Sir Edgar Cohen Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Sir Edgar Cohen

British Board of Trade, 1932-53, Under Secretary, 1947; Second Secretary, 1952. Chairman of U.N. Interim Coordinating Committee for International Commodity Arrangements, 1953-54

Sussex, England
June 12, 1970
by Theodore A. Wilson

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened June, 1984
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

Oral History Interview with
Sir Edgar Cohen

Sussex, England
June 12, 1970
by Theodore A. Wilson



COHEN: The main problem immediately after the war was that the countries hadn't the money and the resources to import freely from one another. They had a tradition from before the war, many of them, of restrictionism, and nobody would take the lead in getting trade going again. It was a very difficult situation, in fact, when the Marshall plan started, I remember. One couldn't see very far ahead, and we had had the loan, of course, from the United States in 1945-46.

We were committed to certain conditions of convertibility and non-discrimination. That gave



a breath of fresh air in Europe. It was seized after the way water is in a drought. I mean the money available to conversion was sucked in, wherever anyone could suck it because they were so short. And nobody was prepared to use it as an opportunity to restore freer trade, instead of making it an opportunity to get hold of some gold or dollars to pay off debt or to meet immediate and urgent requirements of American raw materials and equipment. But as far as that went, it was a drop in the ocean in any event. I mean the money went in a fraction of the time expected, as you remember, and we had to become inconvertible again. We had to stop it.

Apart from one or two countries like Belgium, which emerged from the war rather stronger than some, and Switzerland, which hadn't been in the war, or Sweden, which was a trading country on the periphery, nobody had the resources, or the possibility, really, of getting trade moving in a normal way. One of the things the Marshall plan did was to provide a great opportunity for that,



because as we saw it in England, the need was there and the Marshall plan should be partly used to enable people to meet the need, issue imports more freely. If we don't import more freely from you, you run into a certain amount of deficit. If you got support from the United States -- and you'd be lesser alarmed at that prospect -- within reason you get a little bit deeper into the swimming pool and see if you can't swim a bit. But without that, people absolutely are at the shallow end dabbling, you know, and very much afraid of moving.

WILSON: By your reference to trade in the normal way at the end of the war, this was thought of as an attempt to restore what had been normal commercial intercourse in the period between the wars, before the breakdown in the thirties?

COHEN: Yes. That's right.

And also, as further moves towards the reduction of other barriers and closer restrictions; that was left to the GATT [General Agreements on Tariff and Trade] in Geneva. But there were at



the end of 1945 joint Anglo-American proposals for the freeing of trade in a more generalized way with nondiscrimination and reduced tariffs. Which has still survived in the GATT in Geneva.

WILSON: Yes. This is marked on the American side, of course. Some of the persons whom I've interviewed have used the word "obsession" to describe Americans who were pushing for trade liberalization as a solution to almost all problems.

COHEN: Well, it was a necessary condition for the solving of problems on a basis of private enterprise, and they were quite right. They were quite right I think. They've had to justify what they did. But in the authority dealing with tariffs and the broad experiment on discrimination, you want a world basis for what you're doing, and that we got through the GATT. Insofar as you want to get the people shattered by the war to restore their old economies and to build up again, and be able to play a responsible part in world affairs,



it was a geographical problem of Western Europe, and that's where the Marshall plan came in. You will put up this much money to it and now see if they can't get on their feet again. You know, from others, how the United States provided equipment, raw materials, and food in an enormous quantity into Western Europe and gave these people a chance to breathe and recover. The whole thing had to be restored. Germany had to recover again.

WILSON: Some of the information which I have been given suggests that the thrust of American aid in this period, perhaps even, before the Marshall plan, viewed Europe as a cohesive trading unit rather than at a part of the world economy, and that this indeed in part defeated the effort to reintegrate Europe into the world economy.

COHEN: I think that there may have been an attempt to do things that way. It's awfully difficult for me to say without asking the individual Americans who were doing it. But I don't think it defeated anything.



