July 1-22, 1944, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire:

The Forgotten Anniversary

 By Shlomo Maital  

Hotel Mt. Washington, Bretton Woods, NH

    Today, July 20, the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo landing on the moon – and all the media are obsessively recounting, replaying, and reliving it. We learn about the world-shaking debate, whether Armstrong said “one small step for A man”, as intended, or whether he skipped the “a”. (Complex voice analysis has been done to resolve this world-shaking question).

     There is another anniversary, ignored – and far more important:   The 75th anniversary of the Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, conference, July 1-22, attended by the Allies, that redesigned the architecture of the world economy. It was done in 21 days, because the wealthy Boston millionaires had booked the Hotel, Hotel Mt. Washington, for their summer vacation. That is symbolic, because ultimately, it is the 0.001% billionaires who are destroying the amazing system built in just 3 weeks in New Hampshire.

     Leading the US delegation was a Treasury official, a bureaucrat, Harry Dexter White. Leading the British delegation was the most renowned economist of his time, John Maynard Keynes. Keynes had the intellectual firepower. But White had the powerful US economy behind him. Keynes’ plan was to create a world central bank. White said, no, we already have one – the dollar will be the world’s currency.

     White won.

       At the beautiful old wooden hotel, the delegates created the I.M.F., World Bank, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the Bank for International Settlements. They laid the foundation for a global trading system with zero tariffs (“Most Favored Nation”) that led to massive creation of jobs, exports and wealth, mostly in Asia but in war-torn Europe as well.

       The system created in Bretton Woods 75 years ago has served the world well. It helped China boom, as well as Japan, Taiwan and Korea, and India too. It helped Europe unify. It may have prevented a new World War. And ultimately, it sank the U.S.S.R. by showing that free markets worked best.

       The Bretton Woods agreement has affected everyone, mostly for the good. But – it had a fatal flaw. When you create opportunities for some people to grow wealthy, by definition you also create dilemmas in which many people (unable to compete) become poorer. So what was lacking at Bretton Woods was one thing – a truly effective mechanism to redistribute wealth, for people and countries left behind.

     Ultimately, that small omission is destroying the Bretton Woods system. It is bringing ‘populist’ leaders who ignite trade wars, foster xenophobia, build walls and claim to prioritize their own countries, other nations be damned.

       Let us celebrate Bretton Woods’ Diamond Anniversary. Let’s remember the enormous benefits it brought. Let’s remind ourselves that much of the Bretton Woods system is worth preserving and strengthening, while fixing the flaws.

       I was two years old in 1944. Most people alive today were born long after Bretton Woods. Most do not even know what was done at Bretton Woods or how it affected them.

       I wish the media could leverage this crucial Diamond Anniversary to remind everyone, to educate people, to reaffirm the ultimate value to humanity of free, open trading, of commitment to creating value for the world, not just for white American males, and to take responsibility (as the US did in 1944) for struggling nations left behind.  

         I just searched Google News. The Financial Times did print a couple of pieces on Bretton Woods. So did TIME magazine.  It’s barely a ripple…not even that.