Can History Use Freud? The Case of Woodrow Wilson

The speculations of Sigmund Freud are the basis for THOMAS WOODROW WILSON: TWENTY-EIGHTH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES - A PSYGHOLOGICAL STUDY, just published by Houghton Mifflin. The book was written in 1932 in conjunction with the former diplomat William C. Bullitt, and withheld from publication until now. The odd, controversial volume, its values and its mischiefs, is here examined by the author of THE ZIMMERMAN TELEGRAM, THE GUNS OF AUGUST,and THE PROUD TOWER.


SINCE Americans are not, by and large, a people associated with tragedy, it is strange and unexpected that the most tragic figure in modern history — judged by the greatness of expectations and the measure of the falling off—should have been an American. During the two climactic years of one of the world’s profound agonies, 1917—1919, Woodrow Wilson was the receptacle of men’s hopes. He personified the craving of men of goodwill to believe that some good would come of it all, that the immense suffering, turmoil, and disruption would not be for nothing, that the agony must prove to have been the birth pangs of a better world. In a series of pronouncements that seemed to pluck out men’s best desires and give them shape, Wilson supplied the formula for that better world (which must be read not as a stale slogan but in the first fine rapture of its promise) as one made “safe for democracy,” safe from war ever again, safe from tyranny, hunger, and injustice, safe from the oppression of one people by another. It was felt he had made the world a promise; nor was it only simple people who believed in him, but also the sophisticated — men of affairs and intellectuals. It was these whom the subsequent disillusion most embittered, for they felt they had been made to look like fools. When the Treaty of Versailles made a fiasco of their hopes, they felt personally deceived and betrayed.

Two men acutely afflicted by this anger and resentment were Sigmund Freud and William Bullitt. Their collaboration seems at first sight wildly improbable: the old famed weary European, a genius, one of the rare authentic pathfinders of all time, and the young American, a person of courage, independence, and goodwill but volatile and “adrenal” (to use the word of a shrewd observer), a picaresque adventurer in politics, a Tom Jones of diplomacy. This seemingly bizarre combination has produced a fascinating but distorted book. As an analysis of the deep mainsprings of motivation in one of the most complex and puzzlingpublic characters who ever lived, it is sharply illuminating, and with certain reservations, convincing; it makes the contradictions in Wilson’s behavior fall into place with an almost audible click. But as an overall estimate of the whole man it is lamentable, and as an interpretation of events it falls to pieces. It is good psychology but bad history; bad because it is invalid, dangerous because it misleads us as to where the responsibility lies.

Past circumstances have a direct bearing on content. As a twenty-eight-year-old specialist for the State Department on Eastern European affairs, Bullitt, previously a participant in the Ford Peace Ship, went with the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 in the same mood expressed by his contemporary and colleague Harold Nicolson on the British delegation: “We were preparing not Peace only, but Eternal Peace. There was about us the halo of some divine mission. . . . We were bent on doing great, permanent noble things.” For Bullitt the opportunity came when he was sent to Russia to ascertain terms of settlement with the Bolshevik regime which Wilson acknowledged to be “the acid test of goodwill.” Accompanied by Lincoln Steffens and sharing his conclusion, “I have seen the future and it works,” Bullitt returned with Lenin’s offer of incredibly favorable peace terms. His reception was a stunning blow.

Because the treaty with all its faults, after agonizing delay, was at that moment on the edge of conclusion and the Bolshevik problem seethed with cause for dissension, Wilson, who habitually evaded reality by refusing to look at it, refused to receive Bullitt, to read his report or hear what he had to say. Although it meant inviting attack as proGerman and a Bolshevik, Bullitt resigned in a public letter to the President stating that “effective labor for a new world order” was no longer possible as a servant of his government. He then left for the Riviera telling reporters he intended “to lie on the beach and watch the world go to hell.” Subsequently called to testify before the Senate, he supplied Senator Lodge with potent material to aid in defeating American ratification, thus earning denunciation as a traitor to his party and finishing off, as it seemed, his public career. True, Bullitt had a private income, but not everyone who can afford the courage of conviction exercises it.