I think it was a necessary step. You put it this way, that on the worldwide philosophy that the United States had, and the British shared, you would work on an issue of non-discrimination worldwide. None of these countries could afford to trade freely; they hadn't the resources. They all have what's called "balance of payments" difficulties. The demand in that country was far in excess of what they had in resources. They got Central banks to finance.

Therefore, under the system of international law that was built up in the GATT, the administration of the GATT, everybody could impose restrictions. I think what the United States felt there -- and what we felt -- our common approach was inside Europe there was a possibility, as a sort of limited "hot house" experiment, to say, "Here as against one another, we don't exercise our rights under international treaties to restrict imports from one another. This time, let's set a more generous basis among ourselves, and then when we are strong



enough, we can extend it more fully."

Then of course, the great problem later on was when the United States demanded, quite rightly, that these things should be extended to imports from the United States. But let's start now. The more you buy from one another, the more one another can buy from you. See what I mean? So let's try and break it down a bit. And we, independently, in Britain were interested in liberalizing our trade. We had always been a world trading nation and we reckoned that our industry would be healthier if it had to face some import competition. I think it was a natural. We were better equipped for export trade, and it was a natural requirement for development of the British Commonwealth, to get away from close restrictionism.

Now the difficulty of doing that is that of course you run into balance of payments difficulties if you do it too fast, and as other countries are doing it at the same time. So the American move



for liberalization coincided with our own judgment of what really was in the interest of ourselves and our neighbors, We saw it in the same way, and we had our plans by 1948-49 to start liberalizing our imports. We brought that into Europe, and in OEEC broader plans were made, which subsumed our plans, generally on the basis of liberalizing, giving percentages of your trade in manufactures, raw materials, and foodstuffs separately -- as you all moved forward steadily at the same pace. When you got to 75 percent you were beginning to get somewhere. The main difficulty was, of course, that some countries were more inflationary than others, and therefore tended to suck in more, while others tended to squeeze out more exports. That led to a balance of payments dis-equilibrium, which had to be dealt with.

The parallel contribution, you see, the United States then made under the Marshall plan was to say, "Now, you chaps liberalize your trade as hard as you can, and we will finance the union for clearing payments -- a European Payments Union -- so there



will be an element of credit between you. There will be a certain amount of gold there for your international settlement. You can settle credit, one country with another, and that will give you the financial basis on which you can be more courageous about lowering trade barriers."

WILSON: Just how strongly did the United States -- the American representatives -- carry forward the plan?

COHEN: They carried it forward all right.

WILSON: I know 500 million...

COHEN: I forget the figure, the amount they put into aid in the EPU [European Payments Union]; that must be readily available. They did put a substantial sum into the EPU of Marshall plan money. It was very well used, because the money in there enabled the Europeans to buy more from one another and hence facilitated their own industrial reconstruction, and thereby become more independent of American aid. It was money very well spent. There's no



use just giving people food and materials and machinery; they can sit back and say, "Thank you very much." It's a very pleasant way of living. But this money was used to get all producing and trading with one another on a scale which they could not otherwise have afforded, and therefore, to get their industries restored more quickly. The European Payments Union was really, I think, a major achievement of the OPEC. But it was introduced out of the efforts of liberalization of trade, which previously had been facilitated by payments arrangements of a more primitive kind, what we called "drawing rights." It was then carried forward much more effectively when the EPU multi-lateralized the credit arrangements, when each country had a settlement on a multilateral. basis, whether or not its debtors were good for the money, so to speak. But if you sold to Greece, and bought from Belgium, you could convert a part of the surplus by paying it into EPU. You settle through the EPU, and the American money was there. You couldn't have got



out of Athens.

The principle was that you could cash in your credits and your deficits, strike the net balance. If you wanted your net balance you had to surrender, you had to pay proportionately, in gold. The amount you had to settle increased according to the extent to which you had drawn up your quota of credit. The more deeply you got in, the more you had to pay; the bigger the proportion that was demanded of you. That naturally was the sanction. Equally, if you were a creditor, you had to give credit first, and the bigger your credit position, the more you could claim as a settlement in gold. The American money, you see, helped to finance it and to make it possible for the European countries to do it. It treated all countries as equally sound financially; that is to say, the American money enabled you to obtain, within limits set by EPU, a convertibility of any of the currencies involved, because you paid in your chips, your IOU's, and they



counted towards your creditor or debtor position. That meant that people didn't need to be selective as the partner trade developed. That is something that was overcome when European recovery had reached the point, had passed the point, where these countries could, on their own resources, finance these deficits. It anticipated a position that was artificial at first.

