An Interview with Bettina Bien Greaves

July 21, 2017

An Interview with Bettina Bien Greaves

Today is Bettina Bien Greaves 100th birthday. Mrs. Greaves is a truly special person, and without her the Mises Institute would not be what it is today.

Along with her husband Percy, she attended Ludwig von Mises’s seminars at New York University, where she earned the respect and trust of Mises. She went on to be a vital assistant to Mises for the rest of his life, as well as becoming an accomplished scholar in her own right. Ever since the Mises Institute’s founding, Mrs. Greaves has been a remarkable supporter, contributor, and friend.

Anyone who cares about the ideas of Austiran economics, freedom, and peace, owe her their sincerist gratitude.

Below is an interview with Mrs. Greaves from 1998, discussing her time with Ludwig von Mises and the ideas the Mises Institute stands for. 

AEN: How did the most recent Mises book, Interventionism: An Economic Analysis, come to be written and published?

GREAVES: This is a fascinating case. Mises came to the United States in 1940, and this must have been written soon after, but nothing ever came of it. This was a very sad and difficult period in his life. He had no money and no job. His books and papers, except for those he had taken to Switzerland, had been confiscated by the Nazis. He had few contacts in America. I marvel that he was able to be so productive.

I’m very pleased this book is out at last. It is a valuable contribution, and stands with Socialism (1922) and Liberalism (1927) as an important part of the comparative-systems literature.

In those first few months after arriving in the United States, Mises also wrote Notes and Recollections, a very moving book. I have to give Mrs. Mises the credit for Mises’s productivity during this period. She shielded him from the world so he could get his writing done.

AEN: Your bibliography is also an invaluable contribution to Misesian scholarship.

GREAVES: It certainly was many years in the making. It began in the late 1950s, when I began attending Mises’s New York University seminar. Then, one summer when the Miseses were going to Europe, his wife Margit gave me a key to their apartment so that I could catalog his books. I did that over the summer. Among the books and pamphlets were Mises’s own writings. Also over the years when I was in Mises’s seminar, he would hand me a copy of anything he wrote. I began accumulating things over time.

That eventually became the bibliography I presented to him on his eightieth birthday (1961). But as soon as it went to print, I was dissatisfied with it because I had found some omissions. I kept thinking I would get back to it, but it took the constant urging of my friend Robert McGee to force me to pick the project up again. He came over every week to help, and we worked faithfully for months. We both thought that a list of books would be rather dull. So we decided to annotate it. Well, this vastly expanded the project.

McGee became so busy in his work that he had to pull out, and I finished it up over the following year. It includes not only Mises’s published works in all languages, but crucial passages from contemporary reviews of Mises’s works, including reviews in German, French, and Spanish. I had help with the Italian, and the Czech I left only in titles, but the rest I did myself.

AEN: And you did the translations yourself?

GREAVES: Ill never forget Mises saying in his seminar, again and again, that languages are important. I took that to heart. It was still difficult for me and I did it very slowly. I had some French and German in school, and I studied Spanish after I got out of school in 1938, in anticipation of spending some time in Latin America. By the time the war came, I was working three jobs in Washington, D.C., two of which were secretarial. I wanted to do something more exciting and more lucrative. I went to the U.S. employment office to see what they had.

They asked me: would you like to work for the government? I said no. Then facetiously I said, “For one thing I dont like long corridors.” They assured me there would be no long corridors in South America. Thirty days later I was in South America, working with a special commission investigating labor trouble at a Bolivian mine. For propaganda purposes, the commission included a member representing organized labor. Every morning, he would go around pulling clean towels down from racks to insure that the maids at the hotel would have work to do. The New Deal ethic of “make work” trickled all the way down to that level.

After completing its report, the special commission left Bolivia and I was transferred to the Board of Economic Warfare. For the war effort, the Board of Economic Warfare was buying tin, tungsten, and cinchona, for the treatment of malaria. I learned some Spanish in my two years in Bolivia, then returned to Washington. There I was assigned temporarily to the Board of Economic Warfare’s Mexican Division, whose task was to approve licenses for trading with Mexico. There were four men and three girls in the office and practically no work. I spent my time doing my fingernails, cutting paper dolls, and making clothes for my young niece. But I did type up the office’s request to Congress for the next year’s funding to include six men and six girls. That taught me something about bureaucracy. Later I was transferred to Europe.

