Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud; drawing by David Levine


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.

What Bullitt calls the resulting “amalgam” of joint writing was apparently ready to be typed in final form in 1932. But since Bullitt could not accept some of Freud’s additions (they seem significantly to have concerned an evaluation of Christianity), both agreed to let the matter rest and to initial each chapter of what Mr. Bullitt calls the then “unpublishable manuscript.” I have tried in vain to learn the whereabouts of this manuscript and of the initialled pages. Nobody known to me seems to have seen them; but then Freud himself treated the matter with utmost discretion, conceivably because he believed that the news of their joint effort might hurt Bullitt’s then resumed diplomatic career. There are good reasons to conclude that with the exception of the Introduction, all of Freud’s original contributions, in whatever form, have been lost.

The only point to be made here is that the text now printed must be ascribed to Bullitt, because he either transcribed or wrote, translated or caused to be translated, every word of it. He “showed Freud the final text” in London in 1938, eight years after the beginning of the collaboration. Freud was in the last year of his life. He was a desperately sick man (a new neoplasm was found in August 1938), and an emigré, by then deeply grateful to Bullitt for reasons about which Bullitt is modestly silent. There is a famous photograph showing Freud arriving in Paris, on his way to London from Nazi-occupied Vienna. He is flanked, as by two guardian angels, by Princesse Marie Bonaparte and Ambassador Bullitt. It is entirely believable, then, that at the very end Freud formally signed this book and committed his estate to it.

BUT NOW AT LAST, to the book itself. The first chapter outlines Wilson’s development as a child. His father is said to have had “two great passions: words and his son, invariably called Tommy.” His mother was an “under-vitalized woman.” This chapter contains some fascinating fragments and fleeting descriptions of a child and young man brought up as a Presbyterian in the South of the Civil War and after. But the items are strung together relentlessly on a thread of vindictiveness which does not let “little Tommy” get away with anything, certainly not with the fact that “he never had a fist fight in his life,” and least of all with having been called little Tommy and wanting to be Woodrow Wilson. Not even the fact that the boy “drew a veil of forgetfulness” over some painful impressions of his childhood is forgiven in this psychoanalytic study.

The book thus blurs exactly what could have been most fruitful to investigate, namely, what was typical and what was excessive in this particular version of a Southern Presbyterian background and in its influence on the personality of a man who came to impress generations of bright students as the best teacher they ever had, who came to be chosen by his compatriots as worthy of the Presidency, and who was able to induce the world to trust him as a peacemaker. His success is glibly explained: “in order to be a man, he had to be a statesman.” Nor does the book see Wilson’s “Christ Complex” against the background of what Robert Bellah (paraphrasing Rousseau) calls the “civil religion in American tradition,” a messianic tradition which made it incumbent on all would-be presidents to declare themselves tools of God’s will. Even Lincoln called the American people an “almost chosen people.”

I would make matters worse if I were to condense here what is already a “digest” of questionable composition and monotonous condemnation. Even Wilson’s “nervous breakdowns” both as a boy and man are treated entirely as demeaning weakness: “he crept back to the shelter of the Manse in Wilmington.” His appearance as a child is described as ugly and sickly, and later as bearing “the sterilized, disinfected expression which characterized ministers and Y.M.C.A. secretaries” (p. 30). That he eventually chose a wife who was congenial (and this apparently in accord with all psychoanalytic specifications) is described as “the greatest stroke of luck.” To her touching words, “I am the only one who can rest him,” the book adds: “That was true. He could rest on her shoulder with as complete confidence as ever he had had as an infant sleeping on the breast of his mother.” When she died, it is recounted, he wanted to be dead. But “he did not die…he married again. He could not do without a woman on whose breast he could rest.”

The admittedly enigmatic personality of Wilson, then, appears here in stereotypes which are intended to introduce the second chapter, an outline of “the facts which psychoanalysis has found to be true with regard to all human beings.” This, if Ernest Jones was right, must be the chapter clearly attributable to Freud. And indeed, there are many passages here which sound like approximate translations of what Freud might have noted down or said in an attempt to explain psychoanalysis to a layman. One might even concede that some of the formulations are reasonable facsimiles of Freud’s early theories, which ascribed to a somewhat mythological libido certain quantitative properties in the manner of the physicalistic physiology of the nineteenth century. Strikingly un-Freudian, however, is the frequent use of the Kinseyan word “outlet,” as in the sentence:

in addition to Narcissism, four outlets stand open for [man’s] libido, through passivity to his father and mother and through activity toward them. Out of this situation grows the Oedipus complex. (p. 38)

Half a page later it appears with further embellishment:

We have noted that the libido of the child charges five accumulators. Narcissism, passivity to the mother, passivity to the father, activity toward the mother and activity toward the father, and begins to discharge itself by way of these desires. A conflict between these different currents of the libido produces the Oedipus complex of the little boy. (p. 39)

There follows a gradual crescendo in the use of this model and of the word “outlet,” which on the first page of Chapter X appears ten times, to be topped by the phrase “evacuation of libido.” What these words could possibly have been in Freud’s German I cannot even guess, but it was probably not for such phrases that Freud received the Weimar Republic’s coveted Goethe Prize for Literature—in the very year when this book was begun. For Freud firmly agreed with Goethe that one should speak for the moment, but write for posterity.

