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How Woodrow Wilson’s Troubled Mind Shaped Our World Today

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Portraits of Woodrow Wilson and Sigmund Freud

On the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s death (and when the psychological soundness of leaders is as relevant as ever), Patrick Weil’s The Madman in the White House sheds light on how the mental health of this controversial American president shaped world events. In this essay, Weil reveals how a notorious psychobiography of Wilson came into being.

Author - Patrick Weil

Date - 3 February 2024

Time to read - 8 min

For decades, the 28th President of the United States was remembered as an idealist who prophetically developed the instruments of liberal internationalism that still guide American foreign policy. Recently, however, his record has been re-evaluated in light of the profound racism that led him to re-establish segregation among federal employees and drastically reduce the number of African Americans in the federal workforce. Until now, the state of his mental health and its potential impact on the fate of the world has drawn far less commentary.

The question of Wilson’s psychological soundness has returned to the fore after I discovered an unpublished manuscript in the Yale archives written by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and an American diplomat, William Bullitt. Together, they created a psychological portrait of the President mere years after his death, the conclusions of which are relevant to this day.

After the Allied victory in World War I on November 11, 1918, Wilson moved to Paris for six months, setting up a “temporary White House” in the French capital as he sought to fashion the postwar order. His tireless work convinced the Allies to create the League of Nations, a global organization designed to prevent all future wars. In addition, Wilson and the prime minister of the United Kingdom agreed to a defense pact with France, pledging to act together in self-defense should the French face any German aggression. This in effect created a new collective security apparatus with the United States at its center. Wilson and the Allies anticipated the United Nations and NATO decades before their time.

Paris Peace Conference 1919
The Council of Four at the Paris Peace Conference, including British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. U.S. Signal Corps photo.

However, Wilson’s response to the reservations of Senate Republicans changed the course of history. The Republicans wanted the agreement to include mention that Congress held the constitutional prerogative to declare war even if the United States entered the League of Nations. While the Allies approved of the Republicans’ caveat , Wilson obstinately refused to allow it—instructing his fellow Democrats in the Senate to vote against ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, leading to its failure.

Without US participation in the League and the defense treaty with France and the UK, the Treaty of Versailles no longer guaranteed peace but instead contributed to the disorder that led to the Second World War. Wilson effectively killed his own baby, prompting many close observers to wonder whether he had gone mad. Some attributed Wilson’s fatal stubbornness to a stroke he suffered in the fall of 1919 that left the left side of his body permanently paralyzed. But others thought his behavior had psychological roots, including French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The young British economist and peace conference delegate John Maynard Keynes observed, "The President’s psychology was essential to explain how it came about, in spite of the President’s sincerity, that a perfidious peace was enacted.”

“Without US participation in the League and the defense treaty with France and the UK, the Treaty of Versailles no longer guaranteed peace but instead contributed to the disorder that led to the Second World War. Wilson effectively killed his own baby, prompting many close observers to wonder whether he had gone mad.”

Freud shared these concerns, writing in 1932 that Wilson achieved almost the exact opposite of what he wished to accomplish, that “a pretension to free the world from evil ends only in a new proof of the danger of a fanatic to the commonweal,” i.e., Hitler. Concern turned to action when Freud met William Bullitt, a young diplomat who accompanied Wilson to Paris. Bullitt first came to Freud as a patient but soon suggested that they co-author a study of Wilson. Freud accepted on one condition: that Bullitt could find ample testimony and evidence concerning Wilson.

Bullitt was lucky in his quest. Wilson shared his personal feelings and ordeals with intimate collaborators the way one might with a psychoanalyst. Bullitt collected information from Wilson’s doctor, biographer, and secretary. In the diary of Wilson advisor Colonel House—dictated to his secretary each day of Wilson’s presidency—Bullitt discovered that Wilson suffered from recurring nightmares and insomnia focused on his past ordeals at Princeton University, where he served as president before turning to politics. Whenever he had no governmental business to discuss, Wilson would share with House his troubles at Princeton and how he feared they would be repeated, which is exactly what happened.

