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19 June 2023

Pathologies of a president

A new book revisits Freud’s analysis of Woodrow Wilson to ask: how much do leaders’ psychologies shape our politics?

By Adam Hochschild

Although he was far from the madman of this book’s extravagant title, few US presidents have been as riven by contradictions as Woodrow Wilson. The world largely saw him as a lofty idealist, and millions admired his proposed “Fourteen Points” for a peace treaty to end the First World War, especially its promise of self-determination for peoples long denied it. When Germany knew the war was lost in 1918, it was to Wilson, not the other Allied leaders, that the country appealed for a ceasefire, hoping for mercy. When he travelled to Europe soon after the armistice, enormous crowds greeted him in every Allied capital, and flowers rained down on his motorcade.

Wilson’s tireless passion for the League of Nations, where in the sunny future countries would talk out their differences instead of going to war, was so obsessive that it shortened his life. Unswayed by his grandiose claims for the League, the US Senate balked at ratifying American membership in it. Then Wilson, in extremely fragile health and against the advice of many around him, embarked on an exhausting nationwide speaking tour promoting the peace treaty. And in the days before public-address systems, such speaking meant shouting before huge audiences. If he lost the fight for the League, the president declared, it would “break the heart of the world”. Three weeks into this gruelling journey, he suffered the first of several major strokes that largely knocked him out of action for the rest of his presidency. He would die in 1924 at 67, less than three years after leaving the White House.

[See also: Europe’s false dawn]

At the same time, Wilson’s vaunted belief in self-determination, as the French historian Patrick Weil says in his new book, “applied in practice only to whites”. And not even to all of them: independence for Ireland was missing from his agenda for the 1919 Paris peace negotiations, as, of course, was freedom for any European colonies in Africa and Asia or the US ones in the Pacific. Furthermore, with startling abruptness, Wilson caved in to pressure from Britain and France and agreed to a peace treaty that imposed harsh reparations on Germany and gave the victors slices of German territory and all of Germany’s colonies. Many saw this as violating the spirit of his Fourteen Points and an earlier Wilson call for a “peace without victory”.

The final contradiction – although Weil, like too many others who write about Wilson, largely ignores it – is that while the president was deliriously welcomed by millions of Europeans, his administration carried out 20th-century America’s worst assault on civil liberties. His chief censor shut down some 75 newspapers and magazines; a nationwide vigilante group chartered by his justice department seized, and sometimes roughed up, alleged draft evaders by the tens of thousands; and around 1,000 Americans went to prison for a year or more, and a far larger number for shorter periods, solely for things they wrote or said. While making peace abroad, he waged a fierce war on dissent at home.

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Many have tried to make sense of Wilson’s contradictions. The most improbable effort was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-Eighth President of the United States: A Psychological Study, co-authored  between 1930 and 1932 by William C Bullitt and Sigmund Freud. Bullitt was a wealthy Philadelphian who as a young diplomat had publicly resigned in protest from the American delegation to Paris in 1919, greatly upsetting Wilson. Some half a dozen years later he became a patient of Freud’s in Vienna. They discovered a deep mutual dislike for Wilson, and Freud was intrigued that Bullitt had actually known the man. Wilson was now dead, but Bullitt interviewed many others who had worked with him, and, interrupted by a further spell on Freud’s couch, doctor and patient wrote a book together, one of the first attempts to apply Freud’s insights to understanding a historical figure.

By the time they finished, however, Franklin D Roosevelt was on the way to becoming president, and Bullitt, an enthusiastic supporter hoping for a job, did not want to publish a harsh critique of the most recent Democrat in the White House. The two co-authors set aside their manuscript. Bullitt then served as FDR’s ambassador to the Soviet Union and to France, remaining one of the president’s closest advisers, and an occasional speechwriter, until the early 1940s. By that point Freud was dead, but Bullitt, still uneasy about attacking a Wilson now widely admired, claimed that he couldn’t publish the book until Mrs Wilson died. It finally appeared in 1967, five years after her death and just weeks before his own.

The book is not without merit. For example, Freud and Bullitt blamed such contradictions as Wilson’s vast faith in his own righteousness and then his submission to British and French demands for a harsh peace treaty – acting now too preacherly and now too submissively – on his unresolved fear of his minister father. They also talked, and not improbably, given Wilson’s inflated self-image, about his identification with Jesus. (On his ill-fated speaking tour, he at one point called the League of Nations an “enterprise of divine mercy and peace”.) This highly reductionist portrait drew much criticism, however – some from those who found the Freudian language of ego, superego and libido rigid and dated, and some from admirers of Freud, who argued that the volume’s flaws all must have been the work of Bullitt.

