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The Strange Case of Freud, Bullitt, and Woodrow Wilson: I

Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-eighth President of the United States—A Psychological Study

by Sigmund Freud, by William C. Bullitt
Houghton, Mifflin, 307 pp., $6.00


Another bad book on Wilson would not necessarily call for review. Nor would a bad book by William C. Bullitt. A distinguished public servant, Ambassador Bullitt does not owe the world a good book, even though many public servants think they do. But a disastrously bad book on Wilson, written in collaboration with Sigmund Freud and carrying a subtitle that raises the issue of the American presidency itself must be reviewed. It is of concern to those who are carrying on Freud’s work and recognize its fundamental grandeur even where it is most dated and most open to question. It is also of concern to historians who do not wish to shirk the task of giving a considered account of the ambiguities of greatness. But above all, it has a certain desperate relevance for all those who are aware of the indispensability of psychological insight in matters of war and peace—including the question of the wide personal margin permitted to the American president and his advisers.

Perhaps nothing characterizes the tone of this book so well as the obsessive frequency with which Woodrow Wilson is referred to as “little Tommy”:

…Tommy Wilson always tried to be on the side of the angels: he endeavored to think about serious matters and he attempted to express his thoughts in distinguished phrases. Those were exceptional attributes in the United States after the Civil War, when most men of ability were concentrating on the acquisition of wealth. They gave Tommy Wilson both prestige and an endearing idealism. He was so serious about himself that others took him seriously. To make fun of him was easy: to ignore him was impossible. He was a prig; but a prime prig. (p. 9)

In spite of the glaring incongruity of such passages with Freud’s style, his alleged senior authorship is (and will be) unhesitatingly publicized as his sole authorship. An advance selection was thus announced on the cover of Look (December 13, 1966). This misrepresentation, no doubt, is good for sales and will give amusement to otherwise literate people. “This time,” one of them says about a book nearly thirty years old, “this time, Dr. Freud, you have gone too far!” (New York Times, December, 1966.) And the chestnut of “Freudulance” will be warmed over and over.

This word, as it turns out, does have a certain tragi-comic significance here, for it is not at all certain which parts of the body of this book, if any, were written by Sigmund Freud himself. Mr. Bullitt’s own preface does not claim that Freud “wrote” any of it. He only speaks of Freud as having written “the first draft of portions of the manuscript” (p. vii). And he describes a “collaboration” extending over eight of the most dramatic years in history and in the lives of both collaborators; for the rest, Mr. Bullitt rightly accepts responsibility. In view of all this, although Ernest Jones says (not untypically) in his biography of Freud that he was “the only person privileged” to read the original manuscript, and that he found it easy “to distinguish the analytical contributions of the one author from the political contributions of the other” (Vol. III, p. 150), it does not seem at all obvious which manuscript he saw, and when, and where. For me and for others it is easy to see only that Freud could have “written” almost nothing of what is now presented in print.

THESE REMARKS concern the body of the book. There is in addition an undated Introduction by Freud, which is clearly written by Freud himself, probably at the very beginning of the collaboration. Its style is so unique that, even if allowance is made for different translators, it would not require a computer to testify with assurance that the Introduction is of a different piece of cloth than the book proper.

This Introduction was written in the twilight between the two World Wars. It explains Freud’s involvement in the frankest possible terms. He declares that the figure of the American President “as it rose above the horizons of Europeans, was from the beginning unsympathetic” to him and that this feeling increased “the more severely we suffered from the consequences of his intrusion into our destiny.” These words carry more than a personal gripe or prejudice. Anyone who lived in Europe in those days can remember Wilson’s “rise over the horizon” as a bewildering spectacle akin to a religious experience: Could it be that a semblance of Christian charity had survived the first mechanized slaughter of history? Could it be that the destruction or the dehumanization of mankind by the unrestricted use of super-weaponry, might be checked by the creation of a world-democracy? That flash of bright hope made the gloom that followed only more dismal. And Freud, the “pessimist,” was on occasion quite naively trustful—only to be disappointed.

In the Twenties Freud wrote The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents, both of them one-sided yet measured documents of a firm skepticism. What Freud felt when he heard from Bullitt some details of Wilson’s Presbyterian background and motives—a religious heritage familiar to Bullitt but essentially unfamiliar to Freud—was evidently a Moses-like indignation at all false “Christian” prophecy. A proud man brought up in Judaism, even if surrounded by the folklore and display of Catholicism, persists in the historical conviction that the Messiah has not yet appeared. When such a man observes the man-made suffering sanctioned by the spokesmen of Christianity, and foresees rightly that the growth of industrial nationalism can only increase it, the incantations of fumbling Christian statesmen must be profoundly offensive to him.

