What Did You Do in the War, Doctor?

The task they faced was enormous. If the First World War had given analysts access to shell-shocked soldiers, the second one introduced the prospect of entire cities traumatized by unrelenting threat. Simply healing the bomb-bruised psyches of the British would have been daunting enough.

On social scientists and social change

Image by NASA/US Army

Michal Shapira. The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War, and the Making of the Democratic Self in Postwar Britain. Cambridge University Press, October 2013.

Peter Mandler. Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War. Yale University Press, May 2013.

The problem with the V-1 bomb, wrote George Orwell from London, at a time when the German Wehrmacht was hurling thousands of them at the city, is that “unlike most other projectiles, it gives you time to think.1 What is your first reaction when you hear that droning, zooming noise? Inevitably, it is a hope that the noise won’t stop. You want to hear the bomb pass safely overhead and die away into the distance before the engine cuts out. In other words, you are hoping that it will fall on somebody else. So also when you dodge a shell or an ordinary bomb—but in that case you have only about five seconds to take cover and no time to speculate on the bottomless selfishness of the human being.”

There was a lot of that sort of morbid speculation going on in Britain during the war. Over five years, air raid sirens went off in London 1,224 times, or about once every thirty-six hours. Nerves frayed, and uncomfortable questions cropped up amidst the ruptured pavement and blasted buildings. Was it all right to feel fear? To hate? To, perhaps, find something thrilling about it all?

It was an auspicious time to ask such questions. As Michal Shapira argues in The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War, and the Making of the Democratic Self in Postwar Britain, Britain, by offering refuge to those fleeing the Nazis, unwittingly turned itself into the international center of psychoanalysis. Anti-Semitism and the war drained Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Budapest, Prague, and Vienna of their most prominent psychoanalysts, many of whom were Jewish. Fame offered little protection. The Gestapo visited Sigmund Freud’s home in Vienna and took in his daughter, the psychoanalyst Anna Freud, for interrogation. The family fled to London in 1938, reluctantly leaving behind Freud’s elderly sisters, whom the Nazis deported and murdered.

Sigmund Freud died in London in the fateful month of September 1939, just weeks after Hitler invaded Poland. But it is not clear that he would have had much to say about the war. Freud tended to dodge political questions; when asked in 1923 whether he would like to psychoanalyze Europe, he quipped, “I never take a patient to whom I can offer no hope.” The unfinished task of producing a psychoanalytic response to the war fell to his successors, assembled behind Allied lines. Shapira shines her tightly focused beam on four of them: Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, and, appropriately enough, Anna Freud.

The task they faced was enormous. If the First World War had given analysts access to shell-shocked soldiers, the second one introduced the prospect of entire cities traumatized by unrelenting threat. Simply healing the bomb-bruised psyches of the British would have been daunting enough. Yet the psychoanalysts refused to stop there. They wanted to confront, and master, the impulses that gave rise to war in the first place. In the subtitle of her book, Shapira refers to this as the “making of the democratic self.” She is frustratingly vague about the precise characteristics of that self and what makes it “democratic,” but the gist is clear enough. The psychoanalysts hoped that by sublimating aggression into more peaceful undertakings, they could put an end to war.

Doing this, they believed, required taking an honest inventory of human emotions. Fear, anxiety, and belligerence could not be ignored, they must be acknowledged and then channeled appropriately. So far, so good. But at the next step, Shapira’s quartet took a decisive turn. As Freudians, they believed that emotional turbulence was primarily the product of the family drama. Yes, buildings were falling down and people were dying, but the true source of psychological strife was the usual one: fathers and mothers.

Anna Freud, who ran a set of nurseries for war orphans, captured the sentiment well. The real danger to children was not that the war itself would damage their minds. It was, as she and her staff wrote, that “the destruction raging in the outer world may meet the very real aggressiveness which rages in the inside of the child.” The war was not a trauma, in other words. It was a trigger.

Taken too far, this line of interpretation approached comedy. For Melitta Schmideberg, Melanie Klein’s daughter and an important analyst on the British scene, the war unnerved Britons, but only because it reminded them of their parents. The air-raid sirens symbolized the shrill voice of parental scolding; the bombs themselves, the ensuing punishment. When places of entertainment were struck, that was chastisement for enjoying sex. And the blackouts? “Sadistic intercourse between the parents.”

