Michael Parenti
Original publication: conservancy.umn.edu

Against Psychopolitics (1992)

Published in Nature, Society, and Thought Vol. 5, No. 2.



A critical examination is made of political psychology, specifically psychoanalytic and “depth” psychology as applied to the study of politics. I argue that psychological explanations for political leaders and movements (a) tend to be reductionist and based on interpretations that slight or ignore political data, (b) carry hidden political presumptions that prefigure the kind of analysis made, (c) offer no guidance for understanding the substance and process of public policy as such. Specific case studies are critically examined, including treatments of Lenin and Herbert Hoover. I conclude that we would do better to reverse the political psychologist’s formula and see family and childhood not as the great determinants of political events but as being crucially influenced by political and social forces.


Many great public issues as well as many private troubles are described in terms of the “psychiatric” — often, it seems, in a pathetic attempt to avoid the large issues and problems of modern society.
 — C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination

In recent decades, some political scientists, historians, and journalists have increasingly relied on psychology to explain political phenomena. In doing so, they tend to treat political realities as surface phenomena, under which there lurk deeper, more compelling dynamics. It is that kind of approach I wish to contest, focusing especially on psychoanalytic or “depth” psychology theories of personality. I will argue that political psychology reduces the significance of political life and retards our understanding of it.

Among the foremost pioneers in political psychology looms the figure of Harold Lasswell, a political scientist by training but heavily influenced by Freudianism, and himself a lay analyst. Over sixty years ago Lasswell postulated “a general formula which describes the developmental history of political man,” specifically: p → d → r = P. The private motives of the individual, p, “nurtured and organized in relation to the family constellation and the early self” are displaced, d, onto public objects. The displacement is then rationalized, r, in terms of public interests to produce political man, P[1]

As an example of political displacement Lasswell notes: “The prominence of hate in politics suggests that we may find that the most important private motive is a repressed and powerful hatred of authority, a hatred which has come to partial expression and repression in relation to the father.” [2] And “the repressed father hatred may be turned against kings or capitalists.” Individuals who condemn “the merciless exploitation of the toolless proletariat by the capitalists” may be just voicing “the rational justification” of earlier unresolved family animosities. [3] Not just individuals but whole “political movements derive their vitality from the displacement of private affects upon public objects.” [4] Eighteen years later Lasswell [5] repeated the formulation, speculating further that the political type “is characterized by an intense and ungratified craving for deference” that is “both accentuated and unsatisfied in the primary circle,” and is displaced upon public persons and practices “connected with the power process.”

I do not wish to take on the whole field of political psychology, which since Lasswell’s early efforts has grown considerably. Instead, I will treat only representative samples of those tendencies that more or less follow the Lasswellian displacement rationalization model. Consider the following: In 1969, the noted psychologist Bruno Bettelheim ascribed the student antiwar protests that were sweeping the nation’s campuses to the influence of a permissive society and to the “guilt” the students suffered because they had avoided military service. In a word, the students were not really bothered by the Vietnam war as such but by the fact that they had been able to evade their moral obligation to participate in it. (The protest movement actually involved not only students but hundreds of thousands of people beyond draft age.) As Bettelheim [6] explained to a special House education subcommittee: the guilt-ridden students, having evaded military service, “feel like parasites of society and hence come to hate a society which they think makes them feel this way.”

Reaching beyond Bettelheim, Lewis Feuer diagnoses practically every student rebellion in the twentieth century as suffering from irrational hostility toward surrogate parental figures. Thus Feuer observes that Fidel Castro, who developed his rebellious ways during his student days, “repeatedly blamed others, that is, his father, for his own entry into legal study,” a field he did not really wish to pursue. “This repetitive theme,” Feuer concludes, “suggests some of the roots of Castro’s own generational conflict and indirectly his anti-Americanism. In his blaming of others for having misled him, the United States became a surrogate father to be blamed.” [7] Not all student rebellions have pursued such “pseudo-goals,” however. According to Feuer, student rebellions in Communist countries were the exception; they represented a “quest for real freedom.” [8] One could go on with examples of this kind of political psychology and more examples will be provided in the discussion to follow, but let us move to the criticisms.

Depoliticizing the political

Psychopathological explanations tend to ignore the manifest political content of the phenomenon in question and conjure a latent apolitical need that is presumed to have a predetermining hold over the political actor. Thus Lasswell does not deal with the seemingly more evident possibility that people hate kings or capitalists not because of filial conflicts but because they find the social conditions imposed by autocracy and plutocracy to be hateful. We may ask: Is the presumed psychological cause of sufficient scope or linkage to explain momentous political effects? In a Cuba ruled by a much-hated U.S.-backed tyrant like Fulgenico Batista, where the major industries, markets, land, labor, and capital were dominated by U.S. corporations and a large segment of the populace lived in poverty, are we really to believe that a Cuban’s grievances toward the detested “Yanquis” were primarily a displacement of filial hostility anchored in a resentment about being required to go to law school? And what of the many thousands of others who join revolutionary ranks? Are they bestirred not by larger realities but principally by unresolved familial antagonisms — as Feuer [9] claims was the case with the Chinese students who joined Mao? If so, history owes quite a remarkable debt to the deficiencies that might exist in father-son relationships.

Armed with the displacement model proffered by Lasswell, investigators presume that the filial relationship not only precedes but supersedes the experiences of later life and that a conflict in “the primary circle” weighs more heavily than the oppression witnessed or experienced in the wider social sphere. But that premise remains unexamined; it is a self-determining psychologism in that it reduces the motivating forces of human behavior to psychology and expands psychology into something of an all-permeating social force.

