The Morgenthau Diaries Are Online

Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was Secretary of the Treasury from 1934 to 1945, a period that of course included the 1944 Bretton Woods conference. Fortunately for historians, he was a compulsive chronicler. His collection of speeches, memos, transcripts of meetings, and other documents, termed the Morgenthau Diaries, runs to hundreds of volumes. They have been available for some years on microfilm, but at a price so high that few libraries have them. Now the diaries are are available for free online. They offer inside perspective on a tumultuous period of American and world history.

Morgenthau was the president of the Bretton Woods conference and the head of the U.S. delegation to the conference, and his diaries from that period (July 1-22, 1944) contain transcripts of many of the delegation’s meetings behind closed doors. The American delegates could be blunt in their private assessments, as these words from a July 1 meeting show:

MR. [Harry Dexter] WHITE: Those are the large countries. The smaller countries all want larger quotas. The most troublesome will be Australia, who is participating to an extent far beyond the proper role of a country of her size and importance. But they are going to insist on a larger quota and some other things that I suggested before.

Readers interested in Bretton Woods will find much to instruct and occasionally amuse them. Among other things, the diaries show clearly that Federal Reserve chairman Marriner Eccles, who is not recorded as having said a word in the conference sessions, was highly active behind the scenes.

At Bretton Woods the United States was at the zenith of its relative economic power, as the leading economy whose home territory was nearly untouched by the enemy. The attitude of the American delegation reflects its awareness of that fact. Reading the diaries, though, one must that remember that however fascinating they are, they are but a part of the story. What the Americans wanted was not always what transpired in conference, and their private scheming had counterparts in the private scheming of other delegations, which is less well recorded but which has recently received scrutiny from assiduous researchers.

(Hat tip to Eric Rauchway, who spoke at the 2014 CFS Bretton Woods conference.)

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About Kurt Schuler

Kurt Schuler, co-editor of The Bretton Woods Transcripts, is Senior Fellow of Financial History at the Center for Financial Stability and an economist in the Office of International Affairs at the United States Department of the Treasury.