It’s hard not to wonder what Schmideberg’s own mother, Melanie Klein, made of this, though the sense one gets from Shapira’s book is that she didn’t raise an eyebrow. Reading through Klein’s clinical notes, Shapira reveals how fully Klein herself was committed to the view that disturbing emotions had internal or childhood causes. When a patient of Klein’s felt distressed by the news that Hitler had taken personal command of the German Army, Klein concluded that the patient’s true fear was that “Hitl. took command inside him”—Hitler featuring in Klein’s notes as the bad father figure. When the same patient raised the possibility that Britain might occupy Germany, Klein concluded that he was imagining himself facing the threat of symbolic invasion.

If the root cause of psychological distress lay in family life, then the potential scope of psychoanalysis was boundless. And that is what intrigues Shapira most. The 1940s were when psychoanalysis broke out of its prewar cage—an elite science, confined to a small number of special cases—and came to dominate British life. In another academic flourish, Shapiro dubs this the “therapeutic state.” Again, she leaves a central concept badly underspecified, but presumably it refers to the new interest that the British government took in the mental health of its subjects. As one of Shapira’s psychoanalysts put it: “The state should accept the duty of protecting the individual from himself.”

Anna Freud and her coworkers only treated a few patients during the war: two nurseries’ worth of children and, slightly later, another house containing six Jewish orphans who had improbably survived a Nazi concentration camp. Melanie Klein spent much of the war in rural Scotland treating a handful of patients. So how did their modest efforts “make” a postwar “democratic self” or lead to a “therapeutic state”?

One answer is that they weren’t alone. Moving outward from Anna Freud’s nurseries and Klein’s small Scottish practice, Shapira examines the psychoanalysts who sought to turn the new theories into policies. Most illuminating in this regard is her account of the popularization of psychoanalysis on the radio, in government reports, and in film. Even here Shapira retains her narrow focus, though, subjecting to close scrutiny a series of lectures on parenting that Donald Winnicott delivered on the BBC between 1944 and 1951 and John Bowlby’s promotion of attachment theory in roughly the same period.

Winnicott and Bowlby faced a well-entrenched body of thought and practice, called behaviorism, according to which raising a child was mainly the art of instilling rigid habits of hygiene and comportment. Toilet training, fresh air, and cold baths—not parental love or self-expression—were what built character. And the locus of behaviorist practice was not the home but the institution: the hospital ward and the school. Shapira reminds the reader that, prior to the 1940s, most hospitals either prohibited parental visits or limited them to half an hour. More than one observer came to wonder whether this didn’t all smack of “Prussianism.”

If Anna Freud and Melanie Klein had exposed the dark urges within the child, Winnicott and Bowlby extolled the gentle virtues of maternal care. Winnicott’s BBC lectures urged mothers to follow their instincts and Bowlby educated the public about “separation anxiety” and the importance of the mother-child bond. If the notion that parents should give loving and frequent care to their young children seems like common sense now, it wasn’t then, and Shapira credits Winnicott and Bowlby for making it so.

But how, precisely, did psychoanalytic theories of parenting congeal into clichés? Here Shapira is at her weakest. Her book contains a great deal about the internal editorial process at the BBC, but much less about what Winnicott’s audience made of his broadcasts. It appears that they agreed heartily with him, but why? What led British parents to abandon the stiff-upper-lip approach to childrearing? It is not hard to think of possible explanations—the shrinking size of the British family, the general retreat of Victorian culture—but Shapira does not attempt one. The reader is thus left a little confused as to how the “democratic self” had been made or the “therapeutic state” established.

There is also, I think, a legitimate question to ask about whether Britain truly became a “therapeutic state.” Shapira’s book ends abruptly in the mid 1950s, with Bowlby’s victory on the issue of hospital visitation. Parents could now visit their sick children—a substantial achievement in itself and a portent of a larger cultural shift. But is that the same as the state claiming the mental health of the populace as its proper domain? The issue is complex, because although government planners now spoke more readily of the British psyche, they also handed custody over that matter to the private nuclear family. Hence the admittance of parents into children’s wards. The parents, not hospital officials, were the ones who were supposed to tend to the mental welfare of the children.