That kind of explanation not only fosters political ignorance by offering a reductionist apolitical explanation of phenomena that we would otherwise consider grounded in the total configuration of political history, it also relies on political ignorance for its credibility. For only when one ignores the mountain of political data does the molehill of psychological speculation win a moment’s plausibility. To illustrate: those who listened to the outrage that students expressed against the Vietnam war, who read the literature disseminated by student protestors, and who witnessed the teach-ins, seminars, speeches, demonstrations, arrests, and sit-ins directed against the war may well hesitate to accept Bettelheim’s contention that students were motivated by a resentment toward their society borne of guilt feelings about not being drafted to fight in the very war they detested. For Bettelheim’s explanation to have any plausibility one must be unburdened by any direct knowledge of what the students were actually saying, reading, writing, feeling, and doing. The observable evidence of their words and deeds suggests that they opposed the war because they believed it to be unjust and destructive of innocent lives. What is missing from Bettelheim’s view is just such observable evidence. All we have are imputations that deny the manifest content of political struggle and ascribe some psychic motive best known to Bettelheim through a process of discovery he does not reveal.

Hidden political presumptions

While these kinds of psychological explanations tend to depoliticize political reality, they do so in a politically selective way. Those who maintain that the rebel is in need of psychological study are likely to assume that the more conformist political actor does not need such treatment. Bettelheim has never thought it necessary to sift through the psyches of those who ordered and conducted the B-52 carpet bombing of Indochina. Nor did the anti-Communist Feuer ever consider searching for hidden motives among dissident students in Communist countries — whose rebellions he supported and deemed free of psychopathology. Similarly, Rogow seems to equate political deviancy with psychological abnormality when he writes: “While most political leaders neither require nor merit a psychobiography, the form is particularly appropriate when we are dealing with odd or deviant political careers, … right and left extremists.” [10] A political judgment is being made here. The leaders referred to by Rogow are “odd and deviant” politically speaking, not psychologically. That political deviance is in special need of psychological investigation is the thing that has to be demonstrated rather than assumed. Alexander George, himself a psychobiographer, warns us:

The investigator’s own political values can easily color his judgment as to whether a leader copes successfully with stressful tasks. […] [A] leader who takes a firm stand and draws the line in disputes with political opponents may be judged to be engaged in highly adaptive behavior by an investigator who believes that such behavior is required by the situation; but the same behavior may be judged to be irrationally aggressive by a different investigator whose system of values leads to a different perception of the requirements and dangers implicit in the same situation. [11]

In a word, what is or is not a psychological displacement may often be determined less by the psychology of the political actor than by the politics of the psychologist.

Prima-facie guilt

By definition, rebels are people who are not accepting of society’s conventional beliefs and dominant interests. In turn, society’s view of who is psychologically disturbed rests to a great extent on existing standards of normality. Not surprisingly, those who challenge society’s prevailing beliefs and practices are more likely to be diagnosed as driven by aberrant private motives than those who do not. [12] Rycroft observes that many “world-shakers” and other exceptional people have been “manhandled by psychiatrists and [psycho]analysts. […] Jesus Christ has been diagnosed schizophrenic, Beethoven paranoid, the Old Testament prophets (collectively) schizophrenoid, Leonardo da Vinci schizoid-obsessional, etc., etc.” [13]

Some of us believe that people usually rebel because all is not well in the world. In contrast, the psychopolitical belief is that people rebel because they are not well. Rebels are diagnosed as troubled because they are so troublesome. Because they see a particular authority as unjust, it is concluded they oppose all established authority — which is not the case with most political dissidents or revolutionaries.

Political psychologists of the Lasswellian strain maintain that a rebellion against state authority is sometimes really a displacement of “unresolved” rebellion against parental authority. [14] On the face of it, there would seem to be only specific authorities in the world, bound to socially defined contexts, some of which we like and some we dislike. Not so for the political psychologist, who proposes a disembodied authority or rather a displaced parentally embodied authority — that predefines all other authorities in the individual’s psyche.

Rebellion against authority then becomes prima-facie evidence of rebellion against parental authority once removed. There is no need to demonstrate the linkage; it has been established by a reference to “clinical evidence that has no command over political data unless one assumes it does.” The psychological explanation, then, harbors the fallacy of “affirming the consequent”: the political rebel is really rebelling against parental authority; proof? the rebel is rebelling. This problem obtains in all “innate drive” theories that purport to explain observable behavior. Thus we are told that people are impelled by a drive for power or love or wealth. Evidence for such claims is then found in instances of people pursuing power, love, and wealth. The theory uses the very phenomenon it is trying to explain as evidence of its explanation.

Dubious clinical data

Along with challenging the way psychology has been applied to political phenomena, we might question the science of clinical depth psychology itself. In so doing, we share the company of none other than Harold Lasswell. In the preface to Psychopathology and Politics, he notes that his formulations are asserted in “rather dogmatic fashion” and rest on “the highly unsatisfactory nature of the materials and methods of contemporary psychopathology.” [15] After thirty years of psychoanalytic labor, notes Lasswell, there still did not exist a body of documents that might be consulted by specialists who could resolve their differences about what went on in treatment session. [16] Notes taken of interview sessions are often inadequate and inaccessible. Nobody knows “the value of the published scraps” or what processes distort the reporting practices of different clinical investigators. And there is no follow-up data on posttreatment conditions of clients. [17]

As Lasswell was not the first to observe, patients tend to produce the kind of material the analyst suggests. Hence, they dreamed of anima figures if analyzed by Jung, relived birth traumas when treated by Rank, talked of their inferiority feelings for Adler, and dealt with their oedipal anxieties and castration fears under Freud’s supervision. Lasswell does not dwell on the problems of replication raised by the prefiguring tendencies of the clinical discovery process, that is, how different investigators, using the same methods and dealing with the same data, arrive at such widely varying conclusions.