Freud, too, had had high hopes of Wilson which had turned sour. It was “one of those numerous cases” in his life, according to his biographer Dr. Ernest Jones, where his “optimism and credulity” led to inevitable disappointment and resentment. The experience confirmed Freud’s existing displeasure with America, a country which he regarded as a “gigantic mistake.” “Your Woodrow Wilson,” he told Max Eastman in 1926, “was the silliest fool of the century, if not of all centuries. And he was probably one of the biggest criminals — unconsciously I am quite sure.” When Dr. Jones, in a similar conversation, pointed out that the complexity of the problems after the war precluded an ideal peace being dictated by any one man, Freud replied tartly, “Then he should not have made all those promises.” In his preface he writes that from the start of the undertaking, Wilson “was unsympathetic to me,” and this aversion increased the more he learned about him and “the more severely we suffered from the consequences of his intrusion into our destiny.” The last four words are highly revealing of a point of view, perhaps a natural one to a national of the Central Powers.

In the 1920s when Bullitt’s second wife was a patient of Freud’s, the doctor helped Bullitt through a difficult period, and the two became friends. Their joint study of Wilson was begun in 1930 when, on learning from Bullitt that he was planning a book on the Treaty of Versailles and its authors, Freud eagerly offered to collaborate on the chapter on Wilson. The project soon grew into an analysis of Wilson alone. No more tempting subject for the exercise of the Freudian method could have offered itself. Wilson had combined world power with extraordinary contradictions of character which to Freud bespoke some torturing inner conflict. What was the nature of the conflict, and was it in fact the source of Wilson’s power as well as of his failure? The challenge of the question was obviously irresistible. Although, like love, war, and tennis, psychoanalysis takes two, the couch in this case would not be quite as silent as in the case of Moses, on whom Freud also tried analysis without the patient. Wilson had been dead only six years, not 3000, and had left a mass of contemporary evidence.

Although work on the manuscript was completed in 1932, certain unspecified differences between the authors kept it from publication at that time. It was not until 1938, after Freud’s safe removal from Vienna to London, in which Bullitt, by then ambassador to France, was directly instrumental, that agreement between them was reached. A contract authorizing publication by Bullitt was then signed, whether under a sense of obligation to Bullitt felt by Freud, who was then in his last illness and was to die in the following year, is impossible to say. Publication was mysteriously delayed for nearly thirty years, according to Bullitt as a matter of courtesy until after the death of Mrs. Wilson. The explanation seems inadequate since Mrs. Wilson died in 1961 (Bullitt survives), and in any case, the authors originally intended to publish in 1932. Undeniably, certain questions are left unanswered, but not such, it seems to this reviewer, to justify the current anguish of the psychoanalytic fraternity, who have greeted this posthumous work of the Master as if it were something between a forged First Folio and the Protocols of Zion. The sinister doubts they cast upon the authenticity of Freud’s share in the book seem groundless. The writing may or may not be largely Bullitt’s, but even if Freud only talked his share, characteristic ideas and prejudices affirm his presence. Moreover, his estate is sharing in the royalties.

The authors’ basic premise is that the Treaty of Versailles was the Great Betrayal, from which the world has suffered ever since; that as such it was the result of Wilson’s failure to make the Allies live up to the promise of the Fourteen Points and other Wilsonian principles; that he had the power to do so but exhibited a moral collapse and “mental degeneracy at Paris which were the outcome of his inner psychological conflicts; ergo, that all of us thereafter have suffered from Wilson’s neuroses.

Despite a gaping hole in this argument, which I shall come to later, it has the simple appeal of all personal devil explanations of history. Blaming Versailles on Wilson’s personal faults is the easy way out, which J. M. Keynes, among others, followed in his Economic Consequences of the Peace. It has taken enough hold to justify a deeper look at the President whose Secretary of War, Lindley M. Garrison, said he could never understand him and doubted if anyone could. “He was the most extraordinary and complex character I ever encountered.”

THE central neurosis, unearthed by the authors, which established its deep unconscious grip on the whole course of Wilson’s life and caused him, like Whittier’s Daniel Webster, to be “fiend-goaded down the endless dark,” was his fixation on his father. The relationship was, in fact, sufficiently remarkable to have attracted notice by others, notably Alexander and Juliet George in their study Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House, published in 1956. Recognizing in Wilson “some consuming inner difficulty for which he paid a terrible price,” the Georges used the father fixation as an informing symptom, Freud and Bullitt break it down into its Freudian components and show how these determined Wilson’s development and explain his frequent episodes of self-defeating behavior, which have always seemed so incomprehensible. They draw on the known facts of Wilson’s passionate adulation of and unbroken subservience to his father, his chronic headaches, indigestion, “breakdowns,” and other psychosomatic symptoms, his exaggerated friendships, hates, and quarrels, and other evidence.