The question is all the more intriguing because of what happened next. Shapira ends with Bowlby’s triumph, but Teri Chettiar, another scholar who has tackled this topic, takes the story forward to Margaret Thatcher’s conservative insurgency. It is a clever turn, for Thatcher, just like Shapira’s Freudians, believed the family to be the place where character was born. Not only did she share their belief, she ran with it. Families and communities, not government agencies, ought to be in charge of mental well-being, Thatcher insisted. That is one reason why she wanted to dismantle Britain’s welfare state. In this way, the story of the wartime Freudians becomes not just about the expansion of psychoanalysis but of the retraction of government and, with it, the growth of the market. Those shells dropped on London contained the seeds of our own time.


Questions about the place of intellectuals in policymaking lie at the center of another recent book about mid-twentieth-century social science: Peter Mandler’s Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War. Mead, and particularly Mead at midcentury, is an ideal subject about whom to ask such questions. She entered the public eye in 1928 with her ethnography Coming of Age in Samoa. But by the 1940s Mead had shed her (unfair) reputation as a writer of titillating exotica and had become a central figure on the national scene. She wrote books and articles, composed radio broadcasts, organized professional associations, and—with a remarkable energy—prodded her colleagues to enter public debates and government service. She was also, Mandler reminds her readers, “one of the most famous women in the world.”

But Mead and her circle, working from New York and Washington, faced different questions than did the psychoanalysts of London. As Mead saw more clearly than most, the war would leave in its wake not only a transformed world but one under the control of the United States. It was, she felt, a moment of world-historical consequence. The task was not just to defeat fascism but to inject her brand of cultural pluralism into international relations. It was thus not the psyches of the war-addled residents of the homefront that preoccupied Mead and her coterie, but the hearts and minds of foreigners.

This was a slippery business. It is one thing to try to get the British welfare state to take account of mental health, it is quite another to advise the US State Department or military in its dealings with foreign peoples. Many policy intellectuals of Mead’s generation hoping to enlighten their government found themselves instead pulled into its undertow, placed in the position of inadvertently aiding its worst excesses. To know another culture and to napalm it were at times closely related endeavors. By the late 1960s, many academics had given up, concluding that working for the state was tantamount to collaboration. The true responsibility of intellectuals, Noam Chomsky argued in 1967, was to “speak the truth” and to “expose the lies of governments.”

Chomsky’s position, controversial at first, has since become a mainstay of the academic life. It has led to the current state of affairs, in which the government subsidizes the training by major universities of specialists in high-profile areas like the Middle East but then has great difficulty recruiting those specialists into government service. The predicament is especially pronounced in Mead’s discipline, anthropology. Although military planners make much of the importance of anthropological theory for their work in Afghanistan, the theory upon which they draw is fairly crude, in part because anthropologists largely treat the military with undisguised scorn. Their job, as they see it, is not to help the state but to criticize it.

In that retrospective light, the actions of Mead’s generation appear suspicious. During World War II, a number of those closest to Mead worked with or near Bill Donovan, the future chief of the CIA. Some, such as Mead’s close companions Ruth Benedict and Geoffrey Gorer, composed “white” propaganda—shoring up support for the Allies on behalf of the Office of War Information. Others, such as her husband Gregory Bateson and her collaborator Rhoda Metraux, handled “black” propaganda—misinformation designed to confound the enemy—for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

Mead herself stood on the sidelines in an undemanding job for the Department of Agriculture, cheering her friends on and calling the plays. After the war she rushed onto the field, taking money from the Office of Naval Research to form, with Benedict, the Research in Contemporary Cultures project, which sought to inform foreign policy by offering the government cultural portraits of the countries with which it was now dealing. “Culture cracking” is what Mead called it—like cracking a code—and the tool could be used on cold war allies such as Greece or on cold war enemies such as the Soviet Union.