The rules for attributing meaning to data remain obscure, as Lasswell points out. Thus when someone reports he was warned during childhood that his nose would be cut off if he persisted in “handling himself.” Lasswell asks: “How do we know what importance to assign to this alleged reminiscence? Are we to accept this as a historical statement? Are we to construe it as a fabrication that, however, shows what he wanted to have happened, or supposed would happen, if he disobeyed orders?”. [18] Is the recollection just a sign of the patient’s fear of the therapist couched in the memory of the past? or maybe a self-inflicted fantasy to punish himself for hostile feelings toward the therapist? or an attempt to win approval by producing what he thinks the therapist finds important? or an original trauma that once uncovered will decrease the patient’s anxiety? [19]

Regarding the clinical discovery process, I would raise other concerns. Consider the question of “reaction-formation,” one of the defense mechanisms of the ego that political psychologists refer to (e.g., Greenstein 1975, 84). This concept might be singled out as emblematic of the dubious nature of much clinical data. Through reaction-formation a person who might be expected to show one form of behavior may react away from that form even to the point of showing the very opposite behavior. For instance, one might be expected to manifest hostility and jealousy toward a sibling for one reason or another but through reaction-formation will show friendliness and loyalty supposedly a compensatory psychological cover-up for unconscious negative feelings. Thus the clinician can assume an underlying motive exists, and then can find evidence for it in contrary behavior patterns. [20] Both A and the opposite of A stand as evidence of the same thing. Diametrically opposite patterns can be treated as supportive of the prevailing theoretical claim, making the theory nonfalsifiable. But how do we know when actions and attitudes harbor unconscious motives that relate to earlier experiences? When are they, if ever, what they seem to be? (Even Freud, a heavy cigar smoker, noted that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.) Behind such questions looms the problem of validation: how do we know we are observing the thing we say we are observing? — a question of special pertinence when dealing with things supposedly submerged in the psyche, which by their nature are not observable. Furthermore, can we ever think of individual action and attitude as existing apart from the larger configuration of social relations? Can we think of personality as something outside society? [21] If a given behavior is a response to both the imperatives of social reality and interior psychic motives, how much weight do we ascribe to larger social forces and how much to family relations? For instance, how much to oppressive class conditions and how much to filial conflicts?

In drawing evidence from the clinical sessions of relatively minor political figures who feel troubled enough to seek treatment, as does Lasswell in both his books on this subject (1930 and 1948), are we not stacking the deck in favor of pathology, reaching conclusions based on a population that is markedly unrepresentative of the larger political universe? And what are we to make of psychological pronouncements about presidents, prophets, revolutionary leaders, and other such notables about whom the psychological data are fragmentary and the possibilities of clinical investigation are nonexistent? Even Rogow notes that, while the psychoanalytic strategy is dubious enough when dealing with a living patient, “there is even more doubt that it can be effectively applied to the deceased statesman in his tomb who literally has taken his dreams and fantasies, his Oedipus complex and identity crisis with him.” [22] [23]

Since almost anything about a person can be endowed with psychopathological significance, including ostensibly positive features and seemingly casual utterances, what decides the process of selectivity and embellishment? What role do such things as ideology, a desire for justice, economic self-interest, and religious and ethical teachings play? Can we make a reliable interpretation of pathology by treating the individual as someone relatively untouched by these wider forces?

Some political psychologists try to solve these problems by wedding social and cultural forces to psychological ones in what is a rather unequal marriage. The objective world is experienced by subjective individuals, Greenstein notes. [24] Since individuals express and act out social realities through the prism of their personal psychologies, then social “characteristics” should be thought of as psychological as well. Quoting Allport (1950), Greenstein concludes that “background factors never directly cause behavior”; they just create “mental sets” and attitudes that in turn determine behavior. [25] If so, we might wonder whether the psychological has any boundaries. Seeming to permeate everything, it loses much of its discriminating value and explanatory power.

Greenstein points out quite correctly that social and psychological characteristics are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Social forces can cause psychological characteristics but are no substitute for them. [26] But that observation cuts both ways: psychological characteristics are no substitute for social ones. Regarding many political phenomena, social characteristics have an explanatory power of their own, which is largely independent of the personal psychologies of the actors involved. Thus people often perceive reality and act upon it in accordance with the position they occupy within the social structure, frequently because there is no other way they can act, even if they are persons endowed with exceptional personalities. It remains an unresolved question whether individuals who do act in exceptional ways are doing so because of rationalized emotions displaced from early life needs, or because of a host of other reasons having to do with talent, intelligence, family advantage, or whatever. In other words, when acting with exceptional courage, skill, and insight, or for that matter, exceptional stupidity, recklessness, and blindness, they are indeed acting not acting out.

Lenin as Oedipus

By way of illustrating some of the problems already touched upon, let us consider Victor Wolfenstein’s psychological study of Lenin from his book on Lenin, Trotsky, and Gandhi, three leaders who “came to have revolutionary identities as a result of essentially interminable conflicts with parental authority.” [27] Lenin was raised in a family “not bothered by unusual stress or disruption.” It consisted of a “considerable brood of children” who got along well together. [28] Lenin’s father is described by Wolfenstein as a warm, patient, loving parent, “who devoted substantial time to gently teaching his children how to behave. He taught his children to play chess, and played other games with them as well.” [29] Lenin’s mother also comes off rather well, being of steady disposition, relatively well educated, and “devoted to the well-being and advancement of her children.” She too spent a good deal of time with the children, teaching them to read, play the piano, leading them in family singing, and helping them compose a weekly handwritten family magazine. [30] Wolfenstein’s picture of Lenin is also generally positive. As a child Lenin appears to have been jovial, humorous, loud, a practical joker, “given somewhat to boasting and bullying, but on the whole well liked and likeable.” He easily performed well in school work and was esteemed by teachers. In all, Lenin, was “a bright assertive but not unusual lad.” [31] Whence the pathological revolutionary?

The problem, it turns out, was that Lenin’s father occasionally was kept away from his family for long periods of time by his official duties. Wolfenstein thinks this pattern of a loving attentive parent suddenly absenting himself “must have had a strange effect on young Lenin’s mind” and “probably produced strongly ambivalent feelings.” [32] Wolfenstein does not consider the likelihood that while Lenin and the other children may have missed their father during his job-related travels, they seemed securely enough placed in his affections not to have reacted with deep feelings of abandonment and betrayal.

