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The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order (Council on Foreign Relations Books (Princeton University Press)) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 24, 2013

4.4 out of 5 stars 117 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Benn Steil is Andre Meyer Senior Fellow and Director of International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and Editor of the journal "International Finance".

From the Back Cover

"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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Product Details

  • Series: Council on Foreign Relations Books (Princeton University Press)
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1St Edition edition (February 24, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691149097
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691149097
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 7 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (117 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #178,774 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By D. B. Collum on February 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover
"Battle of Bretton Woods" by Benn Steil

Benn Steil is an exceptional scholar hailing from the Council on Foreign Relations. I approached this book with high expectations and was not disappointed. If I had a buck for every blog, article, or interview referring to the Bretton Woods conference, dollar hegemony, the gold standard, and related monetary matters I could stop reading stuff like this because I would be rich. I surmise, however, that not one in 100 understand what really happened. I do not know if this is THE definitive work on the Bretton Woods conference but it certainly is a definitive treatise. Those who love quotes will burn through a few highlighters. (I did.) The intense discussions--snarky attacks and counterattacks by the combatants--are relayed in detail and in living color. Steil successfully takes you back to the events as though you were there. Minor warning: You do not need to be a wonk to love this book, but you must have some appreciation for wonky. It is not dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Currency jocks will love the detailed descriptions of the battles over fixed exchange rates, adjustable exchange rates, free trade, dollar hegemony, and the role of gold in this new era.

Steil's discussion can be crudely described in three parts: (1) the decades leading up to the 1944 Bretton Woods conference; (2) the actual conference in which the next 50 years of currency exhanges and global trading rules would be mapped out; and (3) the consequences to the post-war world. The conference stemmed from a few astute players who realized that the world could fall into chaos if plans were not made in advance to establish a global currency regime and rules of global trade--a New World Order.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There, I said it, and I am an American.

I had heard of the conference but never read about it, and certainly had never heard of Harry Dexter White, but this book goes to great length to explain what happened in this important meeting as World War II was drawing to a close and a plan needed to be developed for a new world order regarding the flows of money to facilitate trade and avoid economic disruptions that the world had seen far too much of.

Steil presents more information on John Maynard Keynes than his American antithesis, Harry Dexter White, and for good reason. Keynes was simply one of the most, if not the most, brilliant intellectuals of the 20th century. His theories of economics were evolving through his life, but he is most remembered for his idea that government stimulus could help alleviate a faltering economy when the private sector failed to do the job, and he was opposed as he said to the "gold cage" that for years had been the standard of international finance. He had a biting wit, coupled with a superior intelligence that far outshone his meager appearance (he was ugly, and knew it) but he was cast in the role of a diplomat to present the case for England as the world entered the post war period.

The problem was that England was broke. She had endured two world wars in the space of 30 years and the empire was begging for funds from Washington, and most of her debt to the US from the Great War was still unpaid. She also had an enemy in FDR, who was determined that the imperial preference of England after the war was to be no more. Her crown jewel, India, was pressing for independence and the empire was in the process of unwinding, as was the strength of the British sterling.
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Format: Hardcover
This book sets out to explain Bretton Woods and to explain it in the context of the differences between Harry Dexter White and John Maynard Keynes. But it's a rather frustrating book because its narrow construction leads to a somewhat narrow understanding of the problem. It also offers up a somewhat false choice between the two sets of bad ideas which were not all that different.

The international monetary crisis began in the First World War. The debts, gold and trade imbalances created by the war in favor of the United States destabilized the entire world economy. However, rather than seeing the situation as one that needed to be corrected, the United States viewed the unstable system as the natural order of things. The solution to every global problem was increased American exports in the name of "free" trade. The real problem of the 1920s wasn't maintaining the gold standard, but rather jury-rigging the system so that indebted countries could keep paying for American imports.

The author gives a decent account of the period, but he fails to see that basic problem in the system. He spends lots of time on the development of Keynes ideas and the gold standard. But often in a way that doesn't go anywhere. Keynes could argue against the British gold standard in the 1920s, but what he was arguing for ultimately was devaluation of currency as a solution. But devaluation is never really a solution. Internationally, it's a zero-sum game. Those who devalue get a benefit from those who don't. If all the debtors devalue, the creditors begin to devalue. Devaluation ultimately becomes (as it has in 2013) competitive with everyone trying to devalue.

By the 1930s, many had decided that the private economy was the enemy.
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