Inside Story

President Wilson on the couch

What happened when a diplomat teamed up with Sigmund Freud to analyse the president?

Nick Haslam Books 16 May 2023 2074 words

Into exile: Sigmund Freud arriving in Paris in June 1938, where he was met by his collaborator William Bullitt (right), American ambassador at the time, and Princess George of Greece and Sweden. Süddeutsche Zeitung/Alamy

Sigmund Freud’s first venture into biographical writing is a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to apply psychoanalytic ideas to historical figures. His essay on Leonardo da Vinci, first published in 1910, fixed on a memory Leonardo reported from his early childhood of a vulture descending on his cradle and repeatedly thrusting its tail in his mouth. Freud surmised that this “memory” was in fact a fantasy that revealed Leonardo’s homosexuality and his conflicted feelings about his mother.

Freud’s interpretation hinged on the mythology of vultures — including the ancient belief that they were exclusively female and impregnated by the wind — and the frequent depiction of the Egyptian goddess Mut with a vulture’s head and an androgynous body. He argued that Leonardo was preoccupied with vultures and had concealed one in the blue drapery of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, which hangs in the Louvre.

There was one small problem. The bird Leonardo recalled was not a vulture but a kite, a creature with no special mythic significance or any hint of sexual ambiguity. The error, made by a German translator of Leonardo’s writings, undermined Freud’s thesis and demonstrated the challenges of doing psychoanalytic interpretation at a distance. When the subject cannot be put on the couch, the already dangerous work of psychic excavation becomes even more hazardous.

This embarrassment might have led Freud to abandon psychobiography altogether, and indeed the general view has been that he did. In the monumental, twenty-four-volume Standard Edition of his work, his English editor and translator James Strachey wrote that “this monograph on Leonardo was not only the first but the last of Freud’s large-scale excursions into the field of biography.”

But that claim only stands if a notorious study of US president Woodrow Wilson written by Freud with American diplomat William Bullitt is brushed aside. This act of repression has been sustained for more than half a century by charges that Bullitt was a reductive amateur who was driven by personal animus towards Wilson and exaggerated Freud’s involvement.

Patrick Weil’s new book, The Madman in the White House, overturns this received view. Weil, a distinguished French political scientist, has written a captivating analysis of the history of the Wilson psychobiography that doubles as a biography of Bullitt. Along the way it vividly documents the shifts in American engagement with Europe from the first world war through the cold war from the standpoint of high-level diplomacy.

The book combines a masterful grasp of political history with original archival research and a humanising appreciation of the quirks and foibles of the dramatis personae. It does much more than resolve the status of a largely forgotten book about Wilson, also making a case that prevailing beliefs about responsibility for the failure of the post–first world war peace are mistaken. More broadly, Weil demonstrates how much personality matters in politics. “Democratic leaders,” he writes, “can be just as unbalanced as dictators and can play a truly destructive role in our history.”

William Bullitt emerges as a kaleidoscopically colourful and complex personality who witnessed the defining events of the first half of the twentieth century up close. After a brief period as a journalist, he was recruited in his twenties to work under Wilson during the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles. He served as the first American ambassador to Moscow and as ambassador to Paris, helped to negotiate the Korean armistice and advised Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. He played major diplomatic and policy roles in both world wars and mingled with the political and cultural A-list: Wilson, Roosevelt and Nixon; Churchill and Lloyd George; Clemenceau and de Gaulle; Hemingway and Picasso; Lenin and Stalin (or “Stalin-Khan,” as he referred to him).

Bullitt’s life wasn’t all memos, starched collars and negotiation tables, and it had many Gatsbyesque elements: tumultuous marriages, hosting a Moscow soirée with performing seals and a champagne-drinking bear, enlisting in his fifties in the French army, landing upside down in a plane in a Leningrad swamp, and being shipped home to the United States from Taiwan in a coffin following a spinal injury.

Woodrow Wilson (standing) in New York after returning from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Alamy

There was also a dark side, with depressions, impulsive actions and a tendency to self-destruction, including a fall from a horse that he attributed to an unconscious wish. These symptoms led him to meet with Freud in Vienna for personal psychoanalysis in 1926, beginning a long association that saw the two become unusually close and Bullitt playing a role in helping Freud escape the Nazis via the Orient Express.

Their book project grew out of Bullitt’s plan to write a study on diplomacy that would include psychological analyses of world leaders, with Woodrow Wilson as one case. Bullitt had fallen out with Wilson over his failure to have the Treaty of Versailles ratified by the US Senate in 1919, despite Wilson having been a visionary architect of the treaty and its proposal of a League of Nations to secure global peace. He saw Wilson’s apparent inability to make concessions with Republican senators at critical moments as a colossal sabotage of what Wilson himself had created, an exercise in “strangling his own child,” and he ascribed it to Wilson’s character flaws.

This was a widespread view at the time: Keynes described Wilson as a “blind and deaf Don Quixote.” Freud agreed with his general assessment, once describing Wilson as “the silliest fool of the century if not all centuries” and Bullitt as “the only American who understands Europe.” The two men hatched a plan to collaborate on a study that would focus on Wilson alone.

Psychobiography is often viewed — and sometimes practised — as an exercise in armchair speculation and hatchet work unencumbered by evidence, but the dissection of Wilson’s character was anything but. Freud, perhaps stung by the Leonardo fiasco, insisted on collecting and analysing a substantial body of information on Wilson; Bullitt obliged with not only his extensive first-hand working experience but also interviews with several of Wilson’s high-ranking colleagues, hundreds of pages of notes, and countless diary entries from Wilson’s personal secretary. Then, at least on Bullitt’s telling, he and Freud met and communicated frequently over a period of years to formulate a shared understanding of Wilson’s psychodynamics and edit drafts of one another’s chapters.