It was a strange business for Mead and Benedict to find themselves in. Both were students of Franz Boas, whose paternal influence on US anthropology resembled nothing so much as Freud’s on European psychoanalysis. Boas was integral to demolishing the intellectual foundations of scientific racism but, like Freud, he shied away from politics. He preferred to see his students in the field, recording the folkways of societies on the verge of extinction, not weighing in on matters of public policy.

Early Mead exhibited a similar caution. When urged to include two chapters of reflections about the implications of her field research for the United States in Coming of Age in Samoa, she hesitated. Anthropology studied “primitive” cultures, not industrial ones, and how lessons from a “simple, homogeneous primitive civilization” might be applied to a “motley, diverse, heterogeneous modern civilization” was hard to fathom. The best advice an anthropologist could offer was that young people should be prepared to confront plurality, be “educated for choice.” Benedict agreed. Although a folk culture might possess an “essential homogeneity” that an anthropologist could study, she argued in her influential Patterns of Culture (1934), the stratified society of the United States was simply too complex to admit of any discernible patterning. Benedict preached toleration and left it there.

War changed that. First, anthropologists were cut off from their field sites. Both of the island clusters that Mead had studied, American Samoa and the Admiralty Islands in Papua New Guinea, became military staging areas overrun by Allied troops. So Mead retooled, claiming authority over “contemporary cultures” such as the United States, Britain, Japan, and the Soviet Union. This was not just an attempt to bolster the public position of anthropology in the absence of “natives.” Mead, it became clear, worried desperately about the shape of the postwar world. Previously she had spoken of the need to “orchestrate” the cacophonous cultures within the United States. Now she called for the same task to be performed internationally, an “orchestration of cultural diversities.”

Bringing discordant societies into harmony meant understanding them and, especially during the hasty days of the Second World War and early cold war, that meant simplifying them. This was the point on the slippery slope where Mead began her downward slide. Understanding how cultures might relate to each other meant reducing each to its basics. What for Benedict had been a “pattern” of culture, a weave of different dispositions that was simple enough to perceive only in “primitive” societies, Mead and her circle (including Benedict) flattened out into a singular cultural personality: “national character.” Mead offered portraits of the US and British characters, Benedict made a famous study of Japan, and Geoffrey Gorer churned out sketches of Greece, Burma, Japan, the United States, and Russia.

Culture cracking was controversial from the start. “Can one properly speak of one ‘integrating system of values’ for New England and the Southwest, for the members of the C.I.O. and the farmers of the Middle West?” asked a fellow anthropologist. In the interwar years, Mead and Benedict would have said no. But now they pleaded exigency: these admittedly “thin and stripped” abstractions were better than nothing. Unlike Shapira’s psychoanalysts, who took the war as an occasion to push their theories to the limits, Mead and Benedict were chipping away at their own ideas, hoping that enough substance remained to be useful. Still, there were grumbles. “The more anthropologists write about the United States,” wrote Bernard de Voto, “the less we believe what they say about Samoa.”

Hesitations that remained largely internal to the field spilled over with l’affaire Gorer. Geoffrey Gorer was the most glib and least cautious member of Mead’s circle, the antipodes of Ruth Benedict. His place in Mead’s life is better explained on personal than intellectual grounds, especially after Mead split from her third husband, Gregory Bateson, in 1947. “I know well enough that one of my blocks is that I can’t conceive of my life not oriented toward a man,” Mead confessed to Benedict shortly after, and her attentions turned to Gorer, with whom she had been infatuated for over a decade.

Gorer was an Englishman, a Freudian, and a great admirer of Melanie Klein. Unlike the Freudians of Shapira’s study, though, Gorer believed with Mead that the family drama unfolded differently in different cultures. That was an important plank in the argument that there were well-defined “national characters” and for Gorer it was nearly the only plank. Uninhibited by theoretical complexity, he plunged into the task of outlining each nation’s basic character by reference to specific childrearing practices. All he knew about Japan “could go on the back of a postage stamp and still leave room for a couple of love letters,” Gorer admitted. But that did not prevent him from concluding, shortly after, that the Japanese propensity for aggression proceeded from early and severe toilet training. Or that “the base of Greek character is a fantastic fear of castration” and the Burmese had an “impotence culture.”

