.

A excellent history of the period, bringing to light how monumental the times were. I am left wondering if humans have the wisdom to design an international trading system or if it will continue to be "the big dog sets the rules."
Randal Samstag
When I picked up this book I was looking for background on Keynes's plan for a Clearing Union. It is there, but the author's perspective is consistently from the American side and he is always looking for evidence that Keynes was simply arguing for British geopolitical advantage rather than seeing his plan as potentially preventing the bizarre condition in which we now find ourselves of having the global hegemon the world's largest debtor. The author seems to have really wanted to write a spy th ...more
Evan
This book was very interesting and informational. I never knew that the lead negotiator at Bretton Woods for the United States was a communist spy for the Soviet Union. I also didn't know that Bretton Woods was a mountain resort in New Hampshire. I also didn't know nearly as much about Keynes as I do know.

It was an interesting time period, and I think the author does an excellent job of comparing the status of the United States in the 40's (an international creditor with huge trade surplus) to o
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Jacqueline
An important book about the creation of our present world economic system. Reading The Director made me curious about it. It was one of the books that the author drew on for his plot.
Sharad Jain
If you've read a few basic economics books, such as Freakonomics and enjoy it, you might enjoy this. It is a good analytical history of 2 most important figures who influenced the monetary policies in last century. Some of their ideas are still prevalent, even if not accepted as right all the time. This helps you gain a better perspective on politics of money and economics on macro-economics level.
Scott Bartley
A lot of good stuff in here about Keynes I didnt know. I had no idea who Harry Dexter White was , but he seems to have been overlooked by history.
Ron Brown
This book provides a lot of details on the Bretton Woods conference. In particular it focuses on the two main players: Harry Dexter White of the US and John Maynard Keynes of England. Much time is spent on whether White was a communist. There are memo-by-memo recountings of the formulations of US and British positions. I am sure the work is extremely well researched, but just too much detail on the events for me.

I was more interested in the impact of the conference and how the two creations fro
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Anne
Assumes a surprising amount of knowledge about the gold standard and relatively little about international relations.
Andrew
Very dry and involving a lot of economic theory.... Found it interesting even though I didn't understand half of it.
Jiri Kram
Absolute must for anyone who wants understand what happened to the world monetary system after WW II.
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“The Bretton Woods saga unfurled at a unique crossroads in modern history. An ascendant anticolonial superpower, the United States, used its economic leverage over an insolvent allied imperial power, Great Britain, to set the terms by which the latter would cede its dwindling dominion over the rules and norms of foreign trade and finance. Britain cooperated because the overriding aim of survival seemed to dictate the course. The monetary architecture that Harry White designed, and powered through an international gathering of dollar-starved allies, ultimately fell, its critics agree, of its own contradictions.” 0 likes
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