This summer the world will pause for a moment and reflect on two famous anniversaries – the centenary of the outbreak of the First world War and the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Operation Overlord.
While the histories of these events are well-told, what is less well-appreciated is that this year also marks two equally important anniversaries. For at the very same time the Great War was beginning, the first cracks began to appear in the world’s economic system – cracks that would lead to the Great Depression and, in turn, to WWII. And 70 years ago, at the very same moment that soldiers were fighting Operation Overlord, a small group of men set out to repair the mess that was left of the world economy. The created a system, named after the part of New Hampshire where they met, which has become synonymous with economic recovery and health. That system is known as Bretton Woods.
These anniversaries may be eclipsed by their military siblings but they hold, if anything, even more important lessons for us today; after all, we are in danger of falling into many of the same old traps all over again.
The Summit is the dramatic re-telling of this story: of how the world economy collapsed in the wake of World War One, and how it was put back together as World War Two was still being fought. For the first time, it tells the full story of the conference which reshaped the world’s economic system and led to the longest period of stability and prosperity the world has ever seen.
The story is all the more important today: while the financial crisis and recession are over, there is plentiful evidence that the weaknesses that contributed to them are as big a problem as ever. Bretton Woods was one of the few occasions in history that similar problems – eerily similar to today’s international monetary issues – were actual put right.
But The Summit is not merely an economic lesson – far from it. It is also a story about a battle of wits, between the men determined to reshape the economic landscape. It depicts a love-hate relationship between two men of wildly different backgrounds: John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White. It tells of the fierce fights between these two men, and reveals the personal secrets each was nursing – secrets which later threatened to destroy each of them.
It tells of a wild, occasionally debauched three week period in the summer of 1944 when men and women from the war-torn corners of the world came together in a remote mountainside hotel to try to fix the world. For a moment, it even looked as if they were successful.
Here’s what a few people are saying about The Summit:
‘Brimming with the sort of vivid details that make the past come alive, The Summit is both an impressive work of scholarship and an absolute delight to read’ – Liaquat Ahamed, author of Lords of Finance
‘Who would have thought that an account of an economic summit could be so absorbing? But it was no ordinary summit and Ed Conway’s is an exceptional account’ – Evan Davis, BBC presenter and author of Made in Britain
‘Brilliantly researched, and hugely entertaining, this is an essential book about one of the most important economic events of the twentieth century’ – Keith Lowe, author of Savage Continent
Here’s the blurb from the back of the book:
The idea of world leaders gathering in the midst of economic crisis has become all too familiar. But the meeting at Bretton Woods in 1944 was different. It was the only time countries from around the world have agreed to overhaul the structure of the international monetary system. Against all odds, they were successful. The system they set up presided over the longest, strongest and most stable period of growth the world economy has ever seen. Its demise some decades later was at least partly responsible for the periodic economic crises that culminated in the financial collapse of the 2000s.
But what everyone has always assumed to be a dry economic conference was in fact replete with drama. The delegates spent half the time at each other’s throats and the other half drinking in the hotel bar. The Russians nearly capsized the entire project. The French threatened to walk out, repeatedly. All the while war in Europe raged on.
At the very heart of the conference was the love-hate relationship between the Briton John Maynard Keynes, the greatest economist of his day, who suffered a heart attack at the conference itself and who was a true worldwide celebrity – and his American counterpart Harry Dexter White (later revealed to be passing information secretly to Russian spies). Both were intent on creating an economic settlement which would put right the wrongs of Versailles. Both were working to prevent a World War Three. But they were also working to defend their countries’ national interests.
Drawing on a wealth of unpublished accounts, diaries and oral histories, this brilliant book describes the conference in stunning colour and clarity. Bringing to life the characters, events and economics and written with exceptional verve and narrative pace, this is an extraordinary debut from a talented new writer.