AEN: Did you make it to Austria?

GREAVES: Yes. After V-E Day, I was one of eight girls flown over the Alps to Austria. Working in Vienna gave me a chance to relearn German. But I had never heard of Austrian economics. I had one economics course at Wheaton College (Norton, Mass.), from which I concluded that the best kind of government would be an enlightened dictatorship. The only problem was that we could not be sure that later dictators would be equally enlightened. When the Board of Economic Warfare was disbanded, I switched to the War Department for a few months before returning home. When I left the War Department, I swore I would never work for the government again. And I did not.

I worked in bookkeeping after the war, and one day I applied for a position as an editorial assistant. I wrote that I was fed up with government red tape. Well, at the other end of that letter was Percy Greaves, who would later become my husband. He ran the Foundation for Freedom in Washington, D.C., but that organization did not do well. In 1951, I came to the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), where I met Ludwig von Mises, who was a part-time member of the staff.

A magazine called The Freeman, before FEE took it over, sponsored a Mises seminar. I attended that summer and took verbatim notes. Then that fall I started attending Mises’s New York University seminar, where I also took notes. I didn’t stop taking notes on his seminar until it finally closed in 1969. I also took some private German lessons, conducted entirely in German.

AEN: And you put your knowledge of German to work for Mises?

GREAVES: He was generally suspicious of translations. He doubted whether many translators could be familiar enough with the two languages on which they worked to produce something truly faithful to the original. Also, he often pointed out that customs, practices, and concepts associated with one language may have no counterpart in another. Even so, he sanctioned some translations. I was particularly careful with the translation of three monetary essays published as On the Manipulation of Money and Credit, edited by Percy. The two of us often spent hours, with dictionaries and thesaurus at hand, discussing the most suitable words to use. It took a lot of time, but I hope the result would have pleased Mises.

AEN: Was Human Action out by the time you met Mises?

GREAVES: Yes, and I read it in 1951. I remember standing on a street corner reading it, waiting to be picked up for Mises’s seminar. I was captivated by it. Of course I didn’t have an economics background, but in some ways that worked to my advantage. Mises’s book went against the grain of what was being taught in economics classes and business schools. To understand his approach required first unlearning what was being taught elsewhere at the time. I didn’t have much to unlearn, so, in some ways, picking up Austrian economics was easier for me than even for Percy, who had been in business school.

The laissez-faire politics of the book was no problem for me. I was raised by a father who was a strict constitutionalist. He believed in free trade and wasnt fond of government. He was opposed to the New Deal, though my grandmother was a New Dealer. He just agreed not to talk with her about it. My impression is that the Austrian explanation for the depression is more widely accepted today than in the past. Frederick Lewis Allens book Since Yesterday accepts that the cause and the problem of the depression rested with the credit system. And Paul Johnsons History of the American People adopts the Austrian explanation too.

AEN: In the early 1950s, did you imagine that Mises would be your lifetime project?

GREAVES: Oh, heavens no. I sort of got stuck with it. Percy was the real Misesian, and he kept pushing me to read and study and work with this project. You know, I’veheard it said that Percy worshiped Mises blindly, but that was not true. He was drawn to Mises because he realized that Mises had the answers and that others did not. I came to understand that too.

Not that Mises was surrounded by acolytes. There were three types of people who came to his New York University seminar. First, students who wanted an easy credit. Second, more serious people like Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, and Hans Sennholz, who were economists of the Austrian tradition. Then there were people like me, George Koether, Mary Sennholz, and many others. We came and just got hooked. Frequently, a person would hear one lecture and get hooked. I dont put myself in that category at all. I supported the free market, but it took me a while to fully appreciate Mises.

AEN: Mises’s appeal, then, is both scholarly and popular.

GREAVES: Certainly, and I think this is one reason he has had such an impact. A good example of his popular style can be seen in Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow. In 1959, he was to deliver some lectures in Argentina. He came with a clear message. Government should protect and defend the lives and property of the persons under its jurisdiction, settle disputes that arise, and otherwise leave people free to pursue their various goals and ends in life.