Briefly, the analysis discovers a man in whom manifest submissiveness toward his father warred with unconscious hostility, which had to find release in acted-out hostility toward substitute father figures such as Dean West at Princeton and Senator Lodge, while the submissiveness had to be compensated by a torturing super-ego whose excessive demands “required of him such God-like achievements that no actual accomplishment could satisfy it.”On the jangling Freudian battlefield of the id, the conflict rages in many forms: there are the complicated shapes of narcissism — identification with the father, a Presbyterian minister, becoming identification with God, and conversely, as little “Tommy” Wilson, with Jesus; there are overdevoted friendships with small, slight “son” figures - Hibben, Tumulty, House—always ending in a sense of betrayal; there is identification with the mother, prompting or requiring “feminine” concessions and submissions to father figures in the case of Lloyd George and Clemenceau: there are the compulsions to repeat, and over all, the unrelenting super-ego.

Born of his deep inferiority as a small child vis-à-vis his father, which itself was part cause and part effect of the startling and almost unbelievable circumstance that Wilson did not learn the alphabet until the age of nine or read easily until eleven, his tyrannical super-ego could never be satisfied with any success. No rung up the ladder was high enough, not even presidency of the United States; he had to become Savior of the World. The League of Nations was to be the Grail, proof of his title as Savior. The treaty’s inequities did not matter as long as it embodied the League, for the existence of the League would solve all problems. The League was “the rationalization which made it possible for him to believe he had indeed saved the world.” Wilson had to gain the League to save his soul, yet in the fight with Lodge, he himself set up the conditions which made the gain impossible. In Freudian terms this becomes the death wish, which to this reviewer seems supererogatory, for the battle with his father in the shape of Lodge, plus the demands of his super-ego and the terrible truth in his heart that the treaty, even including the League, was not the peace he had promised the world, was enough to destroy any man. On October 2, 1919, came the paralytic stroke by thrombosis in the brain, even as thirteen years earlier, in the midst of his frenzied struggle with West at Princeton, his arteries reacted with the bursting of a blood vessel in the eye.

Thus foreshortened, the analysis is less persuasive than in the book, where all the details, examples, and corroborative evidence from episode to episode build up an inherent logic which has the same quality as certain dream interpretations: when they are right they fit, and one knows it at once. Otherwise no bell rings. The bell rings here. One feels that Wilson, himself so like a queer dream, is explained.

THE CERTAIN aspects seem slighted: for one, the lact of Wilson’s late reading, whose repercussions for a mentally gifted child in an intellectual family could not fail to have been devastating, and for another, oddly enough, Wilson’s relations with women. The easy references to mother identification and to his wives as “mother substitutes” are coupled with the flat statement that until the first Mrs. Wilson’s death, Wilson “had not the slightest sexual interest in any other woman.” I am perfectly prepared to believe it, but, to quote my own marginal notes at this point, “how on earth do they know?” What is the evidence for or proof of this negative? (The book, incidentally, is without notes or references of any kind, and quotations are given without attribution.) As regards the second Mrs. Wilson: “Let us content ourselves,” the authors say airily, that Wilson “again found a mother’s breast on which to rest.” In view of rather more genial aspects of this relationship, not mentioned in this book, including the fact that Wilson habitually referred to his second wife as “Little Girl,” the authors’ reliance on mother seems a bit glib.

Sex in lay terms in fact receives surprisingly little explicit emphasis in a work co-authored by the progenitor of the sexual revolution. (I note this less in complaint than in wonder.) Even the male friendships are treated as facets of the father-son problem, not as latent homosexuality, a relief to anyone whose cup of ennui has been filled by that particular strain in our current literary supply.