Once the position was reached, where the countries could settle these claims -- it wasn't all that difficult once countries got their industries going again -- then we reached a point where we didn't need the EPU any longer. We were able to convert our currencies from one another on a worldwide basis.

Looking back on the thing, one is bound to admit that it was a very great success. I don't think it's exaggerating it to say that it was a successful venture, carried through by a handful of extremely able men.

WILSON: Might you identify the ones that you...



COHEN: I forget the main people but there were obviously my people, a handful of them, the people who devised the European Payments Union, the people who devised the payments agreement. The payments plans, which they started with, were quite an ingenious device. What they said in effect was that, look at a country like Belgium, she came out of the war fairly well -- Belgium, you might say, well she hadn't gotten dollars, she hadn't gotten hard currency, to afford the credit. But she didn't need help from the United States, except to the extent that if she sold to people who couldn't pay in hard currency, she was making what were formerly bad debts, but if she was to sell her steel to the British, we will say, she must charge convertible money for it, because she needed that to buy from the United States. For the other half, she could balance her account subject to being paid.

Then the United States in effect said, "Well, we will give you Marshall aid, on condition that



you give as much aid to European countries immediately as you got from us." In other words, we'll convert the money for you. But the Belgians in that case would be given, shall we say, conditional aid X, and would establish drawing rights equal to X with other European countries. She would then have given as much as she received in a way which in today's conditions simply means she was paid in good convertible cash. And then she wouldn't have needed American money. America said, in other words, "We will give you money, in effect, to which you convert. Having convertible money again would be our contribution to it."

On that basis, countries were able to establish drawing rights for the benefit of countries who were in deficit with them, where those countries couldn't afford to buy as freely as they should. American aid underpinned the process by saving the creditor country from the inflationary pressure that would ensue, and indeed from the economic sacrifice it could not afford. That would have happened in supplying goods to a deficit neighbor,



instead of selling them on the world market for good money, or using them at home.

The Americans in effect said, "Well, you can have so much aid, so much absolute and so much conditional. So the other countries that need your stuff can get it from you instead of coming to us for it, but we will pay for it. We're giving you aid, the goods you want from us, but on condition that you in turn pass it on, because you don't need that much aid net."

Then the multi-lateralization of that was really the next step in the European Payments Union. The man who had a lot to do with the devising, or the planning for the conditional aid, and the drawing rights, was Ansiaux, the Belgian.

WILSON: I will see him.

COHEN: Yes. Well Ansiaux had a lot to do with that. He is a very ingenious, able man, and Ansiaux had a lot to do with it. Other people who know



a lot about it, or did know, was Sir Hugh Ellis-Rees in London, have you got his name from anyone?

WILSON: Yes. Ambassador [Henry J.] Tasca recommended him and I wrote him, but I did not receive a reply.

COHEN: I guess he's all right, he's getting pretty elderly; he's in London.

WILSON: I'll try to call him.

COHEN: See if you can call him. He lives in London. I've forgotten the address, on Georges Square; he's in the phone book, and he had a lot to do with it. In the United States [Hubert F.] Havlik had a lot to do with it; he had a lot to do with what I call the "wet metal;" he and Ellis-Rees used to work with the financial committee there. Do you know Frank Figgures from the Treasury?

WILSON: Yes, I'll see him in August.

COHEN: Well, he knows a lot about that, he was on



the Secretariat. He might tell you some. All I remember was, the drawing rights did enable countries to get help from one another, so the European trade recovered. The United States made that possible by giving aid conditionally against those rights. The difficulty sometimes was to anticipate what the deficit should be; the drawing rights might not be used.

WILSON: Germany got into some prime trouble just after the...

COHEN: We got into difficulties before we diverted sterling on the basis of the exchange rate. There was a difficulty in these artificial things, but the principle of the thing was to try to plan forward. What were the likely requirements in excess of what we could meet, or could afford?