This idea was radical then and it still is today. Governments still presume to regulate and control economic life. They manipulate prices, fix wages, subsidize business, hamper imports or exports, manage the money supply, care for the sick and elderly, bail out the profligate, and on and on. But these efforts are contrary to freedom and contrary to capitalism, and they produce undesirable consequences for society in the long run. They impede the ability of people to cooperate in their own material betterment.

In these lectures, he expressed this idea with great clarity and force. He always said it was as important to convince businessmen and average people of the case for the market economy as it was to convince scholars and intellectuals. What determines whether or not we have a free economy is the ideas people hold about economics. Mises did everything he could to popularize the message.

AEN: Was there a difference between the private Mises and the public Mises?

GREAVES: In public and private, he was always a very quiet and unassuming person, but also he was positive and determined. As many people have said, he wouldnt compromise. When he lectured, he did not have the style that is popularly associated with genius: wild eyed, arms waving, demagogic. That was not Mises at all. He was conventional and traditional in his appearance. His manners were perfect. He didn’t talk about what he was doing or thinking. But in a seminar setting, he could be extremely quick witted. He was once asked about the proposal for making “paper gold,” i.e., Special Drawing Rights, the international currency. He responded that the proponents of “paper gold” should consult the alchemists.

AEN: Many people have said he was a man of the Old World.

GREAVES: Remember that his full name was “Ludwig Edler von Mises.” “Edler von” indicates the particular rank of nobility he had under the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Before 1919, his books and writings were signed “Ludwig von Mises.” After World War I, all Austrian titles of nobility were abolished by law. As a result, his writings in the interwar period were signed “Ludwig Mises.” After he left Vienna, he added the “von” back in. In America, he dropped the “von” in his private life, but continued to use it in his writings, so that bibliographers would know he was the same man.

It was a smart choice, because he was so prolific. In Vienna, when Mises had a full-time job with the Chamber of Commerce, writing reports and articles on all sorts of economic topics, he was also teaching one evening a week and holding his famous private seminar one evening a week. Hayek says that in 1922, he was dumbfounded to see this huge book called Socialism come out. He didn’t know Mises was even writing it and didn’t know when he would have had time.

AEN: Fritz Machlup seems to have worked hard to get Mises a position in those early years.

GREAVES: They were very good friends. Machlup was a businessman, he also came to Mises’s private seminar in Vienna and received his PhD at the University of Vienna. When Mises was thinking of migrating to the United States, he couldn’t get permission without first having a job offer. It was Machlup, and I think Gottfried Haberler, who made arrangements with the provost of a university in California. Mises accepted. It was only after Mises arrived in New York that he was told that there was no job; it was only a ruse to get him to the United States.

Henry Hazlitt, who was working for the New York Times, also tried to get Mises an academic position. He held a dinner party with some people from the New School for Social Research. But they found him far too extreme to hire. When he finally got an invitation to speak in Mexico, and the visas were arranged, it was a tremendous boost to his morale. Later, he was able to get a visiting professor position with New York University, and a foundation called the Volcker Fund paid NYU for the costs of his seminar.

One point on Machlup. He was taken in, at least to some extent, by Keynesian economics. Many years later, Machlup made a speech at a Mont Pelerin Society meeting on money and credit. Mises stood up and left the room. He told Margit, “Machlup knows better than that.” Later, Margit got Mises and Machlup back together again.

AEN: It’s been said that relations between Leonard Read and Mises were sometimes tense.

GREAVES: FEE was Reads foundation, and he wanted to be the big I Am. And he was. Mises had his bailiwick, in which he felt he deserved recognition as the authority. Read realized that and respected it. Read invited Mises to lecture at FEE regularly, but they kept their jurisdictions separate, as they should have. Read didn’t understand Mises, but he knew he was an important person.

Read was also jealous of Percy for the same reason. Percy sometimes went on the road for seminars with Read. After a talk, the audience was split into three groups, and each speaker would take a third of the audience and field questions. Read couldn’t field the questions sparked by Percy’s talks. He didn’t want to talk about money. He would shift the discussion to whether or not the seminar should include a talk on money. I think the problem was in the discussion group format.