The essence of their formulation was that Wilson lived in the shadow of his idealised father, a Christian minister, whom he believed he could never satisfy or equal. This father complex was shown in his driven approach to work, his tendency to present a Christ-like persona when defending his views, his moralising streak, his unwillingness to brook criticism or compromise when he took principled stands on issues, and his passivity towards paternal figures — a stance that led to bitter fallings-out with erstwhile good friends that haunted him for decades.

Bullitt and Freud attributed Wilson’s failures in delivering on Versailles and the League of Nations to this incapacity to make necessary accommodations at the last hurdle. They also drew attention to his tendency to defer to some national leaders during the earlier negotiations to the detriment of the treaty, including allowing Britain to make the excessive demands for postwar reparations that contributed to German resentment.

After extensive reworking over a period of years, the Wilson manuscript was completed in 1932, each chapter signed off by both authors. And yet it was not to be published until 1967. The reasons for the delay initially included Bullitt’s desire not to endanger his employment prospects in future Democratic administrations, a wish not to hurt Wilson’s widow, and an awareness that Wilson’s once tarnished reputation had been restored by mid-century, making a critical study unwelcome. Later, in the 1960s, Bullitt found it difficult to find a publisher and to obtain permission to publish from Freud’s estate. Freud’s daughter Anna, whom Bullitt had helped to rescue from Vienna in 1939, was deeply concerned to protect her father’s legacy and sceptical of Freud’s involvement in the book; she insisted on making numerous revisions, which Bullitt refused.

In the end, the book appeared to a chorus of critical reviews. Erik Erikson, the leading light of psychobiography at the time, attempted to block publication on receiving an advance copy. The book was criticised for being spiteful towards Wilson, repetitive, and clumsy in its psychoanalytic formulations and therefore unlikely to have been genuinely authored by Freud. Bullitt, who died only six weeks after publication day, must have felt crushed.

With the reputation of Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study going down in flames, the question of Freud’s co-authorship might have gradually lost what little intellectual interest it still held, especially as the published manuscript appeared lost or destroyed. Enter Weil, who rediscovered it in the archives at Yale University in 2014.

The Madman in the White House reports two significant findings. First, Freud’s heavy involvement in writing the book is now undeniable, established by his signature on all chapters and evidence of extensive revisions and annotations. Weil backs up this textual evidence with other quotes from Freud that express an unambiguous sense of personal ownership of “our book.” Critics who charged that Bullitt had deceptively Freud-washed his own work are mistaken.

Second, and perhaps just as importantly, Weil shows that Bullitt made several hundred revisions to the “final” manuscript prior to publication. Some of these edits are largely cosmetic: omitting one section on a political conflict that no longer seemed topical, updating some psychoanalytic terminology, and removing some very dated ideas about masturbation and castration anxiety. But many edits were substantive, involving removal of references to Wilson’s supposedly homosexual orientation. This inference didn’t imply conscious awareness or overt behaviour on Wilson’s part, and Freud believed everyone was to some degree bisexual, but Bullitt must have judged the claim too contentious to put in print.

Weil presents these discoveries with scholarly thoroughness but also with a light touch that makes the book a delight to read. Despite his implied criticism of the psychoanalytic establishment’s reception of the Wilson psychobiography, he defends the relevance of psychological insight to the understanding of political leadership. He accepts some of the contours of Bullitt and Freud’s analysis but disagrees about the nature of Wilson’s father dynamic. Joseph Wilson was a less perfect father than his son imagined and had a cruel tendency to humiliate him, Weil suggests. In his view, Woodrow’s political and interpersonal conflicts stemmed from his sensitivity to public humiliation more than anything else. Such an interpretation, invoking wounded narcissism and pathological autonomy rather than father or Christ complexes and latent homosexuality, certainly has a more twenty-first-century feel to it.

Whether or not readers are open to this kind of analysis, Weil makes a powerful case for the role of personality in politics. He closes with a counterfactual history of a Europe in which Wilson had not failed to deliver on his idealistic vision. British and French financial and territorial demands on the Germans following the first world war would have been moderated and less punitive, diminishing German bitterness. Squabbling nations would have been dissuaded from armed conflict. American intervention in the second world war would have been triggered earlier by security guarantees to France. So much carnage might have been averted had the men in charge been less damaged and better able to understand and regulate themselves at critical times.

Woodrow Wilson was in no real sense a “madman” and Bullitt and Freud were hardly unbiased observers. Even so, their book was a significant historical attempt to demonstrate how the psychology of individual leaders can have collective reverberations. With some caveats, Weil would probably agree with the basic sentiment he attributes to Bullitt, that “the fate of mankind was determined over millions of years by geography, over hundreds of years by demography, over tens of years by economics, and year over year by psychology.” His book is a brilliant historical investigation of an early attempt to reckon with those year-by-year influences. Both as a work of scholarship and as a sweeping, almost novelistic tour of twentieth-century political affairs, it deserves a wide readership. •

The Madman in the White House: Sigmund Freud, Ambassador Bullitt, and the Lost Psychobiography of Woodrow Wilson
By Patrick Weil | Harvard University Press | US$35 | 400 pages