In September 1919, Wilson told a dear friend, “I do not feel well. I feel as if all the things which I have succeeded in escaping have fallen upon me.” Wilson felt that he was replaying with the Republican Majority Leader, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a painful and destructive dynamic from his past. To a psychoanalyst, this tendency to repeatedly put oneself in situations that result in personal suffering, humiliation, rage, and ultimately failure clearly suggests neurosis.

“To a psychoanalyst, this tendency to repeatedly put oneself in situations that result in personal suffering, humiliation, rage, and ultimately failure clearly suggests neurosis.”

What did Wilson fear repeating?

When he was the president of Princeton University, Wilson vehemently opposed a project for the school of graduate studies developed by Dean West, an older colleague. Though Wilson had initially agreed to the project, his opposition was so personal and irrational—like the one he came to develop with Lodge—that he was about to be fired when he resigned to enter politics instead.

In each of these painful episodes—with West and Lodge, Wilson is weakened by the loss of a best friend: “Wilson had to have a woman at home and one much-loved friend and then could be hard as steel to any man outside that circle,” Ray Baker, Wilson’s biographer, told Bullitt. When a falling out occurred, when Wilson felt his friend betrayed him by expressing disagreement, Wilson’s eternal affection became obsessive hatred.

In reviewing the materials Bullitt assembled, Freud diagnosed in Wilson an excessive attachment to a humiliating father. Wilson’s public expression of love and devotion to Joseph Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor, hid a repressed and violent angst. Wilson needed to identify with higher figures to detach himself from his father. When Wilson went to Paris to create eternal peace, it was Christ. “Jesus Christ so far (had) not succeeded in inducing the world to follow His teaching,” Wilson told Lloyd George and Clemenceau. With the League of Nations, Wilson would succeed where Christ had failed. But Cabot Lodge and House had spoken publicly of him in a humiliating way—as his father had done to him as a child. Wilson’s repressed and unconscious anger exploded irrationally on them, only to be extinguished by the self-destructive defeat his reaction created.

Princess Marie Bonaparte, Sigmund Freud, and William Bullitt
Sigmund Freud with Marie Bonaparte and William C. Bullitt on their way to London.

For Freud, secrets laid on Wilson’s soul were decisive in interpreting his personality.

But some of Wilson's bizarreries were not secret and should have been a clear warning as they would be today. While Wilson was negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, he repeatedly brought the nation to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

In March 1919, Wilson was ready to proceed with the League of Nations without Congressional approval. It took the intervention of advisors in Paris to convince him that the League could not function unless the Senate ratified the Treaty of Versailles. Later, in November 1919, Wilson regretted that the Constitution did not provide the means for a popular referendum. So, he took matters into his own hands, drafting a letter to fifty-seven senators from thirty-eight states. He was ready to challenge them to resign their seats in the Senate and take immediate steps to seek reelection on the issue of treaty ratification. He promised that if a majority of the senators were reelected, he and Vice President Thomas Marshall would resign and turn the presidency over to a Republican chosen in advance as secretary of state—the position that was next in the line of succession. Wilson did not pursue the plan, which could have raised fresh calls for his removal from office.

Finally, there was the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles itself. Senator Lodge was perhaps a father figure, as Freud thought. But might Wilson also have been upset at the reminder at the heart of Lodge’s reservation that he, the president, had to obey the U.S. Constitution? Wilson had prepared himself to run a Christian world, a League of white nations with many colonies, without the constraint of a Constitution, which was not totally his. He was a Southerner who always felt that his home state of Virginia had been victim to an unfair regime of constraint during the Reconstruction. He told the Senate he was, with the League of Nations, on a divine mission. Failing to convince them, he chose to destroy the peace.

The Madman In The White House By Patrick Weil
Patrick Weil is Oscar M. Ruebhausen Distinguished Fellow at Yale Law School and a research professor at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. The founder and president of Libraries Without Borders, he is the author of The Sovereign Citizen and How to Be French.