WILSON: Let me ask two questions. As you suggested, sterling was in a somewhat unique position at the beginning of the EPU, and had a rather special relationship in the sense that they set up, I understand, the EPU unit as the dollar. And



sterling was also recognized.

COHEN: No, it wasn't as I remember, no. We had to settle in gold or dollars at the end of each month. We were treated just like everybody else. Sterling was inconvertible for this purpose. It was one of the problems of the EPU, and it is, if you like, a reason that the EPU couldn't last indefinitely. But the main reason, of course, the EPU couldn't last indefinitely is that it was a regional system, which made for regional liberalization and regional assistance. It had built-in discrimination against the rest of the world. There were problems about this, also. Of course, it did facilitate acceptance of sterling in many parts of the world. That is to say, people who ran into sterling debt could draw on EPU. I don't think as far as I can remember there's any means of identifying whether the debt of Mauritania or Italy was due to buying more from England than from buying American wool. I mean sterling-area payments were bound to come into it. These



countries accepted sterling and the money went through London. There it was. But they did not recognize that they could buy freely, or liberalize from the sterling area. But the financial ground for discrimination had gone. And some did, I think, liberalize with raw materials, because that was common sense, and they had to settle part of it in dollars. It wasn't always done. The principle of the OEEC as a code was that they must liberalize for the overseas territories, that's the colonial territories. They were in the plan, and they were at liberty, as far as I can remember, to liberalize for other countries in the financial areas. They worked apart. As far as I can remember, that's how it went, but I don't, honestly, remember exactly about that.

Some other people you could speak to may remember more clearly, but my recollection was that it was optional. But certainly sterling's position as an international currency must have made it impossible to identify the payments



position of the United Kingdom from the wider payments position of each country with the sterling area generally. Because they were always at liberty to use sterling within the principal area and in the sterling area itself they could all use sterling.

WILSON: There was some difficulty as I recall at the time the EPU was set up, because Great Britain was placed in a creditor position rather than a debtor position just at the beginning.

COHEN: We went into it; we were in a creditor position, I imagine -- about 1950. I don't remember that we were in a strong creditor position until the Korean war. The Korean war pushed us into a very strong creditor position for the reasons I just mentioned here. There was the sterling-area crisis in raw materials. There was a heavy demand for raw materials after the Korean war, at high prices to be paid to Australia and Malaya in Asia, and those high prices were paid in sterling.



WILSON: Which caused some difficulty because prices went up on imports to Great Britain.

COHEN: All these countries were in sterling deficit -- and therefore we were in a very strong creditor position with the European Payments Union. That illustrates, as I said before, that you can't distinguish them. You are either buying in London on the London Produce Exchange or the London produce markets. They are buying; and the monies were paid, even if their buying is through Malaya or Australia. They are buying and they pay sterling. You can't distinguish sterling's impact in London by the central banks of those countries. Therefore, we became a very strong creditor position. In fact, after the Korean war, when prices fell, the United Kingdom was in a debtor position on capital accounts, to the sterling-area countries. They built up these huge balances out of the Korean war. And the running down of those balances caused us consequently to run down accounts in the European



Payments Union. The reaction after the Korean war ran us into a deficit to the EPU, but we as an individual nation, so far as I can remember, were balancing our accounts fairly well in Europe all the time. The independent sterling countries -- Malaya, Southeast Asia -- the fact that these countries were running a heavy surplus against the others, put us into a creditor position. And the fact that they ran down the balances afterwards when the prices fell, threw us into a deficit position.

WILSON: What about the EPU as an instrument for European integration? That is, as you suggested, the impetus for it came primarily for...

