Woodrow Wilson returns from the Versailles Peace Conference on July 9, 1919.Associated Press

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, 1917–19, 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 …

The authors’ basic premise [in Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-Eighth President of the United States—A Psychological Study] 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 …

The central neurosis, unearthed by the authors, which established its deep unconscious grip on the whole course of Wilson’s life … was his fixation on his father …

His tyrannical superego could never be satisfied with any success. No rung up the ladder was high enough, not even the presidency of the United States; he had to become Savior of the World … Wilson had to gain the League [of Nations] to save his soul, yet in the fight with [Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot] Lodge, he himself set up the conditions which made the gain impossible. In Freudian terms this becomes the death wish … 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 …

The bell rings here. One feels that Wilson, himself so like a queer dream, is explained …

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 … threaten[ed] 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 …

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

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