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Harry Dexter White with John Maynard Keynes

[This article first appeared in HNN]

I write in response to Benn Steil‘s New York Times op-ed “Banker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Joan White Pinkham‘s New York Times letter to the editor “A Case from the Cold War,” and Bruce Craig‘s HNN reply “Setting the Record Straight: Harry Dexter White and Soviet Espionage.”

First, it may be a bit early for Mr. Craig to say, “both Steil and Pinkham loosely played with the facts and twisted the truth.” Mr. Steil’s book is still to come: only a hint appears in his op-ed. Ms. Pinkham offered only an article by IMF historian James M. Boughton.

Second, regarding whether White was involved in espionage, perhaps it is worth revisiting early insight from Whittaker Chambers (my grandfather). Although in Witness he tended to write off White like other New Dealers — as communist dupes — Chambers also recounts this story:

Early in our acquaintanceship… White engaged in long monologues on abstruse monetary problems. One project that he kept urging was a plan of his own authorship for the reform of the Soviet monetary structure or currency. He offered it as a contribution to the Soviet Government. I sensed that the project was extremely important to White… Moscow… reacted with enthusiasm to the idea of having its monetary affairs “controlled” gratis by an expert of the United States Treasury Department. (Witness, p. 430)

What does White’s offer represent?

Let’s pare back the anecdote. A “contribution to the Soviet Government” — that is guesswork by Chambers. The report of Moscow’s “enthusiasm” is hearsay. In fact, Chambers admits, “I sometimes found myself wondering curiously why he [White] worked for the apparatus at all. His motives always baffled me.” (Witness, p. 431) Perhaps White would have baffled him less if he asked himself, why might White have wanted to help the Soviets? Clearly, the New Dealer label did not suffice.

Based on that anecdote, White had at least one plan of his own in the later 1930s. Perhaps White had ends of his own, too. We know he worked lifelong to foster financial stability — manifest at the U.S. Treasury, Bretton Woods, and the International Monetary Fund. Perhaps he used his position to foster the Soviet Union — then a new, budding American ally, recognized only in 1933 — beyond New Deal policy. Hitler was not the only politician in the 1930s who eyed Russia’s long border in Europe. Nor were communists and fellow travelers the only ones with high hopes for the “Soviet experiment” towards a better world.

Chambers often refers to White as “nervous” (Witness pp. 67, 416, 442). Perhaps years of working with communists to further his own unstated agenda made White uneasy.

Nonetheless, Ms. Pinkham does well to stand by her father. Full proof of White’s doings may never surface. Even if they should, one cannot deny that he helped better the financial system, towards a better world. His achievements remain standing at the U.S. Treasury, Bretton Woods, and the IMF. So does his American creed before HUAC. In contrast, Whittaker Chambers tried at best to neutralize dupes of Stalin-ized communism—long after Stalin had started liquidating every conceivable enemy. (But that does not cancel out Chambers’s insight into White.)

To understand early Cold War actors, we must pare back years of bias. We have to look anew. From his book title, Mr. Steil seems no red-hunter. As an economist, he should bring fresh eyes to White’s doings in his forthcoming The Battle of Bretton Woods.

[HOAC]

(The following year, the Times Literary Supplement reviewed Mr. Steil’s book: an excerpt regarding Whittaker Chambers appears here, while a clarification in the form of a letter to the editor appears here.)

3 Responses to The Baffling Harry White

  1. John Koster says:

    Has anybody out there bothered to read White’s state papers from the Seeley G. Mudd Library at Princeton? — the ones where he urges the United States to accept 5,000 Soviet “technical men” while the Hitler-Stalin OPact was still in effect, or urges that Japan be ordered to sell three-quarters of its armament production to the United States? Or am I the only one who ever bothered. The full text of his testimony before HUAC is also quite interesting. Ehen you get beyond the “American Creed” you discover he vouched for a number of men who wanted U.S. Treasury jobs and just happened to turn out to be Soviet agents.

  2. As Mr. Chambers points out, the evidence suggestive of Harry Dexter White’s collaboration with the Soviet underground is often challenging to interpret.

    Certainly, as I point out in my book Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter Spy Case, allegations of policy subversion by White (i.e. his alleged role in the so-called “German occupation currency scandal,” his role in the development of the Morgenthau Plan for post-war Germany etc…) are not sustained by the evidence. Nevertheless, the VENONA decrypts and the Vassiliev notebooks leave little doubt that White was — just as Whittaker Chambers reflections suggest — a willing collaborator as an information conduit for the Soviet underground.

    Though I well expect that Mr. Steil in his forthcoming book will have new insights into White’s role in the founding of the Bretton Woods institutions, I doubt his findings will negate the Venona/Vassiliev evidence that already is at our fingertips.

    R. Bruce Craig

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