One has the general impression that here an avid student with no special gift for such matters is exploiting what his teacher has tried to convey to him. The result is a reification of the concept of the libido in hydraulic terms and of an ego endowed with astonishing virtuosity:

The Ego of a little boy who has no sister is compelled to force his libido to cross with one leap the chasm between his mother and the outside world…(p. 55)

TO INDICATE what to publishers, public, and critics appears to be genuine Freud, let us follow only one interpretational theme, namely, the transfer of little Tommy’s father and brother images on the presidency of Princeton, the presidency of the United States, and the abortive job of Savior of the World.


The portion of his libido which charged passivity to his father was far greater than the portion which charged aggressive activity toward his father; and it is obvious that his Ego employed the method of repression to handle the conflict between his powerful passivity and his relatively feeble aggressive activity. (p. 59)

Add God, Christ:

…The God whom Thomas Woodrow Wilson worshipped to the end of his days was the Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, the “incomparable father” of his childhood…if his father was God, he himself was God’s Only Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. (p. 61)

Add little Joe:

…his little brother Joe may have been the original much loved betrayer who was followed many years later in his unconscious by Hibben and House. The original emotion involved was, of course, Tommy Wilson’s passivity to his own father; but it seems to have reached his friends by way of his brother Joe. (p. 69)

Add adolescence:

…He was in the full vigor of his young manhood—seventeen at the beginning of that period, twenty-seven at the end—but he clung to the habits of his childhood and remained a virgin full of dyspepsia, nervousness, headaches and ideals. (p. 81)

Add Gladstone:

…He refound the incomparable father of his early childhood in Mr. Gladstone…. Adolescent Tommy then destroyed Mr. Gladstone by the cannibalistic method of identification and announced: “That is Gladstone, the greatest statesman that ever lived. I intend to be a statesman, too.” (pp. 83-4)

Subtract father, forcefully:

…We have seen, however, that in his unconscious, to become a statesman meant to identify himself with the “incomparable father” of his childhood who wore the face of Gladstone and thus by a “cannibalistic” identification to destroy the old man. We may, therefore, suspect that in his unconscious the “something” he wished to “do” was to annihilate the Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson. (pp. 104-5)

Add Princeton:

…His feeling for West had by this time turned into hostility, and when West was elected Dean of the Graduate School in 1901, Wilson began to employ him as a father representative upon whom the flood of his hostility to his actual father could be loosed…. When he was elected President of Princeton he became, in his unconscious, Gladstone. (pp. 110-11)

Add any audience:

In that address he spoke for Christ; in his unconscious he was Christ: the flow of his passivity through his identification with Christ swept unimpeded into the ears of his auditors. (pp. 117-18)

Add Hibben (friend, enemy, later successor as president of Princeton):

…The outlet of his identification with Christ was further enlarged by his turning Hibben into Judas Iscariot. (p. 127)

Add Colonel House:

It was easy for Wilson in the summer of 1916 to diminish somewhat the quantity of his libido which found outlet by way of House. He had just enormously increased the quantity of his libido directed toward his unconscious identification with Jesus Christ. Both his love for House and identification with the Savior were outlets for the same great source of libido, his passivity to his father. Therefore, as his unconscious identification with Christ increased, his need to love House decreased. (p. 216)

Subtract House slightly:

…it is clear that in Wilson’s unconscious until the armistice House still represented little Tommy Wilson although he was no longer quite a perfect little Tommy Wilson. (p. 219)

Add Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Orlando:

Throughout the day of April 7, he had seemed so utterly determined to fight that even House was astonished by the completeness of his surrender on the afternoon of April 8…. And one is tempted to imagine that he lay awake that night, facing the fear of a masculine fight which lurked in the soul of little Tommy Wilson. (p. 260)

Add the wide open spaces:

When he set out in 1919 for the West…it is clear that he was driven to destruction by the old conflict he had never been able to solve, the conflict between his activity toward his father and his passivity to his father. (p. 291)

Add death and a semblance of sympathy:

As he drew closer to death he talked less and less about his days as President of the United States and more and more about his days as President of Princeton. Again and again he refought his fight with West and grew emotional over the “treachery” of Hibben, forgetting his fight with Lodge and the “treachery” of House. Again and again he retold the old, old stories about his “incomparable father.” (p. 295)


It is a pity for one does find in the lives of a number of men and women of messianic bent and historic performance a comparable relation of parent and child, which makes it incumbent on the child to fulfill the parent’s ideal image and to redeem his own shortcomings. Some of the more primitive dynamics of such relationships are strongly suggested in this book. Yet the decisive factors in any historical study are not only how the parent could coerce the child, and the child convince the parent, but how the child became a man who could make his contemporaries believe that he was filling a place in history, that he was a principle force in history. About this the book says nothing.