Up to this point the authors’ exploration of Wilson’s unconscious is enlightening and valuable, despite an irritating style. Among other faults is a habit of maddening repetition, not only of phrases but of whole episodes, recounted two or three times in identical language as if the reader were some sort of nitwit who could not be trusted to retain what he is told from one chapter to the next. More fundamental is the basically irresponsible approach. The authors have allowed emotional bias to direct their inquiry, which has led to undisciplined reasoning, wild overstatement (the Treaty of Versailles was “the death sentence for European civilization”), and false conclusions.

A writer dealing with the world of actuality as distinct from fiction has, it seems to me, an obligation to the reader to deal as honestly with the facts as he knows how. It is easy enough with even a minimum skill in words to leave a loaded impression on the reader while evading the responsibility of being explicit, but the temptation is one that most writers who respect their profession will try to resist. Freud and Bullitt indulge it. They repeatedly, for instance, use the suggestive but loose terms “mental degeneracy” and “degeneration” (“the mental degeneration which led him to sign the Treaty of Versailles”), and sidle up to psychosis while avoiding a precise statement which could be challenged (“he nearly plunged into psychosis” or “he was rapidly nearing that psychic land ... in which an asylum chair may be the throne of God”). This is pretty, but is it historical? The fact may be historical; indeed, the evidence adduced by the authors, especially the truly frightening quotations from Wilson’s last frenetic speeches on the League, suggests that he was psychotic in the final period from Versailles to his collapse. But the historian’s duty, especially in a matter of such moment as the psychosis of a President, is to state plainly, not to evade responsibility by the blurring of metaphor.

Freud says in his preface that as he studied Wilson’s life “a measure of sympathy developed . . . mixed with pity,” which grew until it “was so overwhelming that it conquered every other emotion,” and he vouches the same for Bullitt. If so, the pity does not penetrate into print. Dislike and contempt dominate these pages. So highly charged is the authors’ bias that it is a constant astonishment to realize that they seem unaware of its effect on their thinking. Watching Dr. Freud exhibiting overtones of the Freudian unconscious is a faintly eerie experience, like watching a Pirandello play within a play. The authors, for instance, describe Wilson as “ugly,” though judging by the hundreds of pictures one has seen of him, he was reasonably presentable. They depict him from youth onward with decayed teeth, “disfiguring” eyeglasses, putty-colored, unhealthily blotched skin, protuberant ettrs, short legs, “sour” stomach, a priggish, sickly, nervous, rather repulsive hypochondriac. Is this the man two women loved devotedly? I do not know whether Mrs. Galt was in love or beglamoured by the presidency, but of Ellen Axson’s feelings there is no doubt. “He is the most wonderful man in the world,” she wrote, “and the best.”

Dislike shows too in borrowings from William Bayard Hale’s clever but venomous Story of a Style, published in 1920. Although, according to Dr. Jones, Freud had read this book “with gusto,” Bullitt in his preface carefully omits it from the list of books they consulted.

KEPT under control, bias can direct and inform an inquiry, but Freud allows himself the undisciplined prejudices of a Personage — with sometimes ludicrous results. The passage on America is certainly his. According to this, Wilson was able to flourish in America because America was a nation “protected from reality during the 19th century by inherited devotion to the ideals of Wyclif, Calvin and Wesley” and because the “Thou shalt not!” of the “Lollard” tradition produced an atmosphere congenial to women and feminine men but “intolerable” to a masculine man. Had Wilson been brought up in “the comparative freedom of European civilization,” the argument continues, he would have had to face up to his inner conflicts.

One is almost helpless before this concoction. Besides twice using Lollard where he means Puritan (a very different thing), and assuming that Puritanism was alien to masculine men (Cotton Mather? Oliver Cromwell?), and transferring in one magnificent swoop the entire Protestant tradition of Europe to the United States, and picturing Europe in the Victorian age as a place where screens of rationalizations fell “early,” the passage also imagines an America that is the never-never land of Peter Pan. It exemplifies a characteristic of the psychoanalytic method that is its own worst enemy, the habit of rapid expansion from the perceptive and profound to the fatuous.

