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A Scholar in Action in Interwar America. John H. Williams’ contributions to trade theory and international monetary reform


  • Pier Francesco Asso


  • Luca Fiorito



In this paper we analyse the scientific contributions of Harvard economist John H. Williams as international trade theorist and monetary reformer, together with his activities as a Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In the first two Sections we present a succinct overview of Williams’ main contributions to international trade theory and to the interwar debate on the reform of the international monetary system. Particular attention will be devoted to his early academic writings which contained different critical arguments against the two main tenets of classical international economics: the Ricardian theory of comparative advantages and the gold standard. These criticisms formed the theoretical rationale and the analytical background of Williams’ key currency approach to the reform of the international monetary system. The key currency plan was first formulated when Williams advised Roosevelt and Morghenthau to sign a Tripartite agreement with Britain and France, and was later refined during the negotiations which concluded with the approval of the Bretton Woods agreements. In this respect, Section 4 is devoted to the analysis of the contents of Williams’ proposal and to the reconstruction of his main criticisms of the two official plans presented by John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White. Section 5 is devoted to examining Keynes’ and White’s reactions and to elucidating what aspects of Williams’ ideas managed to influence the shaping of the Bretton Woods Agreements. Finally, Section 6 presents some general conclusions. Sections 4 and 5 have greatly benefited from the use of archival sources which have been quoted at length, mostly in the footnotes

Suggested Citation

  • Pier Francesco Asso & Luca Fiorito, 2004. "A Scholar in Action in Interwar America. John H. Williams’ contributions to trade theory and international monetary reform," Department of Economics University of Siena 430, Department of Economics, University of Siena.
  • Handle: RePEc:usi:wpaper:430

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    John H. Williams; John Maynard Keynes; Harry D. White; Bretton Woods Agreements; Key currency; gold standard; economists in Government;

    JEL classification:

    • B22 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought since 1925 - - - Macroeconomics
    • B31 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought: Individuals - - - Individuals

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