The Madman in the White House: Sigmund Freud, Ambassador Bullitt, and the Lost Psychobiography of Woodrow Wilson

Image of The Madman in the White House: Sigmund Freud, Ambassador Bullitt, and the Lost Psychobiography of Woodrow Wilson
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
Harvard University Press
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What is clear from Weil’s book is that history is not just a result of impersonal forces acting upon human decisions. The personalities and views of political leaders matter.”

In the mid-1920s and early 1930s, William Bullitt and Sigmund Freud wrote an unflattering psychological profile of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, but the book was not published until 1966, long after Freud died and a year before Bullitt died. The published version under the title Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study was significantly redacted, but Patrick Weil, a distinguished fellow at Yale Law School, found the original manuscript in the archives at Yale University. Weil’s new book The Madman in the White House tells the story of the origins of the book, the collaboration of Bullitt and Freud, and the book’s tortured path to publication in the context of Bullitt’s remarkable life and career.

William Bullitt is one of the most interesting Americans of the 20th century. He was present at, and involved in, a remarkable number of important historical events. Weil’s book is in large part a biography of Bullitt, and that is the best and most interesting part of the book.

Bullitt accompanied President Wilson to Paris after World War I in an effort to shape the peace, met secretly with the new Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin to negotiate possible American recognition of the Bolshevik regime, yet testified before Congress against Wilson’s proposed Versailles Treaty and League of Nations. The Senate attached reservations to the treaty, but Wilson refused to accept them.

Bullitt blamed Wilson for the League’s failure and searched for the reasons why Wilson refused to compromise with Republicans like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who wanted to include sensible reservations to certain treaty provisions. That is where Freud came into the picture. The two men became friends and collaborated on a psychological explanation for Wilson’s intransigence—Bullitt supplied the facts and circumstances surrounding the treaty controversy while Freud supplied the psychological diagnosis.

Freud concluded that Wilson was a “passive homosexual” who also identified with Jesus Christ because of his relationship with his father. Wilson’s repressing of his passive homosexuality, according to Freud, negatively affected his political decision-making. Weil challenges that conclusion, instead claiming that Wilson’s refusal to compromise on the League and the treaty resulted from his father’s public humiliation of him as a boy. In this theory, Wilson lashed out at Lodge and others (including his once close adviser Colonel House) because they, too, sought to publicly humiliate him. This is the weakest part of Weil’s book. 

The publication of the book was delayed when Bullitt became a close adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, who appointed him our country’s first Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Bullitt recruited a brilliant staff at the Moscow embassy that included George Kennan, Loy Henderson, and Charles Bohlen who would play major diplomatic roles for the United States in the future. Bullitt met with Stalin in the early 1930s and observed first-hand the brutal totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime. Bullitt also arranged to help Freud and some members of his family escape Nazi-controlled Austria.

As the U.S. Ambassador to France when war clouds gathered in Europe in the late 1930s, it was Bullitt who notified President Roosevelt that Germany had attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. During World War II, Bullitt became a roving ambassador for FDR and warned the president in confidential memos that the United States should wage war with a view toward the postwar balance of power vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, which Bullitt viewed as an expansionist power. George Kennan later described these memos as deserving “a place among the major historical documents of the time [which] predicted with startling accuracy the situation to which the war would lead if existing policies continued to be pursued.”  

Bullitt lost influence with the president when he leaked information about alleged sexual indiscretions of Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles. Bullitt in his fifties subsequently joined the Free French Army under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle and landed in France in 1944 with French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.

After the war, Bullitt became one of America’s first cold warriors, writing an article in Life magazine that was highly critical of Roosevelt’s policy toward the Soviet Union during the war. Weil shows that Bullitt accurately predicted Soviet postwar moves in Eastern Europe and in the Far East. And Bullitt’s criticism of Roosevelt was reminiscent of his post-World War I criticism of Wilson.

In 1946, Bullitt wrote The Great Globe Itself, which blamed FDR for placing both Europe and China in danger of falling into the communist orbit. Bullitt was also highly critical of the Truman administration’s abandonment of Chiang Kai-shek. Although Bullitt did not support Eisenhower in the Republican primary in 1952, he struck up a friendship with Vice President Richard Nixon—and they remained friends until Bullitt’s death. Bullitt supported Nixon against John Kennedy in 1960. He described Kennedy as “a synthetic product of great wealth” and noted that Kennedy’s eloquence was “produced by one or another slick ghost writer.”

The Bullitt-Freud book was published in 1966 after the settling of disputes between Bullitt and Freud’s children. Wilson’s reputation at the time was still favorable so many reviewers panned the book. But Weil believes that Bullitt and Freud were right to blame Wilson for America’s failure to join the League of Nations and credits the authors for attempting to apply psychoanalysis to political leadership. Wilson’s reputation has since rightly suffered, though whether the Bullitt-Freud analysis or Weil’s analysis is correct is still debated by scholars. Indeed, scholars still debate whether psychoanalysis adds anything to the study of political leaders.

What is clear from Weil’s book is that history is not just a result of impersonal forces acting upon human decisions. The personalities and views of political leaders matter. And individuals like William Bullitt can and did make a difference.