Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?
Labor Day, 1894

Eric Rauchway on the Bretton Woods Conference

The summer after my first year of graduate school I went back for the last extended time to my parents' home in Washington DC. Joe Pechman, IIRC, got me a desk at the Brookings Institution. And I spent the summer reading as widely as I could and having coffee with Edward Bernstein.

Eric Rauchway:

Keynes’s conference and Morgenthau’s dream: Keynes looks arrogantly at the camera. The qualities of authority, brilliance, and suavity, which Keynes had in personal abundance, were if not lacking then widely distributed among the American delegation: on substantive matters Morgenthau deferred to his assistant Harry Dexter White, who had a better grasp of economics than Morgenthau, and on matters requiring tact White deferred to his assistant Edward Bernstein, who was less likely to say “shit” in public than White. Keynes meanwhile was everywhere, radiating influence from his room at the center of the Mount Washington Hotel, chairing the committee to charter the World Bank but also frequently leading the discussions on the International Monetary Fund; starting informal seminars on economic theory with the delegates he respected and making racist jokes at the expense of those he did not; lining up the best of the hotel wine cellar to host a dinner marking the five hundredth anniversary of an understanding between New College Oxford and King’s College Cambridge. Although suffering from a cardiac ailment that would at length kill him, under the ministrations of his wife and amid the stimulus of the discussions he exhibited extraordinary energy. Keynes disliked going to America, explaining himself, and Jews: yet one night after dinner at the New Hampshire conference he got so excited about the prospect of illustrating a concept to Morgenthau that he charged precipitously up the hotel stairs, giving himself a heart attack that was erroneously reported as fatal in some of the international papers....

[H]ad Keynes fallen prey to his own heart and perished on the hotel stairs, Keynesianism would have survived him and Bretton Woods would have been established as a system anyway.... Bretton Woods would have survived Keynes because Keynes had already won the war of ideas... by 1944 his complaints had become the common foundation for a functional peace, and other ideas he had developed over the subsequent quarter century—about monetary policy, about regulating exchange rates, about the important role an international fund could play in permitting national governments to respond effectively to economic crisis—had adherents throughout the world. But in part Bretton Woods would have survived Keynes because... its underlying assumptions could have been, and indeed were, derived from other intellectual and political traditions.... Morgenthau came from an American tradition—a farm tradition, a free-trading tradition, a Democratic party tradition—to which these ideas about the management of money came readily. And given the need to get an eventual Bretton Woods agreement through the United States Congress, the compatibility of the international system with the Democratic party tradition mattered at least as much as the persuasive powers of a British sybarite—or so Dean Acheson found as he piloted the legislation through the Capitol.

Thus if we want to understand how Bretton Woods happened and why it worked, we need to understand not only the intellectual revolution of Keynesianism and its effects on the policymaking world, but also the American political tradition to which mid-century Democrats were heir, a tradition older than the New Deal...