The authors give Wilson no credit for ideas. They absurdly claim that his legislative program as President was derived from Colonel House’s novel Philip Dru, evidently themselves suffering from total ignorance of the Progressive movement and its ideas. When Wilson takes a definite stand, they give it a minimizing explanation; they ignore or underrate his positive policies; they are lavish with sarcasm. When forced to allow that Wilson’s super-ego drove him to “considerable accomplishments,” they hurriedly add that it made him in the end “not one of the world’s greatest men but a great fiasco.” Their emphasis is always on the failure, not the achievement. True, Wilson’s end, from the Peace Conference on, was a fiasco but not the totality of his life and not what he is remembered for.

How do the authors account for his “considerable accomplishments”? Easily. It was a matter of rhetoric. Superb oratory was the secret of his influence. They present Wilson as obsessed by speechmaking, as no doubt he was. (In Freudian terms speechmaking, it appears, is a “pleasure of the mouth,” and the mouth is a “feminine weapon.” They have lost me here.) But that his speeches were merely verbal emperor’s clothes, the pretense of a vacant mind, hardly suffices to explain a man whose collected papers are now being issued in forty volumes, who had the stuff to fill an eight-volume official biography thirty years ago, plus a new one of equal length now under way, as well as countless other appraisals and studies over a period of fifty years. Behind Wilson’s speeches were thought and profound belief and ideas which pierced through to men’s hearts, aroused minds, and awakened hopes. That he was also weak, selfdeceiving, rigid, sometimes hypocritical, even dishonest, self-defeating, insufferably self-righteous, ruthless, unforgiving, and mean is equally true but not the whole truth.

In allowing their bias to control their judgment, what the authors have come up with is Mencken’s “the perfect model of a Christian cad” — with headaches. This is inadequate. It does not account for Wilson’s enduring influence or for the devotion, adoration, and respect of good men that he was able to inspire. The puzzle of Wilson remains.

More serious than their one-sided picture of the man is the authors’ twisting of history. The most startling example is their claim that for eight months, from October, 1915, to May, 1916, Wilson’s “supreme desire was to lead the United States into war” on the basis of an agreement to be reached with the Allies allowing him to dictate the peace. This is their analysis of the negotiations surrounding the House-Grey Memorandum. It supposes that the combined lure of being leader in war and arbiter of peace was irresistible to Wilson because the first would release his hostility to his father and the second would satisfy the super-ego’s demand to become Savior of the World. The argument is compelling if one grants the Freudian premise that unconscious drives invariably control conscious acts, but the human record suggests rather that sometimes they do and sometimes they do not. It is quite possible that a subconscious desire for war as a vent for hostility may have been rumbling around in Wilson’s interior, but the historical fact is that his conscious determination to stay neutral maintained control. Undoubtedly Colonel House, out of strong personal conviction, was trying at this time to maneuver the United States into the war. By playing upon the President’s ambitions and weaknesses and judiciously misinforming him, he may have lured Wilson for a time into believing that the Allies’ acceptance of his terms was possible (being ignorant of the Allies’ secret treaties. House may have thought it was). But that American entry into the war was Wilson’s “supreme desire,” or that he was “doing his best” to bring it about, is, to put it politely, hokum.

To reveal Wilson as warmonger, the opposite of what he professed and everyone has believed him to be, is the kind of magicianship Freud delighted in. He always “took a special interest,” says Dr. Jones, “in people not being what they seemed to be.” He was convinced that Shakespeare was reaih Bacon or the Earl of Oxford and discovered to his own satisfaction that Moses was not Hebrew but Egyptian. Giving free rein to intuitive flashes max be fun, but it is not history and it is not science. These disciplines require that the intuitive flash must stand the lest of evidence. Freud, by reason of the change he wrought on habits of thought, with effect on art, literature, philosophy, medicine, social relations, and indeed almost any aspect of modern life, is one of the world’s outstanding figures, but when he called his method “the science of the unconscious” he was setting a standard that it does not live up to.

WE COME now to the gaping hole in the argument. It is the assumption that in the conditions prevailing after the Armistice, in the passion of anti-German feeling, in the wounds of the victors, in the antagonisms and nationalisms released by the breaking up of three empires, an ideal peace was possible; that, in short, Wilson had the power to dictate a just peace and failed to exercise it.