AEN: What role did Hazlitt play as Mises’s editor?

GREAVES: Mises got a grant to have an office at the National Bureau for Economic Research, and thats where he wrote both Bureaucracy and Omnipotent Government. Hazlitt helped considerably with them, editing and getting them published by Yale University Press. Then Hazlitt encouraged Yale to ask Mises to redo in English his German-language National?konomie. When Human Action was in manuscript form he went over it and marked it up, trying to smooth out the English. Later when reading over the published edition, Hazlitt occasionally came across some awkwardly phrased passages. Whether Mises rejected Hazlitts suggestions, I just dont know. In general, Mises’s English was very good, but it was formal, not colloquial English.

Thirteen years later, Mises wanted to make some changes in the sections on monopoly and on government, partly in response to discussions he had with Murray Rothbard. Yale said they would do this by pasting in the new material with the old manuscript. Mises said he wanted to see proofs before printing, but Yale said not to worry.

When the new edition came out, Mises was sick about it. His lifetime work had been mangled. They omitted one page, printed one page twice, and did the same thing with a couple of paragraphs. They had dark type and light type, short pages and long pages. It was a lousy print job that Yale should have been ashamed of. Mises wanted to sue, but his lawyer said they had no chance of winning a case against Yale in Connecticut. At first Yale didn’t want to relinquish reprint permission, but finally in 1966, the entire manuscript was reset and published by Henry Regnery. That was the version that was sold for many years. Two years ago, FEE was pleased to issue a newer edition with some corrected typos and a new and expanded index.

AEN: Mises was often thought to be behind the times.

GREAVES: And now we know that he was way ahead of his times. He was celebrating the wonderful inventiveness and productive power of markets while everyone else was talking about the wonders of central planning and socialism. Today, markets are becoming the driving force of history and governments are shrinking in their ambitions.

AEN: What do you think about claims that the business cycle has been abolished?

GREAVES: I’veheard this many times in the past. And I often get asked about parallels between the 1920s and today. Today, just as in the 1920s, people think the prosperity will last forever. Thats what they also thought in Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea only two years ago. Theres no question that todays soft credit expansion has distorted production patterns, but in what way and to what extent we cannot know for sure.

Of course there’s been continual credit expansion since the creation of the Fed, with only a few interludes. Every step away from the gold standard has freed up the central bank to expand the money supply through the credit system, until we arrive at where we are today: no limits on what the Fed can do. The effects of inflation have been forestalled because the dollar is the reserve currency of the world, hoarded overseas and held by individuals and every central bank. It’s hard to say where the present boom will lead, but I noted something Mises said in one of his lectures that I was transcribing the other day. He said that the capitalist system is so productive and adaptive that it conceals the ill-effects of credit expansion for a very long time. But there is a limit.

AEN: What do you suppose will be the response by the Fed in the next recession?

GREAVES: It’s hard to say, but the history of bank failure doesnt suggest that banking authorities will do the right thing. Every time there were bank failures in the nineteenth century, people would blame the lack of centralization. That’s how we eventually got a Federal Reserve. It was attempting to provide the banking industry with more liquidity so that it could ride out bank crises.

Now, we have internationalized bank failures and even whole governments that are propped up by the IMF, working with the Fed and the Treasury. In each case, the dollar is serving as the foundation for these escalating bailouts of foreign governments and banking systems. That would imply that the next crises might lead to a push for a world central bank, which would only extend the present problem.

Keynesians want to restrict the ability of nations to exercise sovereignty over their own central banking policies; they want all countries to inflate at the same rate. That’s difficult to do when countries are trying to run their own affairs, and especially when every country seems to think that the way to keep prosperity going forever is to keep expanding the money supply.

In the last series of Mises’s lectures that I typed, he was speaking about the continual easing of money. He pointed out that when the quantity of money and credit is being increased, monetary authorities must decide who will get the new money first. Those who do are content; those who dont are resentful. In any event, every such case of selective expansion must lead to economic distortion. We have seen the total collapse of some Asiatic economies when things got out of kilter. The monetary authorities dont seem to have a clue as to how to manage the situation.

