In the New York Times today you can read about the newly available transcripts from the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, as edited by Kurt Schuler and Andrew Rosenberg. I have a few things to say about them in the NYT – and why not a few more here?
Historians of Bretton Woods might well have said, eh, a transcript – no big deal; what happened at the conference was largely theater, and the real business was done before and afterward. There is some truth in this – and the transcript amusingly shows that – but it also shows some of the ways in which it is not true.First, the amusingly true part. We know from other documents that both the Americans and the British wanted to avoid votes at the conference, partly because the Latin American nations by themselves represented almost half the countries present, and could with a few European votes have commanded a majority.
In the sessions on the Fund chaired by the US Treasury representative Harry Dexter White, there are very few votes, and of the ones taken, only one has an actual vote tally recorded in the transcript. White’s method of avoiding votes was to check for consensus.
The British also wanted to avoid votes, and in the sessions on the Bank chaired by John Maynard Keynes there are no recorded votes (though the transcript is incomplete as to the Bank sessions). Keynes’s method of avoiding votes was to pause for objections, and sometimes very briefly indeed, avoiding the hazard of debate. Here’s an interaction between the US State representative Dean Acheson and Keynes:
ACHESON: Mr. Chairman, have you passed Article VI, Section 3?
KEYNES: I was about to pass it.
ACHESON: Are you going to send that to Drafting?
ACHESON: That is a pretty important section.
KEYNES: It is very important, but I heard no opposition to it.
Second, the ways in which it isn’t true. The transcript seems to me to verify what I have found in other sources – that contrary to much of what we read in the literature and what indeed we might expect, the Soviets took Bretton Woods very seriously. The US tried to accommodate the USSR without rendering the agreements unpassable by the US Congress.
You can also see smaller countries pressing for their interests – specifically, that the Fund make room for their need to improve their own economies before stabilizing their exchange rates – which is in part why the Fund is officially devoted to “the promotion and maintenance of high levels of employment and real income.” At the conference, one delegate pointed out that the Fund really needed to be devoted not only to the maintenance of high levels of real income in some countries, but to the attainment of high levels of real income in all. It is only cheap historical irony that this delegate was from Greece.