With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

When Freud Analyzed Woodrow Wilson

Sigmund freud had a rule. However irresistible the temptation to burrow into the inner life of kings, prime ministers, and tycoons, he wouldn’t analyze famous contemporaries from afar. It just wasn’t right to rummage around in the mind of a subject who didn’t consent to the practice. But in the end, he found one leader so fascinating and so maddening that his ethical qualms apparently melted away.

From the distance of the present, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Woodrow Wilson was the one public figure whom Freud felt compelled to put on the couch. But that’s because the current prevailing image of the early-20th-century president—an enforcer of white supremacy, an enemy of civil liberties, a man preserved in sepia photographs as an unsmiling prig wearing a pair of pince-nez—is so remote from the near-messianic character that he cut in his day.

When Wilson arrived in France at the end of 1918, one month after the armistice that ended the Great War, he was greeted by adoring crowds hanging out of windows, crowding sidewalks, and chanting his name. “An immense cry of love,” read the six-column headline in Le Petit Parisien. That tableau followed him to every European city he visited. What he represented was, in fact, redemption: the promise of eternal peace and the dawn of a new world order.

Of all the politicians of his day, Wilson most clearly envisioned the better world that could emerge from war, built on values of self-determination and democracy. He not only had the best plan for realizing his high ideals, but he also possessed an acute understanding of what might go wrong if the Allies allowed their sense of grievance to drive them to impose harsh terms on the vanquished. Wilson’s failure to make good on these bloated expectations was the source of Freud’s fascination and fury, as it was for a generation of intellectuals.

Some of the animosity that Freud and other critics aimed at Wilson was unfair: After dinging him for negotiating a treaty they regarded as dangerously misguided, they turned around and chided him for his inability to shepherd it through the U.S Senate, an institution he had carefully studied during his long, celebrated career as a professor. That failure was further evidence, they argued, of Wilson’s abominable statesmanship. He refused to make concessions to his critics, even when that was clearly his only viable choice. And in the end, unable to achieve the purest form of his plans, he bizarrely instructed the Senate to reject a modified version of the treaty altogether. More than any of his enemies, he was responsible for shattering his own dreams. The Senate’s failure to ratify the treaty was one of the greatest embarrassments in the history of the presidency.

Wilson’s inexplicable choices, his extreme stubbornness, demanded a psychological explanation, perhaps one that scrutinized childhood traumas. This was Freud’s business, and he couldn’t resist. Eleven years after the Senate rejected Wilson’s treaty, the world’s most famous psychoanalyst began writing a long study of Wilson’s mind, in collaboration with the American diplomat William C. Bullitt, who had been one of Wilson’s aides. At Freud’s urging, Bullitt went back and interviewed a slew of Wilson’s closest friends and advisers so that the pair could devise their own intimate theory of Wilson’s failures. What emerged was a scathing indictment of Wilson, whom they depicted as neurotic and self-sabotaging, in what was a polemic masquerading as dispassionate biography.

Their book, Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study, has a life and afterlife nearly as complicated and fascinating as its subject. The manuscript sat unpublished for nearly 35 years. When it finally appeared—in 1966, long after Freud’s death in 1939—the doctor’s daughter Anna, a fanatical guardian of her father’s reputation, worked to discredit the final product. (She even managed to tweak a draft of a review panning the work that ran in The New York Times—and succeeded in persuading the book’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, to nix a preface to the book written by one of Freud’s disciples.) The controversy over the book was such that The New York Review of Books covered it with vituperative essays from mid-century powerhouse intellectuals such as Erik Erikson and Richard Hofstadter. Many of the critics doubted that Freud played a meaningful role in the production of the manuscript, because some of its interpretations deviated from Freudian orthodoxies, and the prose was clunkier and more repetitive than in his masterworks. The doubts stoked in those reviews have hovered over the book ever since.

Patrick Weil, a researcher at both Yale Law School and the French National Centre for Scientific Research, has written a lively book about the book, The Madman in the White House—a work of archival digging that digressively caroms across subjects, from Paris in 1919 to interwar Vienna to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Washington. Even if his attempt to defend the lasting value of Freud’s book isn’t entirely convincing, he has written a vivid shaggy-dog story about a curio that illuminates the possibilities (and perils) of studying the psychological soundness of presidents—a discipline as relevant as ever.

Read entire article at The Atlantic