AEN: Percy had a strong interest in the question of Pearl Harbor, and then you picked up his project.

GREAVES: I’m working on finishing his manuscript. Percy served as chief of the minority staff on the Congressional committee that investigated Pearl Harbor. The book is called The Seeds and Fruits of Infamy, and it will probably be about 1,000 pages. I think it will be an important contribution. We have documentation that Roosevelt was not willing to wait for United States territory to be attacked. He intended on December 8 to have the United States enter the war to defend “our national interests” in Southeast Asia when British and Thai territories were attacked in that region by the Japanese. Thus the attack on Pearl Harbor became the excuse, but it was not the reason for our entering the war.

The first substantial postwar book on Pearl Harbor appeared in 1947, by George Morgenstern. There have been many since. Most historians agree that Roosevelt wanted the United States to get into the war, but it is not well-known that he had that intention even before the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Our book covers all the eight or nine investigations that sought to determine why we were surprised by the Japanese attack and who was responsible for the extent of the damage. My job is to update his work, considering all the modern scholarship on the subject, and provide as many details about the case and the investigations as possible, so the reader can make up his own mind.

The administration’s investigations were rigged, and ended up holding the Hawaiian commanders, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short, responsible. The truth started to come out in 1944, when news leaked that the United States had broken the Japanese diplomatic code long before the attack and had been intercepting Japanese messages. But the revelations derived from the prewar intercepts were not delivered to the Hawaiian commanders. Roosevelt died in April 1945, before V-E Day. Only in August 1945, after V-J Day, were the reports from the Army and Navy released–by the new president, Harry Truman. These reports pretty much absolved Kimmel and Short of blame and placed the responsibility on the administration. That’s when Congress got involved. Our book reviews all the investigations and considers all the evidence about the cover-ups. As you can see, government cover-ups and plots against the truth are nothing new.

AEN: Will this book affect how we think of Roosevelt?

GREAVES: I don’t say this in the book, but I think it demonstrates that Roosevelt was cagey, sneaky, and scheming. That comes through in how he was trying to maneuver us into war. Clare Booth Luce said it in the 1944 campaign: he lied us into the war. I have a chapter in which I discuss what Roosevelt knew and when he knew it. He is not on record anywhere on the subject. There are many notes that say so and so met in the White House and discussed such and such with Roosevelt. But he didn’t put things in writing. Incidentally, Admiral Kimmel’s son read the first volume of this book, before he died not long ago, and said that was the best treatment of prewar events in Washington that he had seen.

AEN: Do you think we could have avoided the war?

GREAVES: Charles Lindbergh thought so. He said it wasnt our war and we should stay out. I tend to agree. I dont know what would have happened to England in the short run. And I dont know what would have become of Russia in the absence of our assistance.

But as Mises says in Interventionism, Hitler’s programs would not have worked over the long run. He was trying to run a planned economy, and it would have failed just as surely as other socialist programs have failed. But today, people think Roosevelt saved the world, not only militarily but also economically, through inflation.

Incidentally, I highly recommend R.J. Rummel’s book Death by Government. It is absolutely unbelievable what governments have done to people, ofttimes their own people. There are important lessons here to be learned!

It’s true that the attitude of people toward government has shifted. Many find government corrupt and expensive and doubt its effectiveness. At the same time, people still do not trust free markets and open competition. The ideas of Marx and Keynes linger on in the popular mind and still haunt legislation.

AEN: And to explain the workings of economic liberty is a driving force behind your work.

GREAVES: Yes it is. I loved working on Mises’s bibliography. At times I found it fascinating; at other times I wondered who would ever be interested in all the minutia I was digging up. I enjoy talking about him and discussing his career. But as interesting as the details of his life are, his ideas and economic theories are more important. Promoting them will be the most fitting tribute possible to Mises.

Originally published in the Austrian Economics Newsletter (Volume 18, Number 4 | Winter 1998)

Bettina Bien Greaves attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar, compiled Mises: An Annotated Bibliography, the major parts of which are now available on here, and also edited several collections of articles. She is a senior Mises Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and was interviewed in her office at the Foundation for Economic Education



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