Keynes on Sovereign Debt

John Maynard Keynes (United Kingdom) on Sovereign Debt

Mr. Chairman, since the United Kingdom is the only country here represented which has incurred large-scale war debt to our allies and associates, also here present, these three alternative amendments must be assumed, as indeed Mr. Shroff made clear, to relate primarily to her. Mr. Chairman, the various members of this alliance have suffered in mind, body and estate through the exhaustion of war, through which we are differing in kind and degree. These sacrifices cannot be weighed one against the other. Those of us who are most directly threatened and were nevertheless able to remain in the fight, such as the USSR and the United Kingdom, have fought this war on the principle of unlimited liability and with a more reckless disregard to economic consequences. Others are more fortunately placed. We do not need information in the larger fields of human affairs. Nothing could be less prudent than hesitation or careful counting of the cost. But as a result, there has been inevitably no equality of financial sacrifice.

In respect to overseas assets, the end of the war will find the United Kingdom greatly impoverished and other of the United Nations considerably enriched at our expense. We make no complaint to this provided that the resulting situation is accepted for what it is. On the contrary, we are grateful to those allies, particularly to our Indian friends, who put their resources at our disposal without stent, and themselves suffered from privation as result. Our efforts would have been gravely, perhaps critically, embarrassed if they had held back from helping us so wholeheartedly and on so great a scale. We will appreciate the moderate, friendly and realistic statement to the problem which Mr. Shroff has put before you today. Nevertheless, the settlement of these debts must be, in our clear and settled judgment, a matter between those directly concerned. When the end is reached and we can see our way into the daylight, we will take it up without any delay to settle honorably what was honorably and generously given. But we do not intend to ask assistance in this matter from the International Monetary Fund beyond the fact, as Mr. Bernstein has just pointed out, that the existence of the Fund and the general assistance it will give to stability, and expansion of trade may be expected to improve indirectly our ability to meet other obligations. We concur entirely with the view that has just been expressed by Mr. Bernstein on behalf of the American delegation that the Fund is not intended to deal directly with war indebtedness.

Now, since we do not intend either to ask for or to avail ourselves of any special treatment from the Fund, it appears to the United Kingdom delegation that this amendment could be of no practical effect, and it is therefore better to discard it if misunderstanding is to be avoided about the role which the Fund can be expected to play.

(Commission I, third meeting)

The Bretton Woods Transcripts
Typescripts and Conference Proceedings of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference
Bretton Woods, New Hampshire
July 1-22, 1944

Edited by CFS Senior Fellow of Financial History Kurt Schuler and CFS Senior Associate Andrew Rosenberg