Wolfenstein discerns another problem. Lenin’s father never used corporal punishment on him but resorted to “firm moral suasion” that “left little room for anti-paternal rebellion with a clear conscience.” Apparently, Lenin would have been better off had his father beaten him occasionally. The gentle father’s “high moral rectitude undoubtedly resulted in an unusually demanding superego for the son, so that young Lenin probably was unable to think or express the feelings of resentment which seem sure to have followed his father’s absences and disciplining without experiencing guilt as a consequence.” [33]

Even before all this, when Lenin was but eighteen to twenty months old he “had already developed a basically mistrustful nature.” [34] He was a late walker, a condition supposedly caused by the desire to emulate the behavior of a newly born sister in order to get the maternal attention she received. This slow walking demonstrated an early mistrust for his environment and shows that “Lenin’s adult behavior, above all his mistrustfulness and the aggressiveness which grows out of mistrus […] had deep roots indeed in his life experiences. A predisposition would exist towards viewing the world in kill-or-be-killed terms.” [35] [36] Wolfenstein does not reveal how he arrived at these breathtaking conclusions.

Lenin’s admiring and loving identification with his older brother and father — frequently expressed by him both verbally and in the way he emulated each — becomes yet another source of pathology in Wolfenstein’s hands. The death of both father and brother, it seems, evoked intense guilt feelings in Lenin who, according to Wolfenstein, harbored a love-hate ambivalence for both older men that was “the central problem of his life.” [37] Wolfenstein eventually lowers the Freudian boom: “Lenin, it must be remembered, felt he bore the double responsibility for the deaths of his father and brother-whom he had wished dead in order that he might possess his mother.” [38]

What is missing is any evidence that Lenin nursed such compelling feelings of guilt, aggression, ambivalence, hate, incest, and murder toward his brother and father. Nor, for Wolfenstein, is any evidence needed since the Oedipus complex has been declared a universal thing, part of every son’s psychic heritage. Thus a common affliction is used to explain a most uncommon man. One wonders why Wolfenstein bothered to construct the other interpretations when all along he could apply, as if by fiat, the prefabricated oedipal judgment.

Wolfenstein seems to suggest that revolutionary Marxism was the therapeutic cure for the oedipal psychopathology Lenin suffered. If so, psychopathology owes a lot to the curative powers of revolutionary thought, and revolution owes even more to psychopathology. But it’s better if we let Wolfenstein tell it:

In Marx, Lenin found a benevolent, omniscient father, a wise and methodical teacher, a fit repository for his feelings of love and respect for his real father. And in the Tsar, the perfect embodiment of the vengeful Oedipal father, he found his dangerous opponent, over whom, however, Marx promised victory. [39]

This treatment of Lenin invites the criticism offered earlier that almost anything about a person can be endowed with psychopathological significance and then weaved into his or her political life. Both A and the opposite of A can be treated as evidence of pathology. Both a loving, gentle father and a harsh unloving one, both a positive identification with familial figures and a negative one. And at times no data at all will do quite well as when we invoke the universal oedipal curse. Behavior in later life is presumed to be motivated not by a quest for justice or a desire for a better world, but by an acting out of earlier unresolved scenarios. Even if an individual like Lenin creates a new and greater drama in his engagement with life, in the pyschopathological view, he is still bound to an old script, a hapless victim of an interior demonology that needs a lifetime and sometimes a whole revolution for its proper exorcism.

The generic fallacy

The ostensible purpose of psychopolitics is to further our understanding of politics by telling us about the inner motivations of political actors. But discovering a hidden psychological need in the political actor tells us very little about the meaning of the act itself as a policy reality. The political significance of the act is not unearthed by a motivational analysis, especially since the motivations of the actors are supposedly derived from distinctly prepolitical psychological sources.

Nevertheless, the psychopathological explanation does cast a pall on political things. Once convinced that revolutionaries are impelled by unresolved feelings about their fathers, we cannot help but wonder about the value of the revolution itself — even though the analysis tells us nothing about the revolution’s substantive issues. When Bettelheim or others reduce the student protest movement to a collective guilt trip or to some infantile or adolescent disorder, the inevitable impact is to devalue the protest, making the protesters the issue rather than the thing they are protesting.

This kind of argumentum ad hominem tells us very little if anything about the political worth of an issue or action. We might decide that people opposed the Vietnam war because they had (a) an irrationally displaced hatred of authority or (b) a sense of justice and a love of peace. And we might conclude that people supported the war out of (c) love of country and a concern for “freedom” or (d) a taste for violent activity. But none of this brings us to an informed position regarding the war itself, for the question of whether to support or oppose armed intervention as a policy rests on a body of data that extends beyond the interior motives of particular social actors. That a U.S. Navy pilot who flew missions in Vietnam is quoted as saying, “There are a lot of nice buildings in Haiphong. What their contributions are to the war effort I don’t know, but the desire to bomb a virgin building is terrific.” [40], tells us nothing either way about the worth of the bombing as policy, although it may invite speculations about one navy pilot.

A common criticism made of persons involved in public protests is that they are guilty of personal indulgences, that is, they are really just seeking to escape boredom or vent their anger, or whatever. Indeed, politically active people do sometimes feel more engaged with life. Communists, revolutionaries, radicals, liberals, centrists, conservatives, reactionaries, and fascists have all testified to the personal invigoration experienced in active political engagement, especially when the effort brought results, but this tells us nothing about the political value of their particular actions and ideologies. In sum, intrapsychic motivations as opposed to political ones are, if not irrelevant, then certainly of marginal importance for evaluating public policy.

The compulsive Hoover

Psychopolitics is not just a matter of psychologizing about rebels. Presidents and conservative leaders of the United States have also been analyzed. The results are hardly more encouraging than the treatment accorded radicals. [41] Let us consider one of the best of the political psychologists, James David Barber, specifically his treatment of Herbert Hoover, a man he categorizes as an “active-negative president.” The active-negative president is one who experiences severe deprivation in childhood and who subsequently tries to wring from his environment a sense of self-worth through achievement and a search for power over others. [42] According to Barber, Hoover (like Wilson, Johnson, and Nixon) suffered from a fatal flaw of character that caused him to discard an earlier flexibility for a latter-day self-defeating rigidity and compulsion. [43] Who would have anticipated, Barber asks, “that Herbert Hoover, the pragmatic miracle worker who negotiated relief for war-torn Europe in the midst of World War I, would freeze in opposition to relief for jobless Americans” (Barber 1973)?