The haste and crudeness of these analyses should have sounded alarm bells. But after Benedict’s death in 1948, Mead was all balloon and no ballast. She urged Gorer onward, and he turned to the new national bugbear, the Soviet Union. The key to its culture, Gorer insisted, was the swaddling of infants in Russia. That experience had abiding consequences for adult Russians: “intense and destructive rage” including “fantasies of biting and destroying.” In moments of release, Russians sought “maximum total gratification” and were given to “orgiastic feasts, prolonged drinking bouts, high frequency of copulation.” This was an analysis of Soviet society that had startlingly little to say about either history or ideology. Gorer’s interpretation seemed to suggest that the Russian character was essentially fixed and that Stalinism was an outgrowth of it. (That Stalin was Georgian, not Russian, did not faze Gorer.)

Not only was the analysis simpleminded—“diaperology,” the sinologist Karl Wittfogel called it—but it appeared reckless as well. Was Gorer publicly implying that the Russian character disqualified the Soviet Union from ever joining a peaceful community of nations? He wasn’t quite—Gorer’s recommendation was merely for the containment of Soviet expansion—but the swaddling thesis became fodder both for the Soviet press and for Mead’s critics. Mead rushed to defend Gorer at the cost of a serious blow to her own reputation. It was the effective end of her Washington career. The Research in Contemporary Cultures seminar folded and Mead returned to Papua New Guinea to resume her fieldwork, pausing only to intervene briefly and, Mandler argues, ineffectually in debates about development aid.

What did Mead’s years in Washington get her? She worked for the government, encountered few restrictions there, and was by all accounts the beating heart of the field of anthropology—the discipline tasked with explaining the rest of the world to the United States. If any social scientist wielded influence, one would think that Mead must have. Yet Mandler is circumspect on this point. True, Mead led anthropology to public prominence and helped to establish the field as a policy science. True, the notion that different places had fundamentally different cultures entered wide circulation. But, looking at the actual policies Mead pursued, the case is less clear. Her ultimate goal was to prevent US global supremacy from devolving into cultural imperialism—“culture wrecking,” as she called it. The world she wanted was a pluralistic one, a multiplicity of cultures tolerating one another, and the world she feared was a monoculture centered on the norms of the United States. It would be hard to argue that Mead won that war.

What is more, when Mead and her colleagues did get their way, it was rarely because of their influence. They hoped that the reconstruction of Japan would allow for the preservation of Japanese culture. The United States did retain Japan’s emperor and other elements of its prewar society, but the decision was made, Mandler shows, before the anthropologists weighed in and for reasons that had nothing to do with cultural pluralism. Governmental interest in national character studies appeared strongest when those studies confirmed whatever image already resided in the official mind, as in the case of Gorer’s study of Japan. But when Gorer’s very similar sketch of Russian character contradicted the prevailing understanding of the Soviet citizenry as victims of totalitarianism, it provoked derision. This is a long and richly detailed book, but it does not seem to contain a single instance of Mead or her colleagues actually convincing anyone in the government of anything.

One could, perhaps, regard Mead’s circle as useful idiots, whose work government officials trotted out to justify policies already decided upon. As Benedict’s supervisor at the Foreign Morale Analysis Division observed, “The administrator uses social science the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than for illumination.” Yet it is not even clear how much support the national-character studies offered. They were widely read, but were arguments won with them? Mandler quotes, though does not endorse, Harold Lasswell’s judgment that the studies were “the joke of Washington.” The Office of Naval Research deemed the Research in Contemporary Cultures project worthy of funding, though that signifies little. This was the cold war. Money went everywhere.

On the other hand, there is something refreshing about Mandler’s skepticism regarding his subjects’ political influence. Unlike Shapira, he does not claim that his social scientists made a new self or a new state. Nor is it the story told by Chomsky’s generation: social scientists making Faustian bargains. Both of those narratives presume the path from the lecture halls to the halls of power to be short and straight. Mandler, instead, shows one of the most famous, respected, and plugged-in intellectuals in the United States valiantly trying to use her clout to sway policymakers. And he shows her failing.

