Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-Eighth President of the United States: A Psychological Study

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The Freud bibliography by Ingeborg Meyer-Palmedo and Gerhard Fichtner attributes to Freud the preface of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-Eighth President of the United States: A Psychological Study a hybrid work; it has remained one of the most ignored of all the works to which Freud has contributed. Peter Gay, who scrupulously reconstructed the genesis of the text (1988), noted, quoting William C. Bullitt, how Freud's "eyes brightened" when, in May 1930, during a visit to the clinic at Schloss Tegel in Berlin, Bullitt spoke to him about a book he wanted to write on the Treaty of Versailles (p. v). Haunted by death and having just gone through another operation, Freud at once suggested that he contribute a study of President Wilson.

Althoughor becauseWilson's personality and actions had been "from the beginning unsympathetic to me" (p. xi), Freud immediately began writing. His steps can be traced up to August 1931, when Ambassador Bullitt informed Colonel House, a former adviser of Wilson, who was growing impatient, that "the first version of the book is almost complete," then, at the end of April 1932, that "the book is finally finished." The only thing remaining was for the text to be revised, so, at the end of November, Freud told Max Eitingon he had learned from "his collaborator . . . when it would be possible to publish the Wilson book." It is important to remember that the situation at the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag was dire at this time and Freud was counting on the success of the book, as he did the New Introductory Lectures (1933a [1932]), then being printed, to restore the firm to solvency.

Nothing happened however. There were disagreements; Freud wanted to add new material that Bullitt rejected. The day after his arrival in London in June 1938, which owed a great deal to the ambassador's intervention, Bullitt finally obtained from Freud the authorization to publish the text. According to Max Schur (1972), Freud's notes and letters were supposedly burned by an absent-minded butler during Bullitt's hurried departure from Paris in 1940. "Why did my father agree, after a repeated (and quite understandable) refusal?" asked Anna Freud when the book finally made its appearance in 1966"after the death of Mrs. Wilson" noted Bullitt.

While it is easy to understand the extent to which this text was part of Freud's preoccupation with the dangers of a personality impregnated with religious illusions and the political and economic fallout caused by the misinterpretation of external reality by the "world's leading idealist," the final result is perplexing and Freud's style comes through only in short bursts.

The subtitle, "A Psychological Study," is clear, and Freud explains that it "expresses our conviction that psychoanalysis is nothing but psychology, one of the parts of psychology, and that one does not need to apologize for employing analytic methods in a psychological study which is concerned with the deeper psychic facts" (p. xiv). This could not have been done during Wilson's lifetime, but "when . . . an individual whose life and works are of significance to the present and future has died, he becomes by common consent a proper subject for biography and previous limitations no longer exist" (p. xiv).

After an introduction written by Bullitt"Digest of Data on the Childhood and Youth of Thomas Woodrow Wilson"there follows the "Psychological Study" signed by both authors. The book contains thirty-five short chapters of commentary on the principal episodes of Wilson's life, from his rise to power until his paralysis in September 1919 and death on February 3, 1924. Like a pale caricature of certain essays on "psychohistory," the book is a heteroclite patchwork of simplified psychoanalytic concepts for an ignorant public, remarks that are not without finesse, and reductive and repetitive interpretations. It is easy to see why so many readers have refused to see this as Freud's work.

This can be explained by the connection between Wilson's masochistic submissiveness and his "overpowering father" (p. 59), the Reverend J. R. Wilson. A "paternal complex," the repression of a hostility that was impossible to bear, since the father was assimilated to the supreme Being, the identification of the son with Jesus Christ and his mission as Savior of the world, the creation of an "tremendously powerful and exalted Super-Ego"(p. 60), a libido that found release in his speechesthe list of explanations is not all that long and each chapter could be concluded with the quod erat demonstrandum that Freud had grown fond of using during his friendship with Fliess.

But there was a fundamental difference with the cases he had discussed until then, something both authors recognized, in fact: "We shall never be able to achieve a full analysis of his character. About many parts of his life and nature we know nothing. The facts we know seem less important than those we do not know. All the facts we should like to know could be discovered only if he were alive and would submit to psychoanalysis. . . . It is a psychological study based upon such material as is now available, nothing more" (p. 35).

In fact this work, unlike that on Leonardo da Vinci and the Memoirs of Justice Schreber, cannot be considered a truly "psychoanalytic" work because not only is it not based on clinical experience but it makes no attempt to illustrate a theoretical premise based on other examples taken from clinical practice. It is purely descriptive in nature, journalistic in a sense, and, like any work of this naturealthough it bears Freud's signaturethe book is not an example of applied but of superficial psychoanalysis.

The concluding sentence of Freud's preface is worth repeating, however: "We cannot, however, deny that, in this case as in all cases, a more intimate knowledge of a man may lead to a more exact estimate of his achievements" (p. xvii).

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Bullitt, William C.; Ego-libido/object-libido; Group psychology; History and psychoanalysis; Politics and psychoanalysis; Psychohistory; "Why War?"

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund, and Bullitt, William C. (1966b [1939]). Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-eighth president of the United States: A psychological study. London and New York: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.


Bolzinger, André. (1991). Portrait psychologique et psychanalyse sauvage.Á propos de "Le président T. W. Wilson." L 'Évolution psychiatrique, 56 (1), 189-200.

Gay, Peter. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. London and Melbourne: Dent.

Miller, Gérard. (1990). Préface. In Bullitt, William C., and Freud, Sigmund, Le président T. W. Wilson. Paris: Payot, "Petite Bibliothèque."

Schur, Max. (1972). Freud: Living and dying. New York: International Universities Press.

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Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-Eighth President of the United States: A Psychological Study

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