In a chapter entitled “The Origins of the Presidential Compulsion” we learn that Hoover was orphaned at the age of eight, lived with relatives, liked the outdoors, and had an upbringing that stressed “a close restraint of emotions.” [44] Barber maintains that as a child Hoover was scarred by the loss of his parents and experienced “a sense of powerlessness, an inability to guide his own fate, a vulnerability to sudden externally imposed radical changes in his life.” [45] To overcome these feelings he strove to establish control over the world around him, a pattern that persisted into college, where he also supposedly manifested an “extreme individualism.” Actually, based on the data Barber presents, one could conclude that Hoover showed himself able to work in close unison with schoolmates, had a normal number of friendships, displayed exceptional skills as a student organizer, and exercised an effective campus leadership. If anything, at Stanford, Hoover developed his exceptional gifts in seemingly creative and self-rewarding ways.

Barber believes the fatal flaws in Hoover’s character surfaced most pronouncedly when he was in the White House. As a president, Hoover appeared to be trying “to make up for something, to salvage through leadership some lost or damaged part of himself” and to struggle “against an inner sense of inadequacy.” “His power-seeking reflected a strong compensatory need for power.” [46]

Like other active-negative presidents such as Wilson and Johnson, according to Barber, Hoover harbored “a felt necessity for the denial of self-gratification” (a trait I find hard to imagine in Lyndon Johnson). Hoover “struggled to control aggressive impulses” and was a perfectionist who was “supposed to be good at everything all the time.” Actually Hoover himself had a rather nonperfectionist view of his own limitations. Thus he refused to try to excel in the presidency’s every role. He made no attempt to fulfill the dramatic needs of the office, remarking on one occasion, “You can’t make a Teddy Roosevelt out of me.” [47]

Barber tells us Hoover was an emotionally blocked man, taciturn, humorless, reserved, and seldom capable of crying. But the sparse evidence he offers seems to contradict this picture. Hoover could express anger, as on the occasion he threatened to fight a heckler in the 1932 campaign. Hoover could cry. Barber cites two instances when he was moved to tears in public. [48] (How often might a less emotively blocked president be expected to cry in public?) And Hoover was profoundly moved, both emotionally and to action, when visited in the White House by three children who were pleading to have their unemployed father released from jail. [49] Curiously, the one contemporary testimony Barber offers is that of Eugene Lyons, who said that Hoover was not cold, but “a sensitive, soft-hearted person who craves affection, enjoys congenial company, and suffers under the slings of malice.” [50]

In sum, the data Barber offers on Hoover’s life are not only sketchy and selective but lend themselves to a contrary interpretation. Barber fails to make a convincing case that the traits he ascribes to Hoover are the dominant components of his character or are endowed with the significance Barber attributes to them. The consequence is that one comes away with the feeling that Barber tells rather than shows us. And we are left asking: how does he know that? In the pages to follow I will argue that there were factors of a political nature, relating to Hoover’s ideology and his commitment to a particular social and economic order, that explain the “mystery” of his political behavior.

The political Hoover

Barber’s question remains: how could Hoover, the man who administered relief to the children of war-torn Europe, refuse to allocate relief funds to alleviate the hunger of millions of people at home during the Great Depression, thus helping to bring down his own presidency? Before proposing some psychological compulsion, let us investigate the political Hoover, for therein may rest the clues to his political behavior.

When Hoover was president he once said: “The sole function of government is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise.” [51] Indeed, a look at Hoover’s career reveals a consistent lifelong dedication to the private-enterprise system at home and abroad. As head of the private organization, the Belgian Relief Commission, and later as director of the American Relief Administration, Hoover administered aid in a highly political way. The Belgian distribution program had the aura of a business enterprise. The Belgian population paid for most of the food it received. The food donations made in the United States and elsewhere were sold to the Belgians at wartime prices for cash, as though they had been bought on the open market. Belgium was drained of funds in exchange for food. [52] Among the Belgians who could not pay, drastic shortages arose by 1916, followed by hunger riots among the poorer classes. [53]

By the war’s end Hoover was concerned with more important things than feeding Belgians. As early as November 1918 he made it clear that food was to be used as a political weapon “to stem the tide of Bolshevism.” [54] When Hoover’s American Relief Administration sent aid to Russia, it was for a purpose never intended by Congress, to areas occupied by General Yudenich’s White Guard army and, in the Baltics, to areas held by General von der Goltz’s German expeditionary corps. Both these armies were dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet government and both engaged in widespread pillaging and execution of civilians. By 1919 Yudenich’s army subsisted totally on Hoover’s aid. [55] In a report to Congress in January 1921, Hoover admitted that he had used U.S. relief funds to supply the White armies. [56] Hoover’s manner of distributing relief moved the Nation to comment editorially:

We have Mr. Hoover’s word for it that eight ships with 20,000 tons of supplies are in the Baltic, awaiting only the fall of Petrograd in order to feed its starving inhabitants. The Russians are to starve because four men in Paris do not like their politics. […] On the day when they surrender to the ideas and armies of the Big Four, then they have bread. [57]

Similarly Hoover withheld financial aid and food intended for Hungary until the short-lived revolutionary Béla Kun government was overthrown even though the supplies had been purchased with funds advanced by that government. Aid was forthcoming only after the reactionary Admiral Horthy was installed, backed by the bayonets of the Romanian army, which instituted a “White terror,” executing hundreds of Hungarian revolutionaries and Jews. [58] In similar spirit, Hoover characterized his relief efforts in support of the Allied-sponsored government in Austria as “a race against both death and Communism.” He had posters plastered up all over Vienna announcing that food shipments would cease should an uprising occur. [59] Hoover also placed large sums at the disposal of the rightist Polish militarists during their invasion of Soviet Russia in April 1920. Senator James Reed of Missouri charged on the Senate floor that $40 million of relief funds voted by Congress to feed the hungry “was spent to keep the Polish army in the field.” [60] The political psychologist Alexander George (1974, 257) describes Hoover as a “a sincere humanitarian.” He might better be described as “a selective humanitarian,” capable of using or withholding funds as political ideology dictated.

