A presentation of historical events by the World Bank Group Archives
June 20, 2003—On June 25 the World Bank will mark its 57th birthday, for it was on June 25, 1946, that the Bank formally opened for business. This auspicious event was preceded by a great deal of preparatory work. The Articles of Agreement had been hammered out at the Bretton Woods Conference nearly two years before, in July 1944. They became effective on December 27, 1945, upon signature, in Washington, by 28 governments. The Inaugural Meeting of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had taken place in Savannah, Georgia, in March 1946. On May 7 the Bank’s Board of Executive Directors held its first meeting. On June 18 the Bank’s first President, Eugene Meyer, took office.
On June 25, when the Bank opened for business, it had a staff of 26. One of them, Marie Louise ("Lise") Cathala, recalled the early days of the Bank:
I may as well tell you that, even in retrospect, there were never "good old days" spent in sunny climes of unhurried, harmonious work. These were exciting days, challenging days, disheartening days, difficult days in 1946; in fact there was never a dull moment. All of us who were present at that time had very much the same feeling as attending the launching of a ship: it is a big enterprise, everything possible has been done, but now hold your breath and look at the way she takes to the water. And the waters around the Bank were sometimes choppy; the press was not altogether favorable; it took quite a long time for the US Government to propose our first President and we felt paralyzed without a head; every decision, every appointment was provisional. Until Mr. Meyer’s nomination every newspaper was playing a wild guessing game and I remember that Lewis Douglas and James Forrestal were great favorites.
My personal recollections of the first days of the Bank are hopelessly mingled with my first impressions of the United States. When I came to Washington, the Office of Price Administration was still in existence; there were "restrictions" of sugar—although sugar bowls were on every restaurant table—and there was even a "meat famine" going on, which meant that sometimes you had to settle for a chicken instead of a T-bone. For me, coming from war-torn France and four years of starvation, I firmly believed that I had reached the country of Cocaigne, and my impressions of New York were very much akin to those of the poorest starry-eyed immigrants. Was it possible that such plenty could exist? The first time I walked through a Safeway store I was unable to gather the nerve to buy any of these extravagant luxuries: milk, eggs, oranges… But this is taking us far from the Bank.
The first Board meeting of the IMF was held on May 6 at the Washington Hotel. The Bank was more fortunate as concerns lodgings and held theirs the following day at 1818 H. Members of the Board had temporary offices either at the Washington Hotel of at their various embassies. The Director for France had an office on Massachusetts Avenue with the French Financial Attaché, and I worked there for several weeks. Later on, the State Department put a few rooms at the Bank’s disposal at 1818 H which later became the A building of the old main complex. I still remember the wide, spacious rooms on the 10th floor. The rooms were large and beautiful, but they were bare; so back I went to Massachusetts Avenue.
The next time I came to 1818 H great progress had been made: there was a desk and there was a chair in each room but there was no typewriter; so back I went to Massachusetts Avenue.
The third time—well, the third time I stayed, and my troubles began. I needed stationery, envelopes, scissors. I went to see Eddie Donovan [Assistant to the Chief of Office Services] and assumed imprudently that the French and English languages had a lot in common. I innocently asked for some "furniture" (after all, supplied are called "fournitures" in French). Eddie was dismayed. "But you have received it already. Don’t you have a desk, or a chair?" I shrugged in a very French way and protested, "I told you I needed furniture—furniture like paper, envelopes, etc." Eddie certainly thought that he had a difficult customer—these foreigners!—but he obliged. I had an armful of supplies when I realized that I had nothing to put the documents in. I needed files. The only trouble was that I did not know the English word for it. Unfortunately, the French word "chemise," meaning light Manila folder, does not lend itself to misuse and my previous experience should have warned me of the dangers of literal translation, but I made a new try. "Please," I said with my most engaging smile, "and may I also have some shirts?" Poor me! I am still blushing.
Soon, however, things were rolling. Every day a new telephone list (one mimeographed sheet for the whole staff) contained new names. Every month the State Department occupancy receded in from our advancing tide and relinquished more floors of the building. [1818 H Street was occupied primarily by U.S. State Department offices at the time.] Poor Borda, [Joseph F. Borda, Assistant to the Personnel Officer] our first Chief of Personnel, was collapsing under the avalanche of applications: more than 700 a day. Committees were formed: Procedure, Interpretation, Loan, etc. Meetings were called every hour every day of the week. Press releases were issued and the press ceased to call us "The Bretton Woods Institutions" and created the term "World Bank." Rules and regulations began to rain, order reigned, the fun was over!
Another staff member, Richard H. Demuth recalled his experience of the early days of the Bank:
When I joined the Bank in mid-July 1946 no one had a clear idea of what role the Bank could or should play, except that we all assumed that our job was primarily one of European reconstruction and that our "development" function was secondary, both in time and importance. We were equally fuzzy in our ideas as to the methods by which the Bank should operate—whether through lending the Bank’s own funds or, as was more generally believed at Bretton Woods, through guaranteeing loans made by others. "Technical Assistance" was then a phrase unknown. Even the project approach…was an embryonic idea.
The following from Eugene Meyer in the Tenth Anniversary Issue of "International Bank Notes", June 1956:
Finding the proper path for this new experiment in international cooperation was not easy. We had only the Articles of Agreement to guide us and they provided only the sketchiest of outlines. The first annual report, covering only a few months of operations, noted that the Executive Directors and the staff had been engaged in "continuous study" of loan policies, a statement literally true. We were all doing the first slow and painful thinking so essential to the development of sound practices and procedures.
Without records there is no history. Courtesy of ISG’s World Bank Group Archives
1818 H Street, N.W.
Washington, D. C.
The World Bank opened for business on the tenth floor of this building on June 25, 1946.
First President of the World Bank
Harold D. Smith
First Vice President of the World Bank
The World Bank began operations on June 25, 1946 with 26 staff members, 12 of whom are pictured above.
Some Bank staff members: (left to right) Front row: Pauline Newton, Martin Rosen, Therese Seguin, Badri Rao. Second row: Jean Galiffa, Arthur Wubnig, Ann Rozeck, Bernice Westrom. Third row: Lydia Miller, James Lynch, Toni Georgion, Samuel Lipkowitz.
Some original Bank staff members: (left to right) Front row: Leonard Rist, Anne Starcevic, Henry Riley, Marion Abbott. Second Row: Aron Broches, Audrey Smith, William Howell, Gladys Willard, Joseph Fajams. Third row: Morton M. Mendels, Lyell Doucet, Marvel Pollock, Ivan Holness, Richard Demuth
Marie Louis Cathala, Office of the President, 1946 – 1971.
Morton M. Mendels, Secretary, 1946 – 1973.