In the days of Versailles Wilson’s oratory produced the saying around Europe that “Wilson speaks like Jesus Christ, but acts like Lloyd George.” This duplexity was a quality of which Clemenceau, for example, was merely scornful, but he himself had a mind restricted to a belief in the traditional “safeguards” of open or secret treaties. Freud, however, saw man’s only hope in the gradual replacement of high-minded hypocrisy with the insight that would make “the content of our psychic inner world” amenable to the logic of natural science, and would make man accept “the real outer world.” What he heard from Bullitt about Wilson (with whom Bullitt had broken in Paris, as the book recounts) convinced Freud that Wilson’s policies represented the epitome of “Christian science applied to politics.” He judged Wilson himself to be like a doctor “who wishes to restore the eyesight of a patient but does not know the construction of the eye and has neglected to learn the necessary methods of operation.” The patient was Europe, Western civilization itself.

ONE MAY WONDER about this medical simile and about Freud’s willingness to “be led through the influence of Bullitt.” As a young man and before he became a doctor, so Freud himself told us, he had wanted to be a statesman. His deep identification with Moses can be clearly read in his work. Did Bullitt awaken in the old and ailing man the fading hope that his life work, psychoanalysis, might yet be destined to become applicable to statesmanship? And Bullitt brought him at least a semblance of “data” such as he had illuminated in his case histories.

In the Introduction Freud also speaks frankly and passionately as one who neither knows nor trusts America. Occasionally he, too, had been seduced into the wish she would fulfill her often proclaimed world mission. He had visited the States only once, receiving his one and only honorary degree from Clark University and sharing frankfurters roasted in a bonfire at his friend James Putnam’s camp in the Adirondacks. Grateful for the acceptance of his ideas in America, he nevertheless left the country in a skeptical mood—not later corrected, one may be sure, by the free associations of his American patients. But it would be a pity if what is personal and temporal in Freud’s admitted prejudice (for example, the testy-sounding analogy between Wilson and the Kaiser as “chosen darlings of Providence”) were to make the reader forget the chronic ambivalence in foreign countries toward America’s “invasion into our destiny.” For many countries have learned to expect the arrival from America of messages promising a world made safe for democracy—together with threats of military escalation or of isolationist withdrawal. We may not care to accept foreign ambivalence toward us, but we must learn for the sake of peace to read our messages at least with the eyes of intelligent foreigners.

I have focused so far on the Introduction because it is a prologue to matters far beyond this book—matters, in fact, betrayed by the book’s content. Freud, in being frank and clear, at least fulfills the first rule of a “psychohistorical” study, namely, that the author should be honest about his own relation to the bit of history he is studying and should indicate his motives without undue mushiness or apology. That Freud’s personal involvement and trust in the collaboration with one once closely engaged in current events were to cloud his objective we must accept as well as we can, knowing that the greater the man, the greater his mistakes appear. But the Introduction does not support Jones’s or anybody else’s claim that the division of labor was clean and clear throughout. Bullitt, Freud states, “has prepared the Digest of Data on Wilson’s Childhood and Youth” (p. xiv) in which the facts are indeed, pre-digested. For the “analytic part” Freud declares himself and Bullitt “equally responsible” (p. xiv)—cerly an amazing and unwise concession to a diplomat by the founder of psychoanalysis, and yet also a disavowal of sole responsibility for what might emerge. Which puts quite a burden on the shoulders of William C. Bullitt.

BULLITT’S PREFACE OBSCURES, even as it offers to clarify, the history of the manuscript. He describes the collaboration as having begun in Berlin, where Freud had gone for a “small operation.” Freud was in Berlin in 1930 for the readjustment of his “infernal” oral prosthesis which had replaced his whole upper jaw. For eight weeks he underwent (as Dr. Schur tells us) four or five hours of minute fittings every day. That Freud was “depressed” is more than likely; that he would have spoken of his mind as “emptied,” much less so. But I have indicated why Freud may, indeed, have “come to life” when the opportunity seemed to offer itself to apply psychoanalytic knowledge to the life of an influential man of his time. That Wilson moreover interested him because they were born in the same year is a “chronological” quirk not foreign to Freud. And Bullitt seemed to have the facts. He produced the relevant books, selecting “all that I considered worthy of his attention” (p. vii). The criteria for selection remain unspecified. He also collected a mass of private information from individuals who had known Wilson and who “without exception” (p. vii) wanted to remain anonymous. Why? Was no “good” information of any kind sought or given, no information at all which the informant would have been willing to sign with his name? All this, we would now say, seems to violate a second rule of psychohistorical study: that there be a rough indication of how the data was collected. But it also partially explains the totally un-Freudian bias which causes the “facts” reported consistently to disintegrate into a petty denigration of the man under study. There is nothing analogous in Freud’s published work. There are a few analogies in his letters and reported conversation, which may throw some light on how the manuscript came into being. Were Freud’s contributions memoranda and letters? As others undertook to do before the book was published, I have made every effort to find out the whereabouts of those “first drafts of portions of the manuscript” which Freud is said to have written—presumably in his own militant, over-sized handwriting, for Freud never typed anything. But it seems that these original drafts are lost.

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