The Spy who Psychoanalyzed Me

Psychology’s long and shameful history with torture

After a highly controversial confirmation process, Gina Haspel is now director of the CIA. At the heart of the controversy surrounding her nomination were Haspel’s alleged ties to the systematic torture of terrorism suspects conducted at so-called “black sites” during the Bush Era — one of which Haspel oversaw in Thailand. As members of the psychological community, we must never forget that American psychologists, including prominent members of the American Psychological Association (APA), were collaborators in designing and sanctioning many of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” deployed as part of US counterterrorism efforts across the globe. In 2014, a Senate Intelligence Committee report revealed that two clinical psychologists had been paid $81 million to develop methods of extracting information from detainees by inducing states of “learned helplessness” and “debility, dependency, and dread.” The scandal over their complicity intensified when accusations surfaced that top officials at the APA were not only aware that some of its members oversaw or participated in torture, but that the Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) task force deliberately crafted its institutional guidelines to excuse this behavior.

The involvement of APA members in conducting or condoning enhanced interrogation techniques is a mark of shame upon a profession whose purported goal is to understand and heal the mind, not manipulate or break it down. Unfortunately, this is only one chapter in a long, complex, and often sordid story of collaboration between American psychologists and American intelligence agencies.

One early, and singularly odd, episode of this entanglement took place during to the Second World War, when the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — the United States’ wartime spy agency and forerunner of the CIA — recruited a team of prominent psychologists and assigned them a top-secret project: to psychoanalyze Adolf Hitler. This peculiar effort, carried out seventy-five years ago, may seem benign compared to some psychologists’ complicity in brutal acts of torture during the War on Terror. Nevertheless, as one of the earliest forays by psychological professionals into the field of intelligence gathering, it provides an opportunity to examine the basis of the relationship between the profession and the state, and to judge that relationship’s failures and successes.

In late August 1941, Walter Langer — a psychoanalyst from Cambridge, Massachusetts — had some time on his hands. “Theoretically I was on vacation,” he later wrote. “In reality, I was in the hospital recuperating from a double hernia operation.” While laid up in bed for ten days, Langer happened across a newspaper article about the creation of a new national intelligence agency that would include a division overseeing psychological warfare. With little else to do, Langer ruminated on the crudeness of existing techniques of such warfare, which focused primarily on the dissemination of propaganda, or, as he put it, “a constant repetition of fabricated atrocity stories…designed to prove that the enemy were all ‘bad guys’ who had to be eliminated so we ‘good guys’ could live in peace.” In Langer’s view, if psychological warfare were to realize its status as a “potentially powerful weapon,” it would need to become psychoanalytic warfare: not a heavy-handed attempt to modify surface behaviors, but rather an “imaginative, subtle, and daring” effort to “exploit the unconscious and irrational forces which were far more potent.” Thus inspired, he dictated a letter to Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of this newly created agency. To his astonishment, Langer received a response within the week, and the convalescing analyst was invited to Washington for a face-to-face meeting.

Langer went to Donovan’s house, where the men had a two-hour conversation over bacon and eggs. The psychologist discovered that his host — who would go on to become head of the OSS — was surprisingly well-versed in psychoanalytic theory. Faced with the possibility of being drawn into the war in Europe, Donovan told him, US military officials were distressed that “the enthusiasm that preceded our entry into World War I was clearly absent” among young American males. He hoped a psychoanalytic perspective might shed some light on this reticence, and how to counteract it. Langer obligingly proposed the ethically dicey notion of creating study groups in which practicing analysts would report the contents of their sessions with military-age male clients, with the goal of understanding why they weren’t more eager to fight.

Donovan was full-throated in his support of this initiative, but the attack on Pearl Harbor put to rest the question of the nation’s readiness to go to war. Langer then received Donovan’s blessing to establish a Psychoanalytic Field Unit on the Harvard Campus, which the psychologist described as a “real opportunity for psychoanalysis to prove its mettle.” The army’s accounting department was less robust in its hopes, however, and the Unit foundered for lack of funding. Then, in the spring of 1943, Donovan approached Langer with an assignment that was narrower in its scope. The spymaster charged the analyst with creating a secret dossier on Adolf Hitler, one that would reveal “as much as possible about his psychological make up — the things that make him tick.” This was, at last, the opportunity Langer had been waiting for, the chance to prove that psychoanalysis could produce actionable military intelligence and help shape the American war effort.

Walter Langer launched into his analysis of Hitler with numerous — and reasonable — misgivings. Psychoanalysis is, first and foremost, a therapeutic practice dependent upon two-way, in-person interactions. The analyst’s interpretations are generated collaboratively with the analysand over months and years. Langer, of course, had no such access to the Fuhrer, but he forged ahead nevertheless. He recruited a team of “psychoanalytically-trained research workers” to comb through all the personal accounts of the dictator they could find. Langer himself conducted in-person interviews with people in the United States and Canada who had known Hitler. These efforts produced an eleven-hundred-page document that came to be called “The Hitler Source-Book.”

In collaboration with three other prominent clinicians — Henry Murray of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, Bertram Lewin of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and Ernst Kris, who was then on faculty at the New School for Social Research — Langer pored over the collected material with the measured pace and deliberation that befit the psychoanalyst’s art. The military brass, “having little comprehension of the magnitude of the project,” was less patient in its timeline, and in late summer of 1943 Langer came up against a time-crunch: “The deadline, as I recall it, was little more than a month away, and we were still in the speculative stages…. And the writing began. It ended one hour before the Federal Express left Boston for Washington on the night before the deadline.”

