The extended title of this superb biography is perhaps unusual but certainly apt. James Boughton, for twenty years the official historian of the IMF and himself a respected international monetary economist, was ideally suited to produce a fuller and more contextualized account of Harry Dexter White's life and accomplishments than had been given by previous historians. When, in the aftermath of World War II, large parts of Europe came under the sway of the Soviet Union and China too was “lost” to the Communists, a “McCarthyite witch hunt” was on for people to blame.
Attention soon fell on White (1892–1948). After completing his Harvard PhD dissertation in 1933 under Frank Taussig on the French international accounts, 1880–1913, White was recruited in 1934 by Jacob Viner to his “Freshman Brain Trust” at the US Treasury, along with White's fellow Harvard student and friend Lauchlin Currie. Viner assigned these two to work on separate but related projects concerned with reform of the US banking and financial system. Both thereafter rose to the top of their profession as economic policy advisers, White at the Treasury and Currie at the Fed and the White House, until the end of World War II. Before and during the war both were deeply engaged in major loan and other programs to the enemies of Germany and Japan, including lend-lease operations for Britain and China, and for Russia too after she had joined the Grand Alliance.
After the war, White and Currie were subjected to searching FBI investigations and both appeared on August 16, 1948, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to protest allegations made by Elizabeth Bentley—herself involved in espionage but who had never met either man—that both had been Soviet agents. All her evidence was hearsay, and much hung on guilt by association. Some of White's many colleagues and friends were Communist sympathizers, and a few were indeed engaged illicitly in conscious Soviet espionage.
The title of Boughton's book alludes to White's opening statement before HUAC, with its dramatic assertion that “my creed is the American creed.” This “expressed his general belief in American democracy, freedom of choice, absence of ‘arbitrary and unwarranted use of power’ against individuals or groups, his opposition to ‘discrimination in any form,’ and his more specific belief in the goal of ‘an increasing measure of political, economic and emotional security for all’” (320).
After his comprehensive, forensic review of the available evidence, Boughton has little doubt that White's declaration was sincerely and deeply held. White embraced the mixed-economy ideals of the New Deal, but this was far from what most economists understand by Communism. His sympathies were amply demonstrated by his massive efforts, otherwise paradoxical, in conceiving and bringing to successful fruition his ideas on how to save world capitalism from a repeat of depression, war, and harmful restrictions on international trade and finance.
White's efforts culminated in his masterminding the huge Bretton Woods conference of July 1944. Intense negotiations between the Americans and British were first conducted over the respective plans put forward by White for the Americans and John Maynard Keynes for the British. These were competing but in large part overlapping visions for a more stable, prosperous, and peaceful postwar world. Boughton highlights how White's vision was more internationalist than Keynes's, with the latter keen to preserve Britain's sterling-area interests and imperial preferences. Naturally this conflicted with US interests.
Robert Skidelsky, however, surely goes too far in his magisterial three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes when he wrote the following:
The story of Anglo-American rivalry is given a further twist by the fact that the man with whom Keynes mainly negotiated in Washington, Harry Dexter White of the US Treasury, wanted to cripple Britain in order to clear the ground for a post-war American-Soviet alliance. That he and other senior administration officials were passing classified information to the Soviets cannot now be reasonably doubted. (Skidelsky 2000: xx)
After Skidelsky has read Boughton's book, he may see reasonable doubt after all. He may at least acknowledge that Keynes himself, although a doughty defender of Britain's interests, had a high opinion of White despite their very different backgrounds. Boughton reproduces a letter from Keynes at Bretton Woods to Sir Wilfred Eady of the UK Treasury that is a mixture of the negative and the positive:
At the same time I have a great respect even liking for him. In many respects he is the best man here. A very able and devoted public servant, carrying an immense burden of responsibility and initiative, of high integrity and of clear sighted international purpose, genuinely intending to do his best for the world. Moreover, his overpowering will combined with the fact he has constructive ideas mean that he does get things done, which few else here do.” (179)
Boughton explains and assesses the nature and significance of the debates with great clarity. The White plan finally prevailed, and it was then White's role to see it through Congress, and he finally served as the first US executive director of the IMF until heart attacks forced him to resign in April 1947. He died a year later, of another heart attack, three days after his forceful HUAC speech declaring his “American creed.”
If through all this he was a conscious spy on behalf of Soviet interests, as opposed to an unwitting source of confidential information, he was very bad at it. This was evidenced by the many complaints the Soviets made about how little useful information they got from him.
This was later revealed when in 1995 the US National Security Agency declassified a large number of Soviet cables from the 1940s that had been decrypted after 1948, albeit often only in fragmentary, hence ambiguous, form. Much more was obtained later from Soviet archives. This spawned many new books and articles evaluating the case against White. These included a 2001 article by Boughton on White's wartime contacts with the Soviets. This led the historian Harvey Klehr (2004: 58) to write that Boughton's persistence “in proclaiming that the new evidence . . . is either forged or unreliable . . . is to engage in the equivalence of Holocaust denial.” Many would justifiably recoil from a comparison between repugnant Holocaust denial and Boughton's considered reappraisal of White's contacts with representatives of his country's wartime ally.
Boughton ultimately concludes his book by suggesting that for a man who was so good at everything else he applied himself to, the accusation that he could have been a poor performer as a willing Soviet agent “would be the unkindest charge of all” (380).