Dictators on the Couch

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In June 2017, BBC Radio 4 aired Archive on 4: Dictators on the Couch, presented by Hidden Persuaders’ Daniel Pick. The programme’s producer, David Stenhouse, explores how the intelligence services made use of psychological profiling, from Hitler to the Cold War.


In 2008 an intelligence study commissioned by the American Department of Defense concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin was autistic. The Office of Net Assessments Body Leads Project had watched hours of television footage of Putin and assessed that the Russian President’s stiff body language and affectless expression showed he, “carries a neurological abnormality…identified by leading neuroscientists as Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic disorder which affects all of his decisions.”


The Kremlin angrily brushed the report aside as, “stupid…not worthy of comment.” But it was simply one recent example of a series of US Government, long-range evaluations of foreign leaders, intended for the eyes of American politicians and diplomats. The Putin study focussed on the Russian leader’s body language. But for decades the Office of Strategic Services and its successor, the CIA, funded psychological research which aimed to get inside the minds of foreign leaders, and to use the insights uncovered by psychology to shape US foreign policy. In Dictators on the Couch, we gain access to declassified CIA’s psychological profiles of foreign leaders and explore the role played by the ‘psy’ professions in the shaping of American Foreign Policy.


The United States Government’s psychological profiling programme dates back to the Second World War, and the profile of Adolph Hitler commissioned by the Office of Strategic Services, by the American psychoanalyst Walter Langer. His report, ‘A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler: His Life and Legend’ was intended for private distribution within the intelligence agency, and was eventually published in 1968. Drawing on a series of interviews with German exiles – some of them inevitably keen to tell interviewers what they wanted to hear – it painted a picture of the Nazi leader as sexually dysfunctional, masochistic, obsessed with pornography and possibly homosexual. Langer’s report also theorized that the morale boosting Allied song was right: Hitler indeed suffered from mono-orchidism.


It also concluded that Hitler’s psychosis had led to his construction of the forbidding Kehlstein or Eagle’s Nest near Berchtesgaden. “Only a madman would conceive of such a place, let alone try to build it.”


“The approach is by a winding road about nine miles long, boldly cut out of the rock…the road comes to an end in front of a long underground passage leading into the mountain, enclosed by a heavy double door of bronze… If one were asked to plan something which represented a return to the womb, one could not possibly surpass the Kehlstein.”

Langer’s report also concluded that Hitler was likely to suffer an assassination attempt at the hands of those close to him, and that, as it became clear he was losing the war he was likely either to take a suicide pill or subconsciously make himself vulnerable to a Jewish assassin.

It is unclear how widely disseminated Langer’s report was, but the techniques applied within it soon became commonplace in an American defense establishment facing up to new enemies during the Cold War. As face-to-face meetings between leaders increasingly became the currency of international diplomacy, US Presidents would go into symbolic battle for their country, armed with psychological profiles of their opponents.


In 1961, prior to a planned summit meeting between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, early in the American President’s term in office, the State Department profiled the Russian leader, declaring him “an uninhibited ham actor who… has a truly unusual ability to project the force of his own powerful personality.”Krushchev had been given a report on Kennedy too, though it focussed on the public face of the politician, rather than attempting to plumb his hidden depths. So while Kennedy was able to absorb a vivid portrait of Krushchev as a man motivated by powerful angers, but vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy vis-a-vis American power, the paper prepared for the Soviet leader reads like something found on Wikipedia today – a list of the schools attended by Kennedy and the elections he had fought.The Soviets did not seem to have discovered – what presidential biographers have since revealed – that Kennedy’s health was poor, that his patina of vigour was sustained by regular injections of powerful drugs, and that his compulsive sexual behaviour might leave him open to blackmail.


The different approaches followed by the United States and the Soviet sphere, The Hidden Persuaders’ Sarah Marks explains in the programme, also speak to different imperatives within psychiatry on either side of the Iron Curtain. Eastern bloc psychiatry, when it came to be useful to the state, was focussed more closely on pathologizing enemies at home than abroad, specifically on dissidents, and on youth culture phenomena like Teddy Boys. The figure of John Lennon seemed to loom large in anxieties about the possibility of youth rebellion on both sides of the Cold War. An image of a hippie, mimicking Lennon’s style, appeared on the cover of a book published in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the early 1970s by the Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Jankowski. Based on his psychiatric profiles of members of the hippie movement under treatment within American psychiatric institutions, The Other Face of America claimed to expose the dangers of deviant subcultures and delinquency. These, it argued, were symptomatic of a psychological sickness in Western civilization. If degenerate fashion, and music by The Beatles and other western rock bands, was allowed to spread eastwards, it was feared they could also become and infectious element that could destabilize Communist societies. At the same time Lennon himself was alarming the US authorities because of his anti war activities.



Within US circles, the value of psychological profiles seemed to be well established by the early 1960s. The report that Kennedy read prior to his encounter with Krushchev in 1961 so impressed him that he became “addicted” to reading analyses of foreign leaders, particularly if they contained details of sexual peccadillos. But not every Presidential visit was attended by such depth readings. When President Nixon went to China to meet Chairman Mao in 1972, he flew almost blind. The Communist state was closed to outsiders, McCarthy’s purges of the State Department had got rid of anyone with first hand experience of Communist China, and the White House was left to solicit information from retired China hands and old stagers like Andre Malraux whose knowledge of China came from way back in the 1930s.


Not all of the profiles made by American ‘psy’ experts were of foreign leaders. Many psychiatrists were tempted to offer reports about the abnormal characters of American political candidates too: most explosively in the case of the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, who stood against Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election. This was a fraught time, of course, and only a year after President Kennedy’s assassination. Goldwater, a hawkish figure whose views had prompted the popular slogan “in your guts you know he’s nuts”, lost the election but successfully sued the magazine that had reported the psy experts’ diagnoses. These had included paranoia, grandiosity and a godlike self-image. One doctor called him “a dangerous lunatic”. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association adopted what became known as the Goldwater Rule, declaring it unethical for any psychiatrist to diagnose a public figure’s condition “unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement”. ‘Dictators on the Couch’ explores that ‘rule’ with the most recent past  president of the American Psychiatric Association, Maria Oquendo.


Within the intelligence services, however, diagnostic profiling continued unabated. Dr Jerrold Post worked at the CIA for 21 years, where he founded and directed the CIA’s Centre for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behaviour. For him, the profiles he and his colleagues worked on were not “Freudianism 101”, but a careful meshing of personal history, political culture and detailed intelligence. Post and his colleagues provided detailed readings of the characters of President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel for President Carter to read prior to the SALT talks at Camp David (interestingly, the Evangelical Carter was an afficionado of psychological profiles, far more so than the paranoid Nixon).


The CIA unit profiling foreign leaders survived the Cold War, offering such insights as…

“Fidel Castro is not “crazy,” but he is so highly neurotic and unstable a personality as to be quite vulnerable to certain kinds of psychological pressure. The outstanding neurotic elements in his personality are his hunger for power and his need for the recognition and adulation of the masses…”

“Qaddafi is judged to suffer from a severe personality disturbance—a “borderline personality disorder”…Under severe stress, he is subject to bizarre behavior when his judgment may be faulty.”

“While Saddam Hussein is not psychotic, he has a strong paranoid orientation…”

The reports are compelling and fascinating, but the programme explores the most central question of all. Can we ever understand another’s mind, let alone at a distance? What do we really learn when we profile political leaders? And how did ‘psy’ professionals apply their expertise in the interests of state intelligence?


David Stenhouse produced ‘Dictators on the Couch’ for BBC Radio 4, in collaboration with Hidden Persuaders’ Daniel Pick.