A Treasury economist rummaging in the department’s library has stumbled on a historical treasure hiding in plain sight: a transcript of the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 that cast the foundations of the modern international monetary system.
Historians had never known that a transcript existed for the event held in the heat of World War II, when delegates from 44 allied nations fighting Hitler gathered in the mountains of New Hampshire to create the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But there were three copies in archives and libraries around Washington that had never been made public, until now.
“It’s as if someone handed us Madison’s notes on the debate over the Constitution,” said Eric Rauchway, a historian the University of California, Davis.
Economic historians who have viewed the transcript say it adds color and detail to the historical record, an already thick one given the many contemporaneous and subsequent accounts of Bretton Woods. The transcript seems to contain no great surprises, but it sheds light on the intense debates as the war raged abroad.
It depicts John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, hurrying to marshal support for the broad agreements on international finance. It underscores the tremendous power then wielded by Britain and, especially, the United States. It also shows the seeds of contemporary disputes being sown.
For instance, seven decades ago, a number of poorer or smaller countries were protesting their International Monetary Fund quotas, which determine power in the fund. Many of those countries, including China and India, are still pushing for more influence today.