While hailed as someone who did good, Herbert Hoover did well. Frequently described as an “engineer,” he was in fact a multimillionaire with business ventures in Burma, Nigeria, Australia, South Africa, Nicaragua, the United States, and czarist Russia. [61] Prior to World War I he had secured a major interest in no less than eleven Russian oil corporations, along with major concessions in Russian timberlands, mines, railroads, factories, refineries, and gold, copper, silver, and zinc reserves. [62] Had the October Revolution not happened and the Bolshevik government not canceled the vast concessions, Hoover would have been one of the world’s top billionaires. Whether motivated by concern for his personal investments or a more generalized class interest or an ideological conservatism or some blend of these — and there is no reason to assume they are mutually exclusive — Hoover manifested an unswervingly militant opposition to communism and to any revolutionary change that might limit the prerogatives of private enterprise. During the period after the Russian Revolution, he remained a persistent supporter of the military campaigns against Soviet Russia. [63]

During his tenure as president, Hoover repeatedly voiced his opposition to public ownership and government regulation of the economy. At the time of the Depression, political and corporate leaders were divided as to what strategy to pursue in the face of economic collapse and growing public unrest. [64] There were those who advocated reforms in the hope that by giving a little they could keep a lot. Others feared that such concessions would not stem the tide but open the floodgates and inundate their world. They believed that the private-enterprise system should not be tampered with in any serious way, that reports of popular suffering were greatly exaggerated, and that the economy was basically sound and would soon right itself.

Hoover was firmly in this latter camp. What Barber considers to be his “freeze,” “inflexibility,” and “compulsion” were attitudes not personal to him. In his refusal to spend the billions needed to ease the plight of the destitute, Hoover had the support of most of the business community right up to 1932 and beyond. Indeed, at least until mid-1932, even the American Federation of Labor, “consistent with its historic emphasis on voluntarism,” opposed government assistance to the unemployed. [65] In short, attitudes that Barber treats as symptomatic of Hoover’s inner character, in fact were the prevailing opinion within most of the business community and even among some prominent trade-union leaders.

Like so many other conservatives then and now, Hoover preached the virtues of self-reliance, opposed the taxation of overseas corporate earnings, sought to reduce income taxes for the higher brackets, and opposed both a veteran’s bonus and aid to drought sufferers. He refused federal funds for the jobless and opposed unemployment insurance and federal retirement benefits. He repeatedly warned that public-assistance programs were the beginning of “state socialism.” [66] Toward business, however, he suffered from no such “inflexibility” and could spend generously. He supported multimilliondollar federal subsidies to shipping interests and agribusiness, and his Reconstruction Finance Corporation doled out a couple of billion dollars to banks and corporations.

The above information, all a matter of public record, provides us with a picture of Hoover different from the one sketched by Barber. Rather than moving from flexibility to rigidity because of some psychological flaw, Hoover maintained a position that was consistently in line with his class ideology, one shared by other sectors of the public, including most of the business community. As an administrator of emergency relief he used aid to buttress autocratic capitalist governments and armies, while starving out revolutionary governments and movements in Central and Eastern Europe, yielding very little even in the face of repeated criticisms from Congress and the press.

The man who could assist the likes of General von der Goltz and General Yudenich would have no trouble ordering General MacArthur to drive out the unarmed Bonus March veterans, in an action that left two killed and many wounded. The man who, for political reasons, could withhold funds from starving populations in Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia, could, for political reasons, deny relief to U.S. workers. Having fought but a decade before against socialist revolutions in Austria, Hungary, the Baltics, and Russia, President Hoover was not about to introduce what he and many of his supporters considered to be insidious forms of socialism at home. (Even here, Hoover’s “characterological rigidity” gave way to political expediency when, faced with a national election, he belatedly moved in the direction of federal relief in the summer of 1932.)

In sum, the mystery about Hoover’s character — when placed in a fuller context of political data — appears not to be a mystery at all. Herbert Hoover was very much a political animal. Unyielding and uncompromising he could be, but this pattern was evident from the earliest days of his public career, and in a politically consistent manner. The “pragmatic miracle worker” who supposedly was suddenly beset by a compulsion when in the White House was all along a hard-line, anti-Communist, multimillionaire conservative, who operated in an ideologically consistent way, taking positions that even today are not unfamiliar ones among sectors of U.S. political leadership. On behalf of the things he believed in and cherished, Hoover knew what he was doing. [67] Once again we see that the psychological explanation achieves plausibility only by slighting, rather than explaining, important political realities.

Reversing Lasswell: The political affects the personal

Making explicit reference to Lasswell, Wolfenstein argues for a connection between personality and politics. To deny such a linkage is to maintain that “political participants are people who live in two unconnected psychic worlds, that of their childhood and private life and that of their public life.” [68] To be sure, it is not unreasonable to think a connection exists between the personal and the political, but must it be the one set down by Lasswell? The Lasswellian model assumes that since childhood antedates adulthood it creates a more compelling and enduring nexus than the experiences of adult life. This presumed progression from apolitical-formative childhood to political-reactive adulthood treats the individual as the generic entity, a notion compatible with the liberal model of the market society as an aggregation of individuals acting out their desires and demands, thereby shaping the larger reality in accordance with their private desires.