The occasion for Patrick Weil’s new study is his discovery, among the 307 boxes of Bullitt’s papers at Yale, of the original manuscript of the Freud-Bullitt book. This revealed some 300 cuts or changes Bullitt made before its publication. Weil’s narrative is oddly shaped, however. After taking us through Bullitt’s experience working for Wilson and his collaboration with Freud, he then gets carried away describing Bullitt’s long and colourful career as a Roosevelt adviser and diplomat. We hear about Moscow during the Great Purge; Soviet microphones in the ambassador’s residence; a party Bullitt gave there that inspired a scene in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita; Paris as Hitler approached; and even Bullitt’s final conversion to Goldwater Republicanism. Some of this goes deep into the weeds: there are several long paragraphs about the build-up of the French air force in the late 1930s, for instance. For more than 100 pages, Wilson’s name is barely mentioned. It is almost as if Weil felt drawn to write a biography of Bullitt, although several already exist.

After all this, only a few pages describe what Bullitt altered in the co-authored manuscript. The major change was his removal of his and Freud’s contention that Wilson was struggling with repressed homosexuality, something they thought explained his repeated pattern of forming an extremely tight bond with a man and then rupturing it completely. The most famous example of that was the president’s falling out with his close adviser Colonel Edward House. Speculative and unprovable, this may be a plausible contention. Although, of course, many people form and break close relationships for other reasons.

[See also: The Jewish vaccine pioneer forgotten by history]

Weil is respectful of Bullitt’s and Freud’s attempt to analyse Wilson, agreeing with them that throughout his son’s life, Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson “was always hovering nearby”. The two co-authors didn’t go far enough, he feels, overlooking considerable evidence that the elder Wilson, in the words of one relative, was “a cruel tease” who on occasion humiliated his son. He finds parallels in remarks Wilson could have taken as humiliation made by two of the men the president once admired, then broke with: Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and House. In the case of his break with the latter, one must add, the flames were fanned by Edith Wilson, who was always jealous of the soft-spoken Texan’s closeness to her husband.

Presidents and prime ministers, like everyone else, often go through life intent on pleasing or defying a difficult parent. Think for a moment about the more recent American president to whom the title of Weil’s book could actually apply – a man who also had a notoriously harsh and disapproving father. Donald Trump’s political life has been based on inviting people to identify with him as a victim – a portrayal all the more powerful because at some level he deeply believes he is one – and then seeking revenge on those who have supposedly humiliated him and his followers. How different a figure he might have become if his father had been a kind, gentle and supportive man. We should always be open to trying to understand the psychology of political leaders, because their quirks and obsessions can have such vast effect on history, for good or evil.

In Wilson’s case, Weil asserts, the president’s psychological difficulties led to an immense tragedy. “If the United States had ratified [the] Treaty of Versailles,” he claims, “history would likely have taken a different course.” This seems wildly improbable. A League of Nations including the US would likely have been little more successful at preventing wars than was the League without – or than the United Nations has been since 1945. It is impossible to imagine the US rushing troops to prevent Mussolini from taking over Ethiopia, or Hitler Austria and the Sudetenland. If the US had signed the treaty, Weil writes, “Soon enough German reparations would have been lowered” – ignoring that, in effect, they were lowered in the 1920s, something that still failed to erase the great bitterness and resentment that the Nazis would make such fateful use of.

Yes, things might have gone somewhat better if a more skilful and sensitive politician had been American president in 1919 – someone like Bullitt’s second boss, Roosevelt, for instance. But even the most psychologically balanced and healthy person in that role would not have been easily able to heal what Churchill called the “crippled, broken world” left by the First World War. From the ashes of that cataclysm it is nearly impossible to imagine any kind of settlement that would have forestalled the next war.

Germany had lost nearly 1.8 million soldiers, had had more than twice that number wounded, and some half a million of its civilians had starved to death as a result of the Allied blockade. While the war was still on, well before Hitler formed the Nazi Party, powerful German right-wingers who sensed defeat ahead skilfully orchestrated a campaign blaming all this devastation on socialists and Jews. The Allies made things worse by continuing the blockade for more than half a year after the war stopped (Wilson seems to have barely noticed), until Germany signed the treaty. But it would have taken far more than a better treaty and an American leader at peace with his own demons to prevent all the horrors that later followed.

The Madman in the White House: Sigmund Freud, Ambassador Bullitt, and the Lost Psycho-biography of Woodrow Wilson
Patrick Weil
Harvard University Press, 400pp, £30.95

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[See also: Why Gone with the Wind is American culture’s original sin]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars