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Shrinking History—Part Two

The Kennedy Neurosis: A Psychological Portrait of an American Dynasty

by Nancy Gager Clinch
Grosset and Dunlap, 433 pp., $10.00

The Mind of Adolf Hitler

by Walter C. Langer
Basic Books, 280 pp., $10.00

In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry

by Bruce Mazlish
Basic Books, 187 pp., $6.95

The Revolutionary Personality

by E. Victor Wolfenstein
Princeton, 330 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Young Man Luther

by Erik Erikson
Norton, 288 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Leonardo and Freud: An Art-Historical Study” Essays edited by P. Kristeller and P. Wiener [Harper & Row] and in Ideas in Cultural Perspective edited by P. Wiener and A. Noland [Rutgers])

by Meyer Schapiro
Journal of the History of Ideas (reprinted in Renaissance

Psychoanalysis and its various “applications” have been embraced all too ardently by the American public—and not only by its so-called “lay” segment. Sometimes that enthusiasm was for the bad: it is astonishing, for example, how many writers submitted willingly to the brutal, stupid lashings an analyst like Edmund Bergler gave them in his books supposedly meant to “explain” writers and their “personality structure.” But sometimes much of value came of this enthusiasm: it is remarkable how openly and generously many important American medical schools welcomed analysts during the 1930s and 1940s, often to good effect so far as the education of young doctors goes. In any event, to this day a historian or political scientist, not to mention a psychoanalyst, who writes a biography or discusses some contemporary issue, or one connected with the remote past, from a psychological point of view stands at the very least an excellent chance of getting the public’s attention.

Walter Langer’s “secret wartime report,” now become The Mind of Adolf Hitler, has hardly been ignored. In view of the substantial scholarship on the Nazis that has gone relatively unnoticed—the work of historians, economists, political scientists—one has to look not only at the book itself but at the reasons for its appeal. Nor has Bruce Mazlish’s “psychohistorical inquiry” into Richard Nixon’s life been ignored—any more than will the portentously named The Kennedy Neurosis: A Psychological Portrait of an American Dynasty. Each of them is yet another variant of the kind of inquiry Freud began long ago: harnessing psychology to an understanding of certain people who have taken a significant part in history.

To start with the worst, the book on the Kennedy family is, alas, an exercise in nastiness, and an instructive lesson in how psychological words and phrases, presented as a means of scientific exposition, can become in certain hands instruments of moral condemnation, and even malicious abuse. The author of The Kennedy Neurosis, Nancy Clinch, refers to her “study of the Kennedys’ characterology” as a “form of psychohistory”; it is even “psychohumanism.” People have what she calls “self-actualizing needs.” There are “parental patterns” and a “specific cultural milieu,” and they, of course, affect a “hierarchy of needs.” When things go wrong a neurosis develops: “a self-defeating defense pattern of feeling and behaving.” Something called a “pseudo-self” comes into being. There is “basic anxiety” and it keeps generating “unconscious hostility.” After we learn about all that, we are told where we are going:

It is my purpose to analyze what the historical record seems to reveal: that the Kennedy drive to power was largely neurotic in origin and thus largely neurotic in goal; and that when power was obtained, the Kennedys were severely limited in the use of their authority for positive aims because of emotional conflicts and ambivalences.

Note the word “because”: assertive, unthreatened by any modifiers, anxious to make its connection. There is no point in looking at the structure of our government, let alone at our society. Those political scientists and journalists who try to figure out what presidents can and cannot do, those historians who try to apprehend the subtleties of America’s development as a democracy, the regional tensions, the push and pull of economic and social forces—they have been seduced by complexity, ambiguity, even uncertainty. The author says we need “autonomy, self-direction, and freedom.” Those observers and scholars of American history need the freedom to use the word “because” more boldly—though one can drop the word and get the same startling result:

The Kennedys, like American scientists, achieved the “impossible” through teamwork in their election triumphs. But once elected, they seemed to “fall under a fairyland spell” that kept them from accomplishing any significant part of their professed aims.

The “spell” is next defined: “neurotic conflict.” It seems that Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy (called “Joe and Rose”) made “excessive demands for perfection and social success” on their sons and daughters. The result: a need on the part of those children for their own “frustration, punishment and even destruction”:

I do not see the Kennedy failures in performance as caused mainly by bad luck or by the vagaries of politics and human nature. Rather, the factual failures were largely the result of psychohistorical circumstances that existed for the Kennedy sons even before they were born and that strongly affected the shaping of their individual characters.

So much for “bad luck” or the “vagaries of politics and human nature”—the stuff of novelists or play-wrights, the passing fancy of newspapermen, the preoccupation of old-fashioned, overly scrupulous scholars or essayists, who may be aware of “unconscious emotional conflicts,” but who get sidetracked by their search for facts, their insistence on maintaining detachment as well as respect for those they study.

Perhaps this book has its place; some day social historians will want to study its by no means unique mixture of Nichols and May psychology, non sequiturs, simple-minded social commentary, and dizzying historical over-statement. For example, Mr. Joseph P. Kennedy is singled out from the rest of us parents for “unconsciously” projecting “his needs and longings onto his sons.” Even though the author admits that some of the book’s points “may seem strained, and even cruel,” she persists, in the interest of truth. Thus, “Jack, Bobby, and Teddy” (as they are called by this expert on their lives who has never even met them) “would all take up cigar smoking, the Freudian symbol of potency and power.”

