Continuing a long tradition of worldly Europeans condemning naive but dangerous Americans, Sigmund Freud viewed the twenty-eighth president of the United States as nothing less than a global catastrophe. Freud criticized Woodrow Wilson for his messianic religiosity and self-righteousness, concluding that the manner in which his moral absolutism withered in the face of amoral European diplomacy caused much damage to world affairs. Without actually meeting his subject, Freud surmised that Wilson suffered from a variant of the Oedipus complex, which led him to act as a feminized supplicant to Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George and as ill-fatedly macho toward domestic opponents such as Henry Cabot Lodge. Freud’s not-so-subtle insinuation was that few phenomena are more dangerous than an American president with good intentions, a poor sense of geopolitical reality and unresolved Oedipal drives that would have made Little Hans blush.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study, which Freud wrote with the American diplomat William C. Bullitt, was savaged upon publication. Its vitriol is indeed wearying–Freud’s psychoanalytic interpretations often amount to wild conjecture based on unreliable hearsay. The renowned historian A.J.P. Taylor dismissed the book as a “disgrace,” while Vladimir Nabokov wrote that “I welcome Freud’s Woodrow Wilson not only because of its comic appeal, which is great, but because that surely must be the last rusty nail in the Viennese Quack’s coffin.” Yet despite its flaws, the book is not without scraps of insight:
Nothing mattered except noble intentions. As a result, when [Wilson] crossed the ocean to bring to war-torn Europe a just and lasting peace, he put himself in the deplorable position of the benefactor who wishes to restore the eyesight of the patient but does not know the construction of the eye and has neglected to learn the necessary methods of operation.
Change a few words and the passage becomes a pointed critique of the Bush administration’s policy toward the Middle East. And this is why Wilson’s presidency continues to speak to us. More than anyone’s, Wilson’s historical luster corresponds with the foreign policy in vogue at any given time. When retrenchment and realism hold sway, Wilson appears misguided, a blind eye doctor. When internationalism drives American diplomacy, Wilson is a visionary, his presidency a lodestar.
When Freud and Bullitt completed their work in the 1930s, Wilson’s reputation was at its lowest ebb. Throughout the First World War, Wilson had preached the virtues of free trade, national self-determination, responsible decolonization and multilateral institution-building, and had called for the United States to “make the world safe for democracy.” These visionary goals evaporated in 1920 when the Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty, and America retreated from the atavistic intrigues of European-dominated international relations. Through the ’20s and ’30s the League of Nations foundered without US participation, and Germany, Italy and Japan prepared to right earlier wrongs. Had Freud and Bullitt published their polemic at this time, its reception would have been warm. But to spare Wilson’s widow any embarrassment, the book’s publication was postponed until after her death. Thomas Woodrow Wilson ended up appearing in 1967, at a time when Wilson was viewed by many as a foiled but noble prophet whose collaborative world-system dedicated to liberal-capitalist prosperity was twenty-five years ahead of its time. The scathing reaction to Freud’s book was emblematic of the resuscitation of Wilson as a force for good in the world. “Wilsonianism,” the notion that the United States has a duty not only to pursue its self-interest but to make the world more livable, peaceful and democratic, had established an enduring place in the American psyche.