But what is primary in time sequence is not necessarily primary in formative power. Chronological primacy may not be a sure indication of an affecting primacy. For many important political phenomena one might do better to reverse the Lasswellian formula and argue that the causal progression goes the other way. For instance, there are numerous studies indicating that the anxieties generated during times of nuclear escalation and cold war confrontations penetrate the unconscious minds of children in the United States, investing many youngsters with unnervingly pessimistic prognoses about humanity’s survival. [69] Other political developments like recession, unemployment, poverty, loss of family income, police repression, political assassination, and war have a discernible impact on the psychic dispositions of whole populations of adults and children. [70]

To posit an apolitical childhood as the crucial antecedent to political adulthood is to ignore the fact that childhood is likely to be no more apolitical than the rest of life. That U.S. children are not usually active in political life does not mean they are insulated from its formative effects. In fact, they undergo an early political and ideological socialization from television, movies, grade school, community, and from the social experiences and prejudices to which they are exposed in the family itself. Much of the political socialization literature indicates that the family is far from apolitical and that it has an important impact on political loyalties — not through the circuitous route of a psychopathological ontology but more directly as a socializing mediator of political opinions, social images, gender roles, racial attitudes, and class values.

All this suggests that socialization and internalization rather than displacement and rationalization may be the crucial mechanisms linking private and public worlds. Putting Lasswell in reverse, our formula might read: P → s → i = p. Political forces, P, have a socializing effect, s, on individuals who through a process of internalization, i, embrace particular images and interests of political life so that these become compelling components of their private motives, p. I submit that the explanatory power of this model is greater and less mysterious than the Lasswellian one. In the spirit of Occam’s razor it requires one to make fewer and less embellished assumptions and it is supported by more readily manifest evidence and by interpretations devoid of the attenuated extrapolations found in psychopolitics. Rather than reducing complex social configurations to intrapsychic motives, the alternate model recognizes that neither individuals nor their families antedate the social reality into which they are born. To demonstrate that things political affect things personal does not mean that Lasswell’s formula is without application, but it does raise questions about theories that deny or thoroughly minimize the powerful socializing forces of political life itself. We might challenge any formula that treats family and childhood as existing in a prepolitical vacuum.

For politics

My intent here has not been to call for the elimination of political psychology. Greenstein (1967) notes areas in which personality can have relevance for the study of politics. He asserts, following Inkeles (1963), that there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that particular institutional statuses attract or recruit particular personalities. But there is also evidence suggesting that institutionally defined roles and statuses will prefigure individual behavior and that persons of different personalities will act in roughly similar ways given prescribed modes of performance and other institutional imperatives. [71] Focusing too closely on personality causes us to overlook the wider institutional imperatives of power and interest that shape our options and our performances. But a purely structuralist view leaves out the crucial role that individual personalities or group psychology might play. In other words, we should have no argument with Greenstein and others when they assert that differing personalities may under certain circumstances effect different outcomes in social and political interplays.

But it is one thing to say that personality may affect political reality — who can deny the impact of a Lenin or a Gandhi? — and quite something else to argue that political actors, both leaders and masses, are really displacing upon the manifest content of political life their unresolved hidden psychological agendas. It is this latter assertion that I have taken to task without wishing to dismiss in toto the role of psychological factors in the timing, formulation, and expression of political actions. After doing correlations of political, social, and psychological attitudes, Sutherland and Tannenbaum conclude that:

political scientists who study mass political preferences in relation to “basic” personality dimensions […] are mining an area of negligible potential. […] Political preferences will more likely be shown to arise from rationally held “cognitions” about how society itself functions, than from deep seated personality needs. […] It seems obvious that “personologists” in political science have been hasty in focusing on supposed universal effects of “personality” variables like political efficacy and authoritarianism, which have turned out on reflection to be class-based. [72]

Yet these authors (and I) refuse to jettison all of political psychology. They do not deny its value but urge that our research try “to link particular environments with particular personality predispositions, with social views, and with political views and actions.” [73]

In sum, psychopolitics tends to reduce large social phenomena to simple personal causalities. It is reductionist, although in a tortuously indirect manner, for psychopolitics takes an elaborately convoluted path, preferring explanations that are far removed from the events and realities to which the explanations are directed. Psychopolitics tends to underplay manifest content. It is simplistic in its interpretation yet highly esoteric and rarified in the nature of the evidence (or nonevidence) upon which it rests. At the heart of all psychologistic explanations is the denial of Occam’s razor. The direct cut is never made.

In reversing Lasswell I am not claiming that the formative causality goes only from the political to the private but that we give a new definition to the private, recognizing its social dimensions. Certainly people are not passive absorbents of politico-economic forces. People synthesize, challenge, and even create anew their social experience. All I am saying is that the existing literature on psychopolitics is too deeply flawed to be of much help in telling us what to think about the role of the psyche in politics. Having taken note of the inaccessibility of reliable data and the plenitude of questionable interpretations, both in the science of depth psychology and in its political applications, and having noted the tenuous and seemingly arbitrary linkage of causalities, the way sweeping conclusions might rest on frail suppositions, and the way political data are slighted, we might be forgiven if we choose not to tread the path opened by the practitioners of psychopolitics. They promised us a secret garden and instead gave us a swamp.


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  1. 1930, 74. 

  2. 1930, 75. 

  3. 75-76. 

  4. 173. 

  5. 1948, 38. 

  6. 1969. 

  7. 1969, 250. 

  8. 311. 

  9. 1969. 

  10. 1968, 605. 

  11. 1974, 235-36. 

  12. Szasz 1974. 

  13. 1971, 8. 

  14. Lasswell 1930; George and George 1964; Wolfenstein 1967. 

  15. 1930, xxv. 

  16. Fifty-nine years after Lasswell made this observation, the American Psychiatric Press published a four-volume reference work intended as a manual for treatment. [74] 

  17. 1930, 205. 

  18. 1930, 206. 

  19. 206-7. 

  20. Eysenck 1953. 

  21. Porshnev 1970, 114. 

  22. 1968, 605. 

  23. The same problem of dubious data exists for psychohistory as well as psychopolitics. [75] 

  24. 1967, 632. 

  25. 1967, 632. 

  26. 631. 

  27. 1967, 49. 

  28. 1967, 36-37. 