Then there was President Kennedy. Here is what his White House staff was all about:

Thus Kennedy was not only in close and constant touch with his family, but he also created a new family of staff retainers who seem to have served partly as substitute parent images daily filling the old dual role of nursemaids and slave drivers.

One of them was Kennedy’s secretary, Mrs. Lincoln. He may have liked her, but his general attitude toward women, along with a few other things, is summarized in the following four sentences:

Kennedy essentially disliked and distrusted women. Therefore his strong emotional need for support and approval led him to follow the counsel of male authority figures. Unfortunately, a large number of these authority figures—such as McNamara, Rusk, Acheson, Taylor, Bundy, and Rostow—were as confused and misguided as Kennedy about national values and priorities. The 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers clearly revealed this about their Vietnam Policy.

There it is: from sexism to Vietnam in less than a paragraph. Not that the author forgets other parts of the world. She says the President had “an emotional fixation” on Castro, who was “Kennedy’s alter-ego: the bold leader Kennedy longed to be but could not bring himself to become.” Why could he not? “Making laws may arouse unconscious resistance in the lawmaker who has suffered much in his own life from rigid legalisms.”

As for the President’s brother and trusted adviser, he was similarly “neurotic.” Did he have compassion for the poor and vulnerable in this nation? Yes, but “this is understandable in view of his ‘underdog’ position in the family and the emotional insecurity he never lost.” Did he like athletics and inspire young people to follow suit? True, but there was a reason:

Here we can see a belief in the masculine mystique of physical toughness, and also a probable need for reassurance and affection through physical contact with other males that was more difficult to express directly. Football for the Kennedy sons—and especially Robert, who even kept a football in his Attorney General’s office and often tossed it around with his staff—carried deep psychological undertones of emotional need and gratification.

Finally, the author, who can toss a few passes of her own, reserves the longest throws for the book’s last paragraphs: “Yet the Kennedy mystique can also be seen as essentially the outcome of some four thousand years of the Graeco-Judeo-Christian ethos which has directed and energized Western civilization, and which has now spread over the world.” There is cause for hope, though: “By studying the lives of national leaders, such as the Kennedys, we can find reflections of our own search for identity and confirmation, and help change both ourselves and our nation toward maturity and health rather than neurosis.”

There are other reasons to study the lives of important men of history. As Walter C. Langer makes clear in his book on Hitler, the Office of Strategic Services was interested in winning the war; “maturity” and all the rest could come to Germany (and America) later. Colonel William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan knew Dr. Langer, then a Boston psychoanalyst, and asked him to put together a psychological appraisal of Hitler, including an estimate of what he might do if things should go badly for him, as they already were going in 1943 when Langer began his hurried job. Yet, for all the rush, this book is decidedly better than the one on the Kennedys. Langer’s portrait of Hitler is far more thoughtful and sensitive than Miss Clinch’s caricatures of the Kennedy family.

Langer avoids psychiatric name calling.1 He emphasizes Hitler’s strengths, his abilities, his obvious capacity to mesmerize and lead a nation. There are mistakes of judgment or emphasis, but these are usually owing to false information which was supplied to the relatively uninformed analyst and his quickly assembled staff. The prose is clear, a clue to the author’s essential modesty and common sense. Once in a while there is an utterly fatuous remark, but it is usually delivered in a way that makes one less angry than regretful:

I may be naïve in diplomatic matters, but I like to believe that if such a study of Hitler had been made years earlier, under less tension, and with more opportunity to gather first-hand information, there might not have been a Munich; a similar study of Stalin might have produced a different Yalta; one of Castro might have prevented the Cuban situation; and one of President Diem might have avoided our deep involvement in Vietnam. Studies of this type cannot solve our international problems. That would be too much to expect.

At only one point does the author reveal the smugness and arrogance that are all too common in such efforts, and even then they derive from a remark of one of Langer’s colleagues: “Now I know what his [Hitler’s] perversion is.” Not that anyone knows. We are never given any hard, concrete evidence—only guesses and second-hand speculations, some from highly unreliable sources, as the historian Robert B.L. Waite makes clear in his useful afterword. “It just came to me out of my clinical experience,” the surprised Dr. Langer heard when he asked his colleague how she had come to that conclusion. Fortunately, it was Dr. Langer and not his colleague who tried to figure out the personality of a man whom he had never met and about whom he had only the most shadowy and suspect of information. Professor Waite says that such an attempt is justified: “Basically, he is convinced the perversion existed because he knows as an experienced analyst widely read in the literature of abnormal psychology that many patients with the same patterns of behavior as Hitler have exhibited a penchant for the same perversion.”

  1. 1

    We are spared the absurd generalities of Gustav Bychowski’s study a few years later on the same man (Dictators and Disciples: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of History, International Universities Press, 1948):

    The repressions of his psycho-sexual development did not permit the proper integration and sublimation of his aggressive-sadistic drives, which, to begin with, were not utilized for the construction of normal erotic aggression. The intended identification with his father was not even psychically successful, and instead of the expected masculinity, the constantly competing passive, female attitude appeared.

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