COHEN: Primarily for the liberalization of trade more than the payments thing. The fact that it financed the freer development of trade did facilitate integration. It paved the way for the closer relations of the six, first in the Schuman plan and then more importantly in the Messina talks. It got people much more in the habit of meeting around the table



to discuss practical plans to cut their trade barriers, and they got much more used to trading among themselves. I think in that respect the EPU was very important. I don't think the payments agreements, the bilateral agreements, would have done it even though they were made. You had transferable drawing rights before; they tried to make them transferable. But they couldn't even then get the same flexibility in the multilateral trade. There were a number of reasons I think why you had some move more toward real integration through the OECD. Of course, I think it was partly political. European countries which had been occupied in the war all lost a certain amount of their sense of national exclusiveness. Put in broader terms, there were these human beings, on the one hand, and the oppressors, who didn't interfere with the Fascist reactionary-Nazi type on the other. The resistance groups were the Allies, fighting alongside them on the ground; some of the Vichy people, on the other hand, with the Germans. I think there was a general



realization that really nationality isn't quite the dividing line.

Then, through the Marshall plan, the people of good sense and good spirit and good quality of character, got into the practice of working together so much more closely in OEEC, getting to know one another. It was so much easier than it had been before the war for them to avoid unnecessary difficulties in their trade and financial arrangements. It became so much easier for them to discuss a question around the table and solve it constructively. We got away from the top-hatted diplomat putting in an aide mémoire, and got down to the position where you can say, "Why, let's get hold of two or three wise chaps and sit down at the table and get a judgment on this."

WILSON: The technical approach, yes.

COHEN: In other words, you got the spirit, the political spirit, I think, to some extent that



came after the war. Then you had the opportunity for the technical approach that came through the Marshall plan, which forced the issue in that they couldn't work the Marshall plan without doing so. But in the process they had the opportunity through meeting in these committees to do work of the kind that couldn't be done before, since these things didn't exist in the League of Nations. It was also, to some extent, due to the fact that by whatever good chances men of very high quality were here in that period of time. Not only did you on the outside put in some of the best men you had available, from your universities, as well as from administration, and your businessmen - I don't remember the businessmen too well, but no doubt they were there -- but certainly you got from the administration and from the universities particularly able men, both in Paris and in the ECA missions in the capital. But the European governments, realizing the importance of it, the vital need to make a success of it, put some of their best men into Paris, or



into the government jobs at home.

So, really the quality of men who might make a success of it were available at the table. And some of these men have since had ministerial offices in European countries; others have become heads of their departments in the Foreign Offices. All of that meant that the policies worked much better than they could have worked in other circumstances.

WILSON: Would you suggest that the quality of men sent -- I'm speaking particularly of the American side here -- people who were really aware of both the opportunities and difficulties of achieving integration, resulted in a more realistic approach to the problems? In political terms the American representatives would often talk about, "Well, why don't you just create a United States of Europe? Why don't you just set up a custom union; why don't you allow Switzerland to produce all the watches," and that sort of thing -- the planning approach. But American representatives here, in Europe, were not as simplistic, I gather, in that approach. There were problems in moving from



national economies to an international -- supranational economy?

COHEN: I think it was an education for them; let's put it that way, for them to be in Paris and hear these discussions. They were bound to realize that it wasn't as simple as it might sound. They would see it firsthand; there were still important differences of character, temperament, and of outlook and interest. As I said just now, they were remarkably reduced at the political level by the experiences of the German occupation, and the common effort of liberation. So, there were differences and differences of interest, particularly, and you couldn't overnight create these. There were, indeed, technical difficulties with the customs union as such. I think that they did sometimes still oversimplify what was wanted; I'm not sure.

To answer your question, do you really want the people who are full-time dealing with all OEEC business? We could deal with that. On the



trade front it went better. It was easier, but I'm thinking everything was not as easy as on the trade front. Everybody really had an interest in doing what OEEC wanted on trade. It paid off ordinarily for any country to buy and sell more freely. As long as a country has reasonable flexibility to pick and choose what it is doing in its customs area. Everybody's really better off with than without it. And, therefore, there is a will. to do all these things, and it wasn't oversimplified. It only got to that point when we were asked to provide equity, and then of course, a difficulty arose.