The report that was produced,A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler, His Life and Legend, is an intriguing, if flawed, document. In part, it is a recounting of second-hand reports and observations about Hitler’s temperament and behavior, some of which sound alarmingly familiar today. We learn that Hitler had an “ability to repudiate his own conscience in arriving at political decisions,” eschewing the kind of steady ideological commitment that “checks and complicates resolutions of most socially responsible statesmen.” He was unable to maintain any kind of a work schedule, and much of his day was “not spent in working as his propaganda agents allege, but in viewing one or two feature movies, endless newsreels, listening to music, entertaining film stars, or just sitting around chatting with his staff.” He seldom sat in on cabinet meetings “because they bore him.”

After providing this background, the report ventures into the more tenuous territory of character analysis and conjecture about future behavior. Some of these interpretations are straightforward, bordering on commonplace. Langer and his team posit, for example, that Hitler’s obsession with massive construction projects — his desire “to build the greatest and biggest of everything” — was a compensation for his insecurity, and that his genocidal hatred of Jews was a projected manifestation of his own self-loathing. Several of the authors’ predictions are surprisingly prescient, however. They suggested that, as the war turned against him, Hitler would grow increasingly unhinged, paranoid, and reclusive, eventually suffering a total nervous collapse. They also hypothesized that the dictator’s erratic behavior would drive members of the German aristocratic officer class to attempt a coup, anticipating the 20 July Plot of 1944 (also known as Operation Valkyrie). Finally, they predicted that if German defeat seemed imminent, Hitler’s uncompromising narcissism would most likely drive him to suicide.

The report also traffics in a brand of florid psychosexual speculation that borders on self-parody. Drawing on minimal evidence, Langer and his team conjecture that Hitler’s sadism was ultimately rooted in his mother’s “rather stringent measures during the toilet training period of her children,” which engendered conflicting desires to “eat feces and drink urine on the one hand, and to live a normal socially adjusted life on the other.” With absolute confidence, they declare that “as a child he must have discovered his parents during intercourse,” though they provide no justification for this supposition. Finally, working their way through the greatest hits of bargain-bin midcentury psychoanalysis, the authors propose that the dictator’s neuroses were fueled in large part by his repressed homosexual tendencies.

The reception and impact of Langer’s study was uncertain, even to Langer. Upon its completion, the report was classified SECRET, and only a small number of copies were printed. Although the psychologist hoped that this meant the documents were “destined for the eyes of the upper echelon of policy makers,” he never learned whose desks they landed on. It is pleasing to imagine General Eisenhower momentarily setting aside the plans for the Normandy invasion to read about Klara Hitler’s potty-training techniques, but Langer himself ultimately conceded that his report likely didn’t make much of a splash. In 1972, after the dossier was declassified, it was published under the title The Mind of Adolf Hitler: A Secret Wartime Report. In the introduction, Langer offers this assessment of his work: “I have been asked on a number of occasions what effect this analysis of Hitler had on our subsequent foreign policy or the conduct of the war. It would be very gratifying to me if I could believe that it had a discernible effect on either one. I cannot honestly believe that it did.” Setting this disappointment aside, he maintained that such psychoanalytic investigations could still have a valuable place in politics and that “a similar study of Stalin might have produced a different Yalta; one of Castro might have prevented the Cuban situation; and one of President Diem might have avoided our deep involvement in Vietnam.”

Looking back now, Walter Langer’s intentions seem innocent enough, perhaps even admirable. Nevertheless, his attempt to press psychoanalysis into military service has one important thing in common with later, and more fraught, collaborations between psychologists and American intelligence agencies. Langer’s work with the OSS inspired him to develop untested techniques, in a context in which professional norms and ethical considerations were suspended. This same state of exception predominated during the infamous MKUltra Program of the 1950s and 60s, in which experiments on psychedelically-augmented interrogation, mind control, and brainwashing were carried out on sometimes unwitting subjects. And it is certainly evident in the initiative to develop enhanced interrogation techniques during the War on Terror. In exchange for the free reign — and funding — that institutions like the CIA can offer psychologists, psychology provides a stamp of professional approval to the state, lending morally reprehensible actions the imprimatur of empirical science. The collaboration between APA psychologists and the Department of Defense during the Bush Era has proven scarcely more effective at producing actionable intelligence than Langer’s psychoanalysis of Hitler. The 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on enhanced interrogation methods concluded not only that they constituted torture but, equally damningly, that they produced limited actionable intelligence. While she would not go so far as to assert that they were ineffective, Gina Haspel herself conceded that the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation was ultimately a mistake.

The lesson to draw from A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler is definitely not that analysts should stick to their consulting rooms and avoid meddling in world affairs. On the contrary, psychoanalytic theory offers piercing insights into social, cultural, and political phenomena. Perhaps the most fundamental of these insights is that human behavior is multiply-determined and human motivations resist straightforward interpretation. The study Langer oversaw fails, as a model for psychoanalytic work, because it attempted to make definitive psychological assessments of its subject without sufficient access or information. Lacking this necessary foundation, it had to rely upon vague speculation and clumsily deployed psychoanalytic tropes. The root cause of this failure is the willingness of its authors to compromise their professional standards in order to meet the exigencies of the state intelligence apparatus.

While most psychologists will never participate directly in the kind of work Langer did for the OSS, there are other, subtler ways that we can be influenced. Over the last decade, the Department of Defense has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on grants for psychology research. Much of this work, particularly in the area of PTSD treatment, is of genuine value. Nevertheless, the APA’s involvement in covering up torture — in large part to retain its financial relationship with the DoD — is a painful reminder of how collaboration on admirable projects can lead to complicity in evil ones.

Tristan Chirico studies psychology at The New School. He is interested in the relationship between culture and psychoanalysis.

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