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Bretton Woods and the Birth of the World Bank

The World Bank
The Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
On July 1, 1944, as the battles of the Second World War raged in Europe and the Pacific, delegates from forty-four nations met at the secluded Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire to participate in what became known as the Bretton Woods Conference. Their purpose was to agree on a system of economic order and international cooperation that would help countries recover from the devastation of the war and foster long-term global growth. At its conclusion, the conference attendees produced the Articles of Agreement for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The World Bank
Bretton Woods Conference delegates including U.K delegate and Commission II leader Lord John Maynard Keynes (center).
Years of planning and discussion preceded Bretton Woods and laid the foundation for the conference's success. While the final Articles were ultimately influenced to a significant degree by the initial plans of the United States with contributions from the United Kingdom, other countries attended consultations and presented proposals containing their own vision for an international bank prior to the conference.

The conference, formally known as the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, convened on July 1, 1944, and was attended by 730 delegates. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. served as conference president. Lord John Maynard Keynes of the U.K. delegation led Commission II that dealt with the proposal for a bank for reconstruction and development. The commission's committees were tasked with studying the preliminary draft presented to the conference and gathering additional suggestions and proposals. Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Belgium, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Canada, China, India, and the Soviet Union were among the active participants. Much of the discussions centered around the proposed bank’s dual purposes of reconstruction and development and its capital structure.

The World Bank
Chairmen of the 44 country delegations at the Bretton Woods Conference.
By July 22, 1944, the Final Act of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, which included charters outlining the goals and mechanisms of both the IMF and IBRD, were signed by the delegates, although many decisions had yet to be made. The IBRD Articles of Agreement were ratified on December 27, 1945, when representatives from twenty-one countries convened in Washington, DC to become the Bank’s first members.

Imagine all of the paperwork, draft reports, notes, correspondence, and other records generated during the conference. Think of all this important documentary evidence. Where do all those archival sources live? Like the IMF, the World Bank did not technically exist during or even immediately after the conference and so did not have recordkeeping responsibilities. Country delegates may have taken the records back to their countries after the conference was over, and so it’s likely that archival records relating to Bretton Woods can be found in the custody of archival institutions in those forty-four countries. As host of the conference, the records held by the United States are particularly comprehensive. IMF Archives later become the repository for the records maintained by the conference secretariat. Records related to Bretton Woods in the holdings of the World Bank Group Archives were collected as the result of Bank units and staff collecting copies for the purpose of reference, and while not insignificant, are far from complete.

The World Bank
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau addresses delegates.
Records in our custody that relate to Bretton Woods include: early draft proposals by countries; conference proceedings and working documents; pamphlets; government reports; and drafts and commentary on the Articles leading up to the December 1945 ratification. There is also IBRD internal memoranda and annotated copies of the Articles regarding interpretation and amendments after the Bank began operations in 1946. These records are found in numerous fonds, or record groups, such as the Secretary’s Department, Office of the President, Central Files, and the personal papers of the Bank’s first Research Department Director, Leonard B. Rist. You will also find conference photographs collected by the Bank’s communications unit. Many of the textual records have been declassified and a portion of them have been digitized. Below you will find inventories containing folder lists; those that have been digitized are hyperlinked.

We also invite you to explore other knowledge products produced by the Archives that relate to the Bretton Woods Conference. In 2019, the World Bank Group celebrated the 75th anniversary of the conference; the Archives organized a variety of events that are documented here. The World Bank Historical Timeline, created by the Archives, has many events exploring Bretton Woods and the early  years of the World Bank. Finally, the oral history interviews of former government officials involved in the preparatory work of Bretton Woods or who were delegates at the conference and later became Bank staff, including Irving S. Friedman, Aron Broches, Ansel F. Luxford, and Daniel Crena de Iongh, offer reflections on the events.