  29. 34. 

  30. 35. 

  31. 37-38. 

  32. 39. 

  33. 39. 

  34. 40. 

  35. 41. 

  36. For a much different view of Lenin’s adult personality see the contemporary portraits by Krupskaya 1960 and Trotsky 1971. 

  37. 46. 

  38. 113. 

  39. 117. 

  40. New York Times, 20 January 1968. 

  41. See for instance, Wolfenstein 1967, Chesen 1973, Abrahamsen 1977, Brodie 1973, Clinch 1973, Mazlish 1972. For a critique of Clinch and Mazlish, see Cole 1987, 96-99, 102-04. Barber (1972), to be treated in the pages to follow, is, I believe, one of the stronger efforts in political psychology. Another work worthy of respectful attention, but deserving of some of the same criticisms made herein, is George and George 1964; see the critiques of George and George in Tucker 1977 and in Weinstein, Anderson, and Link 1978-79 and the response by George and George 1981-82, all reprinted in Cocks and Crosby 1987. 

  42. Barber 1972, 99-100. 

  43. The assertion that presidents as ostensibly different in personality as Wilson, Nixon, Johnson, and Hoover are “strikingly similar in character” (Barber 1973) raises a question about the use of “character” as a psychological construct and its relation to personality. [76] 

  44. Barber 1972, 128. 

  45. 1972, 129. 

  46. 1972, 78. 

  47. Barber 1972, 69. 

  48. 77. 

  49. 77-78. 

  50. 77. 

  51. Barber 1972, 74. 

  52. Knox 1932, 115. 

  53. Hamill 1931, 327-28. 

  54. Weissman 1974, 29. 

  55. Weissman 1974, 36-37; Sayers and Kahn 1946, 106. 

  56. Liggett 1932, 260-267. 

  57. 7 June 1919. 

  58. Liggett 1932, 255; Weissman 1974, 215. 

  59. Weissman 1974. 

  60. Sayers and Kahn 1946, 93; Weissman 1974, 37. 

  61. Hamill 1931. 

  62. Hamill 1931, 298-300; Knox 1932, 97-99. 

  63. Hoover eventually did offer relief to Soviet Russia during the famine of 1921, a move designed to undermine the Bolshevik government “in a form more devious than frank counterrevolution” (Filene 1967, 78). [77] 

  64. Piven and Cloward 1979, 44 45. 

  65. Piven and Cloward 1979, 72. 

  66. Liggett 1932; Warren 1959. 

  67. That Hoover acted rationally does not mean he acted infallibly. It certainly can be argued that subsequent events demonstrated how wrong he and his supporters were about both economic conditions and the popular mood. 

  68. Wolfenstein 1967, 164. 

  69. Beardslee and Mack 1982, 1983; Yudkin 1984; Escalona 1965. 

  70. Brenner 1973; Bernstein 1970; Brown and Harris 1978. 

  71. Parenti 1978. 

  72. 1984, 177, 194. 

  73. 196. 

  74. It contains contributions by more than four hundred experts, mostly psychiatrists, and seems close to being the body of documents that Lasswell thought specialists should have available for consultation in order to resolve their differences about clinical treatment (Task Force on Treatments and Psychiatric Disorders 1989). But even before the work appeared it evoked heated controversy, including complaints from various psychologists who believed certain theories were slighted and new approaches would be discouraged. The manual was published with a disclaimer saying that it was not an official publication of the American Psychiatric Association (Goleman 1989). 

  75. Thus we are warned about “the inherent evidentiary problems of psychohistory: the difficulty of gathering data on childhood; the resultant danger of circular reasoning in hypothesizing antecedents from adult words and actions; the absence of personal contact enjoyed by the psychoanalyst; the misuse of subjectivity; the danger of reductionism; the question of whether psychoanalytic theory is valid for other times and places (and, indeed, whether the application of any contemporary model can illuminate the special mentalities of earlier periods)” (Cocks and Crosby 1987, x). 

  76. If we think of “personality” in the lay sense to mean the observable expressions of temperament and attitude, and “character” in the more clinical sense of “the form of the typical reaction” used by individuals to mediate reality and psychic conflict (Reich 1949), or the enduring and early developed structured “stance toward life” (Barber 1972, 10), then the claim that these four rather different presidential personalities are of similar character is not an impossible one. But it could be established only by an in-depth character analysis of all four presidents, something that of course has not been done. Barber’s character typology deals not only with surface manifestations of activity-passivity and positive negative expressions but deeper psychodynamic patterns. As George points out, “the data are not always good” in supporting Barber’s contention that a particular presidential style also contains the deeper psychodynamics that Barber associates with it (George 1974, 251). Both Lasswell and Barber sometimes emphasize the biographical specificity of some displaced and rationalized childhood sentiment or experience, and other times refer to the habituated, structured modes of response that are what Wilhelm Reich called the individual’s “characterological” way of mediating between outer life and inner self (Reich 1969). In a word, the political psychologists are dealing with both developmental psychology and ego adaptive psychology, relying now on the idiosyncratic features of the individual’s psychic history and now on the generalizable forms of character defenses. Greenstein (1975) notes that these are interrelated but conceptually separate approaches. But as applied to political psychobiographies it is not always clear why and when it should be one or the other. 

  77. Hoover believed that the Bolsheviks were about to lose their grip on the reins of power. The hope was that some large international relief body would be able to take over economic control in Soviet Russia, in what became known as a “bread intervention” (Weissman 1974, 44-45, 49-51). In a memorandum to President Wilson (one that seems remarkably contemporary in its counterinsurgency approach), Hoover demonstrated that the containment of communism was uppermost in his mind. He mapped out how aid might serve to moderate the militancy of a new revolutionary government, especially “after bitter experience has taught the economic and social follies of present [revolutionary] obsessions” (Fisher 1927, 11-14). Within two years after the food program began, when it became evident that the Soviets were not about to collapse or be subverted, Hoover abruptly canceled all aid to Russia while continuing to assist conservative regimes in Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.