I WILL CONFESS to having looked forward to this book, for I had often thought that if I had another life or two I would like to trace the Big Four of Versailles through their individual lives in their respective milieus and nations to their fateful confrontation with one another. Something like this seems to have been in Bullitt’s mind when the “collaboration” started; and one can only wish he had stuck to it. For when in subsequent chapters he leaves behind the attempt to bolster with psychoanalytic verbiage the brilliance and the militancy of his younger years, the style often becomes vivid and clear enough to justify a fleeting fascination with the incredibly personal equations in the game of diplomacy. The “joint” attempt, however, to treat the whole scene at Versailles as a stage for one man’s danse macabre does not clarify the workings of history.

The review of the historical part of this book—that I must leave to scholars acquainted with the logistics of international events. No doubt they will join me in wishing (and here I can be in accord with Allen Dulles in his article in Look, Dec. 18) that this book had not been written. Do I wish that it had not been published? By no means. It could have been responsibly released with an historical introduction outlining in the light of contemporary psychoanalysis the moment when the book was conceived: where Freud stood (and sovereignly erred) when he consented to this collaboration, where Bullitt stood, and what were the methodological and conceptual problems encountered in the completion of the manuscript. Why was this not done?

One would not want to apply to Bullitt his own kind of speculation in trying to guess why once more he had to live out what George Kennan has called his “passionate indiscretion.” Certainly, if any junior worker ever succeeded, for whatever motivation, in making his senior’s theories sound absurd, here it is. So one cannot even hope that the book may have the shock value of bringing readers up sharply against some of the important problems of political leadership which do call for “analysis.” Nor can I see how this book reveals anything about Wilson that has not been described and analyzed better by the Georges in their pioneering study President Wilson and Colonel House.1

CONSIDERING WHAT THE BOOK fails to accomplish and its general effect on the large audience who may be eager to believe that Sigmund Freud would indulge or knowingly collaborate in a psychoanalytic belittling of any person, great or small, this publication can only be deplored. For no matter what profound mistakes psychoanalysis may have made, how “mechanistic” some of its early concepts may have sounded, or how fashionable and faddish may have been some of its triumphs, it is undeniable that Freud’s revolutionary and abiding respect for his patients has had a decisive influence on the honesty of “dialogue” in all manner of relations among men.

Finally, this book totally lacks what pervasively marks Freud’s work, namely, systematic self-analysis as a basis of insight. For example, Freud long ago revealed his own version of a Victorian man’s ambivalent friendships:

…my warm friendships as well as my enmities with contemporaries went back to my relations in childhood with a nephew who was a year my senior…All my friends have in a certain sense been reincarnations of this first figure who “früh sich einst dem trüben Blick bezeigt2 : they have been revenants. My nephew himself re-appeared in my boyhood, and at that time we acted the parts of Caesar and Brutus together. My emotional life has always insisted that I should have an intimate friend and a hated enemy. I have always been able to provide myself afresh with both, and it has not infrequently happened that the ideal situation of childhood has been so completely reproduced that friend and enemy have come together in a single individual—though not, of course, both at once or with constant oscillations, as may have been the case in my early childhood. (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. V, p. 483)

It is not without a sense of tragic empathy, then, that Freud could write about any man’s failures in friendship; nor that in the Introduction of this book he could come to the general conclusion:

Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually they have wreaked havoc; but not always. Such persons have exercised far-reaching influence upon their own and later times, they have given impetus to important cultural movements and have made great discoveries. They have been able to accomplish such achievements on the one hand through the help of the intact portion of their personalities, that is to say in spite of their abnormalities; but on the other hand it is often precisely the pathological traits of their characters, the onesidedness of their development, the abnormal strengthening of certain desires, the uncritical and unrestrained abandonment to a single aim, which give them the power to drag others after them and to overcome the resistance of the world. (p. xvi)

The mandate to continue systematic inquiry into the phenomenon of the “charismatic” influence of the chosen on the masses, and of the masses on the chosen—a mutual influence in which the most rational and the most irrational aspirations of man meet—that mandate is only renewed by the appearance of this book.

This Issue

February 9, 1967