That, in short, is Mandler’s case for the defense. Mead wanted better policies, she pushed for them, and, when she could not get them, she left. She “served the state” in the technical sense in that she worked for the government, but there is little reason to think that her work enabled any aspect of the cold war. The book ends in 1953 with the military-industrial complex booming and a dispirited Mead leaving Washington for the ethnographic field—her “return to the natives.” Stymied at the center, Mead retreated to the periphery.

But the periphery is not nowhere. In the 1950s, even as Washington became largely inhospitable to anthropologists, Boasian principles of cultural diversity continued to operate abroad. Working with a surprising lack of oversight in the new field of “development,” anthropologists and their disciplinary neighbors launched pilot projects, consulted with planning ministries, and oversaw the dispersal of aid. Sometimes they worked for their own government. Other times, they worked for foreign governments, the United Nations, or philanthropic foundations. In 1961, John F. Kennedy gathered these efforts into an agency that embodied Boasian principles more than any other part of the US government: the Peace Corps. It was a wildly popular undertaking and, since its inception, it has sent well over a hundred thousand volunteers abroad.

The Boasians did not design the Peace Corps, but their mark on its worldview is hard to miss. In abandoning the comforts of home for remote locales, the Peace Corps volunteers resembled no public figure so much as Mead herself taking her first journey outward from New York to Samoa. Nor is it just the Peace Corps. Taking stock today, one is struck by how familiar, even clichéd, Boasian precepts have become. The planet contains many cultures, they are all worthy of respect, and world peace depends on our ability to get outside of our own heads and into the heads of others—this is now all kindergarten fare.

Mandler makes little of this victory. He does not deny that the Boasians influenced public opinion, but he does not dwell on it. His interest in the question of cold war complicity leads him to assess Mead’s circle as policy intellectuals, not as opinion leaders. Hence his focus on Mead particularly, who set up camp at the bustling intersection of ideas and policy.

Yet the irony is that, in the long term, Mead and her companions had more influence over policy indirectly, as writers, than they did directly, as government advisers. Had Mandler instead focused on public sentiment, his eye might have been drawn more to Ruth Benedict. Benedict wrote with less frequency than Mead but, book for book—Patterns of Culture against Coming of Age in Samoa, The Races of Mankind (1943) against And Keep Your Powder Dry (1942), and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) against any of the thirty-some books Mead wrote after the Second World War—she wrote with more power and perhaps even more influence. The Races of Mankind, a thorough debunking of biological racism that Benedict coauthored with Gene Weltfish, was withdrawn from distribution in the Army after the House of Representatives’ Committee on Military Affairs found it “unfit for U.S. soldiers” because of its suggestion that some blacks were more intelligent than some whites. Despite this, the book sold nearly a million copies and was made into a touring museum exhibit, an innovative cartoon, and—inevitably—a musical.

Benedict lacked Mead’s hyperactivity. Though she enlisted in the war efforts, she kept her distance from work with direct security implications and, at any rate, seemed more comfortable in the seminar room. When Mead charged forth, Benedict sat back, and that tendency toward repose protected her from the sort of embarrassing overreach to which Mead proved prone. Mandler convincingly defends Mead against the charge of complicity: she was alert to the dangers of grappling with the state and, as the cold war accelerated, she left Washington. But sensitive though she was to the moral compromises government service entailed, she saw less clearly the intellectual ones.

For psychoanalysts in Britain and anthropologists in the United States, the war opened a portal between the realm of thought and that of policymaking. Eager for influence, both groups rushed through. But when they did, they found themselves, like Alice in the looking glass, encountering a world of bizarre distortions. Small theories took on outsize proportions and sounds echoed in unfamiliar ways. Some, like Mead, appeared to lose their bearings. It is easy from that to draw the conclusion that intellectuals should confine themselves to their own domain—a rule that anthropologists have studiously observed since. But Mandler is not so sure. Even as he chronicles Mead’s missteps, he admires her aspirations. Perhaps, by planting a foot firmly in each realm, intellectuals might maintain their balance. And from that position, make things move.

  1. Correction: this article originally misstated the type of missile Orwell was referring to. It was the V-1 bomb, not the V-2 rocket. Orwell himself described it only as “the pilotless plane, flying bomb, or whatever its correct name may be.” 

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