All he need have done, the authors announce, was to have faced Clemenceau and Lloyd George with “masculine” weapons: threaten to leave the Conference, to publicly denounce the Allies as the “enemies of peace,” and to withdraw American financial and economic aid. In fact, as Wilson well knew, to have risked such an open rupture was impossible, if only for his own sake, for with it would have gone glimmering any hope of the League. Rather than being hailed as Savior, he would have been denounced as a destroyer, and pro-German besides. But careless of history, the authors rush on. “One crack of Wilson’s financial whip,” they inform us with characteristic restraint, might have brought Lloyd George “to heel.” “One threat” to leave France to face Germany alone might have brought Clemenceau “to compromise” (which suggests a capacious ignorance of the Tiger). Wilson, they state, “still had more men ready to answer his call and follow him to battle than any man has had before or since. He was still the leader of all the idealists of the world.” Two sentences less translatable into reality or more empty of hard fact would be difficult to imagine. The idealists of the world, if the authors are referring to the crowds who cheered Wilson in ecstasy when he arrived in Europe, were now, if French, shouting for reparations and the Saar; if Italian, for Trentino and Fiume; if English, to “hang the Kaiser” and “squeeze the orange till the pips squeak.”

The authors’ version of a Peace Conference with Wilson cracking the whip that would have brought the Allied powers “to heel” is another never-never land. It ignores those who had done most of the fighting. It presents the Allies as scheming plotters against the noble “idealists of the world,” rather than, nearer to the truth, as the battered, exhausted survivors of terrible war who had lost the best part of a generation and, in the case of France, suffered the wreck, pillage, and ruin of a large part of its territory, and who were determined to make victory produce gains to pay for the long bleeding years. It supposes that Wilson, by the simple exertion of a little masculinity, would have had no problem in extracting a “just” peace out of the rival claims of a dozen nationalities, the redrawing of boundaries, the conflicting promises of secret treaties, the allocating of mandates, the dividing of the spoils of the German colonies and the Turkish dominions, the arranging of areas of sovereignty among Arab claimants, the adjudicating of claims to the coal of Silesia, the oil of Mosul, and other rich prizes, the application of “self-determination” to Austrians in the Italian Tyrol, Sudeten Germans in Bohemia, Armenians in Turkey, Montenegrins in Yugoslavia, and a score of other groups inside alien frontiers, the settlement of such ancient insolubles as Constantinople and the Straits, Danzig and the Polish Corridor and the status of Palestine, the quarrels of Greeks and Yugoslavs over Salonika, of Poles and Czechs over Teschen, of Rumanians and Serbs over Transylvania, of British and French over Syria, of Chinese and Japanese over Shantung, and even of Zionists and antiZionists over the National Home, all of whom and many more were at Paris pressing their demands while the specter of the Bolsheviki and the revolution in Germany loomed in the background.

It was not only Wilson’s psyche that failed in this situation, nor his fault alone that the Treaty of Versailles was less than ideal. The fault was humanity’s.

It could have sufficed the authors to have analyzed the nature of Wilson’s neuroses, which they have done brilliantly and convincingly. It was not necessary to have claimed it as the historical cause of what they see as the “evil peace” of Versailles. They are addicted to the oversimplified single explanation of great events. There was in Bullitt, writes his fellow New Dealer Raymond Moley, “a deep somewhat disturbing strain of romanticism.” As ambassador he saw foreign affairs as “full of lights and shadows, plots and counterplots, villains and a few heroes”; a dangerous state of mind if not subjected to “the quieting influence of some controlling authority.” It can be dangerous to the historian as well as the ambassador.

On a grander scale Freud had something of the same quality. As an originator, powered by extraordinary energy of mind, he was capable of great forward bounds, so that he habitually extrapolated a whole system from a single item: saw the ocean in a drop of water, perceived a law of human behavior in a dropped handkerchief. These marvelous leaps of his from observation to deduction, from the particular to the general, opened for the world a whole new area of thought, but they were not subjected to that “controlling authority.” Freud was an adventurer of the mind, and the truest thing ever said of him he said himself: “I am not really a man of science. ... I am by temperament a conquistador — an adventurer if you want to translate the word—with the curiosity, the boldness and the tenacity that belong to that type of being.” The Conquistador and the Romantic made natural collaborators.

The undoubted insights of this book into the motivation of a crucial figure in our past raise the question, What can the Freudian method do for history? The answer must be that as an instrument of illumination it can do much — on one condition: let it for God’s sake be applied by a responsible historian.