Situated remotely in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, the Mount Washington Hotel opened its doors in July, 1902, boasting that it could accommodate "a family of eight hundred." Families could travel by rail or motor roadway to spend their summers in the White Mountains, “an ideal environment” that boasted weather “cool enough to enjoy outdoor exercise practically every day throughout the season.” Yet only three decades later, the Mount Washington Hotel experienced severe financial difficulties brought on by the Great Depression. Then, shortly after the United States entered the World War II, the hotel closed for several years. It reopened in 1944 under new ownership, but its future was uncertain.
It was in this context that an unusual group requested rooms for some 730 guests in the summer of 1944. But unlike most visitors, “mountain interests” were not of “first importance” to this group. Rather, these were delegates of 44 Allied nations gathering at Bretton Woods for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference. The express purpose was to construct the post-war international monetary system. In the words of New Hampshire Senator Charles Tobey, “We lived together for a little over three weeks, as we hammered out the Bretton Woods Agreements into shape. There before us was the world in miniature…”
As a delegate of the United States to the Bretton Woods conference, Senator Tobey was determined that international cooperation would serve two purposes in the post-war world. First, immediate financial assistance and lowered trade barriers would “create conditions in which” people living in war-torn communities across the world could “be secure, and prosperous and free.” The financial difficulties during the interwar period, brought on by the Great Depression and compounded by protectionist trade barriers, obstructed economic security. People whose basic needs were not met looked inward toward leaders who would protect national interest at the expense of global peace. Multilateral institutions could achieve this end. The World Bank lent money to nations afflicted by war and poverty for reconstruction, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) set stable exchange rates for member states to coordinate monetary policies and prevent “economic war [from engulfing] the world.” Second, international cooperation and American engagement would underwrite global security for future generations. Along with other multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Bretton Woods system gave teeth to the lofty idea of “permanent world peace.”
At the conference, Senator Tobey and the architects of the Bretton Woods system were trying to avoid the mistakes of the First World War that failed to prevent the current global conflict. American leaders believed they could not “withdraw within" as they had after World War One. A new era of global politics would require American engagement rather than immediate retrenchment. Also, Senator Charles Tobey and other delegates to the Bretton Woods conference remembered when the United States Senate did not ratify the League of Nations charter nearly three decades earlier. American leaders recognized that President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, signed the charter’s death warrant in excluding Republicans from the negotiating process. In reaching out to leadership from across the aisle, President Franklin Roosevelt hoped to avoid this fate. Senator Tobey, a long time Republican, was instrumental in achieving his party’s approval of the Bretton Woods system. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau confirmed this view when he wrote to Senator Tobey before the bill went before the Senate floor: “I know that your enthusiastic support of the Bretton Woods proposals will serve to promote non-partisan consideration… I fully appreciate the enormous efforts that you have made to keep this legislation from becoming a party issue.” Senator Tobey indicated his ready cooperation toward this achievement when he proclaimed, “The battle for the future of our whole generation is being fought in the Senate of the United States - the battle against both political and economic isolation.”
To learn more, ask for ML-3, Box 108. And for more goodies from Tobey's papers, see our blog post on Crackpots and Cranks.
Posted for Drew Leonard '19