‘The Battle of Bretton Woods’ Review in the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed The Battle of Bretton Woods by Benn Steil. James Grant for the Wall Street Journal called it “A superb history.  Mr. Steil…is a talented storyteller.” The review not only commended the book and Steil, but also provided a background of what Bretton Woods was in case you are still unsure of what the book is about.

A Fateful Meeting That Shaped the World

In 1944, John Maynard Keynes and a Treasury official who was later unmasked as a spy hashed out an economic system for the post-war era.

One of the many merits of “The Battle of Bretton Woods,” a superb history of mid-20th-century monetary affairs, is the timing of its publication. Today, as never before, central banks are printing money, suppressing interest rates and manipulating markets. You wonder where it will all end.

Where it began is easier to reckon. The Federal Reserve, which its founders wouldn’t recognize if they were brought back to life to inspect their handiwork, came into the world to mobilize credit and forestall financial panics. In 1913, the year of the Fed’s founding, the dollar was defined as slightly less than 1/20th of an ounce of gold.

The 1944 conference at Bretton Woods, N.H., Benn Steil’s subject, was another government initiative to regulate money and banking. Representatives of 44 nations trekked to the Mount Washington Hotel to design a framework for the world’s currencies, not least the dollar, which was by then defined as only 1/35th of an ounce of gold. America’s Harry Dexter White and Britain’s John Maynard Keynes talked and tussled and produced the set of arrangements that lasted, in one form or another, until 1971.

Nowadays the dollar is undefined and unanchored. It commands such value as the not-quite-free market sees fit to endow it with, at this writing slightly more than 1/1,600th of an ounce of gold. With respect to its gold value, the greenback has become nearly invisible, like the interest you earn on your savings.

Mr. Steil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a talented storyteller. If, perhaps, he lingers too long over just how White’s bad thinking differed from Keynes’s bad thinking, or why the State Department was mad at the Treasury Department, and vice versa, he more than compensates with the nontechnical fluency of his economic narrative and the engrossing portraits of his two principal characters.

Who was the more disagreeable, it’s hard to say. White, a senior American Treasury official, freelanced as a Soviet spy. His personal style was incivility. Keynes, among the first of the modern celebrity economists, devoted himself to promoting schemes to aggrandize state power and wangle dollars for the broke British exchequer. His personal style was condescension.

Read the full review here.



  1. I do not find James Grant’s (and presumably Benn Steil’s) attitudes – minimalist government, no discretion, bring back the classical gold standard regardless of the impact on the world’s money supply from new gold discoveries and the vagaries of advances in mining technology – at all edifying. And the slur on Harry White as a Soviet spy is a simplistic and biased reading of his world view and of his relations with a key member of the wartime Grand Alliance. It is in line with the influence of conservative historians like Allen Weinstein, Herbert Romerstein, Harvey Klehr etc. who put the most malevolent interpretation possible on partially decrypted wartime Soviet codes. White was no communist, and at Bretton Woods battled mightily to save capitalism and avoid a repeat of the prewar Great Depression and contraction of world trade.