I'd expect it, in fact, to be possible that the United States members would oversimplify. They would think, "Well, we might not be able to do this or that at home, but you've got special problems. These people in Europe have got such a massive uphill climb ahead of them, surely they're not going to hold things up for the sake of protecting their apples and their pears and their canned milk products." There may be certain



people dealing with agricultural liberalization who could tell you more about this. I think, sometimes, when I dealt with American officials they have tended to think that the governments are uniquely difficult and the Europeans had bloody well get on with it. But they are not in a strong position when they carry a waiver of all the rules in the GATT.

The people, you see, who are going into attack ought to be able to defend the other side; therefore, they see the light better. But the trouble is that they can't put across at home, and, therefore, they aren't taken too seriously by those who want to resist them. I think it is their problem there, which would have been felt then. It must have been felt then, but to what extent I wouldn't know.

WILSON: This was certainly true; American protectionist policy on agricultural imports was very strong during this period. So you're suggesting that the anomaly was recognized in Europe?



COHEN: Well, we just thought they won't do it; they won't remove their restrictions in the field. They won't when it comes to the point. The vested interest of the farmers is such that they can't be able to do it. They'll buy what they need to meet their requirements, but they don't want to commit themselves to freedom of trade. The American pressures I think were a little selfish at times. It was well-known of course, that they couldn't do it themselves and they took stock of the fact that their difficulties were not altogether different in kind than those of others. Certainly, by 1950 they had not removed their own restrictions in the GATT which were legal. When they came and asked for a waiver of the GATT rules in 1955, it made it very difficult for their people in Paris to request the Europeans to do the thing in GATT they couldn't do themselves.

Whether or not it was overtly argued in Paris, it is a fact that ministers were aware of these things. It would weaken their case. But



I wouldn't like you to think I was saying that I thought that if the United States were set free, the Europeans would not have had any difficulty. But I think when you get to that point it's very difficult. You see even now, the community has problems of freeing their trade in agricultural products. They have to have common prices agreed, and they have to have arrangements for payments from one another, the extent to which they buy from outside and so on. It's been the one part of the Common Market that has caused difficulty of any kind that almost might have broken it down. Well that shows what policy resistance you get there, even amongst people who are almost entirely integrated in their economies, in every other respect. I don't think that at the time in Paris it was possible to appraise quite realistically what we now see were the difficulties you have in trading foodstuffs, and especially in raw materials.

WILSON: Were you involved in the UNISCAN arrangements? [Plan for economic union between the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.]




WILSON: Tell me about that.

COHEN: They were mainly financial, you know. UNISCAN never really became much more than an arrangement for a freer transferability of sterling. To have done anything on that front would have meant either having preferential tariffs, which we certainly didn't wish to have in Britain -- it was very complicated -- and/or it would have meant a discriminatory liberalization. And I don't think, as far as I remember, that we liberalized anything on a UNISCAN basis and kept up the restrictions against the rest of OEEC; it would have been a breach of OEEC codes to do it. You've got me here on something I don't remember very clearly. There may have been in the code some provision that countries who got closer together would liberalize more quickly for one another.

WILSON: I seem to recall that was the case.

COHEN: It didn't mean you could permanently do something. You could move more quickly, but then you



must catch up afterward.

WILSON: The assumption was that FINABEL and the others, FREDELUX, which didn't actually go into effect, would be regional groupings that would then be merged themselves.

COHEN: That's how I remember it. I don't think anything came of it. It's the same philosophy, I think, that some Americans still have for dealing with the tariff preferences of developing countries. It is one of accelerating the entire production of these countries, rather than doing it permanently for them, while not for other people. You might say you would agree to reduce the tariff by 50 percent every five years. You do it at once for some countries, and take your five years for the others. It's a temporary tariff preference.

Anyway UNISCAN never did have tariff preferences. I don't think, from memory, that it ever had quota preferences. It did have freer travel because there were understandings between the central banks that made it possible to get money



out more freely. I think, in turn, that was based on fairly traditional relations between these countries, who before the war had been in the sterling area, almost surely within the sterling area before the war. The sterling area then may have had different sorts of rules and arrangements. The Scandinavian countries did substantially bank in London and the currencies were substantially linked to the pound. The UNISCAN was sort of a half-way house between the sterling area and the EPU, but they were in the EPU. I dare say some of the arrangements were made on the sterling basis and were not clearly accounta