National Character: Personality Diagnosis and Treatment on an International Scale
World War II underscored the real difficulties involved in distinguishing between friends and enemies. Because the war's ideological clashes made it impossible to trust such tangible indicators of loy-
alty as what people said and how people behaved, understanding the deep mental state of German and Japanese populations became a prerequisite to good military strategy. To this challenge, psychological experts brought the innovative concept of national character. Nurtured by the neo-Freudian movement to revise psychoanalytic orthodoxies considered insufficiently attentive to the impact of social context on psychological development, writings by Franz Alexander, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, and Harry Stack Sullivan had already attracted a lot of attention by the early 1940s. So had similar theoretical work by cultural anthropologists (many of them students of Franz Boas) such as Gregory Bateson, Ruth Benedict, Geoffrey Gorer, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir.
Their collective efforts to "study culture at a distance" were sometimes designated as the "cultural interpersonal school" or simply as studies in "culture and personality." A blend of psychological, sociological, and anthropological analysis was typical of this work, and at its heart lay the conviction that microscopic questions about individual personality and behavior and macroscopic questions about societal patterns and problems were nothing but two sides of the same coin.
"Problems of social science differ from problems of individual behavior in degree of specificity, not in kind," wrote Edward Sapir, the author of an influential series of essays explaining why cultural anthropology needed an infusion of psychological ideas. Wartime research on the culture and personality model anticipated some of the most characteristic features of postwar social science: the powerful appeal of psychological insights and techniques, an adamantly interdisciplinary style, and the conviction that a unified social expertise was possible and absolutely necessary to a modern democracy.
By suggesting that psychological development and national patterns created each other, that individuals embodied their culture and cultures embodied the collective personality of their people, national character offered a way of turning psychological insight into policy directives. National groups, for example, would be classified according to the "bipolar adjectives" most familiar for their power to describe individual personality: dominance and submission, exhibitionism and spectatorship, independence and dependence, and so on. Institutional vehicles of socialization, from childrearing to teacher training, could then be scrutinized for tendencies in one direction or another, and after tallying enough of these national indicators, one could hope to achieve an accurate portrait of a given country's collective personality structure.
Exploring the concept in detail and in a hurry was a military imperative, as well as an intriguing theoretical exercise, as Geoffrey Gorer, a major proponent of national character, pointed out.
The conduct of the war raised in an urgent fashion problems of exactly the nature I have been outlining—problems of national character, of understanding why certain nations were acting in the way they did, so as to understand and forestall them. Germany, and even more Japan, were acting irrationally and incomprehensibly by our standards; understanding them became an urgent military necessity, not only for psychological warfare—though that was important—but also for strategic and tactical reasons, to find out how to induce them to surrender, and having surrendered to give information; or, in the case of occupied countries, how to induce them to create and maintain a resistance movement, and so on. In an endeavour to further the war effort, a small number of anthropologists and psychiatrists were willing to risk their scientific reputations in an attempt to give an objective description of the characters of our enemies.
In one neat package, the notion of national character oriented psychology toward understanding and affecting important public issues, without sacrificing the traditional language of sickness, health, and di-
agnosis. But it was the war that changed national character from a concept for which a daring few would "risk their scientific reputations" into a working assumption of military policy.
In a pivotal 1936 article, Lawrence K. Frank, an advocate of clinical approaches whose influential foundation posts had included the Rockefeller Foundation and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, pointed out that if nations had characters, then it made sense to think of "society as the patient": "There is a growing realization among thoughtful persons that our culture is sick, mentally disordered, and in need of treatment." Frank believed this perspective would move behavioral experts from the limited turf of individual adjustment to the more expansive, and therefore hopeful, terrain of social problem management. This served the dual, and entirely compatible, purposes of expanding psychology's sphere of professional influence and treating problems that stubbornly resisted piecemeal amelioration. Finally, it was practical. Since the ideology of democratic individualism and personal responsibility was obviously outmoded in an era of wholesale cultural disintegration, bringing therapeutic methods to beacon society at large promised to simplify the complicated job of social analysis by demonstrating that social forces and social organization were just as disorderly and abnormal as people analyzed one at a time.
As the news from Europe got worse, more and more experts embraced the disease metaphor. In 1940 psychiatrist Edward A. Strecker wrote that wars were nothing but "mass homicidal reactions" and ominously concluded that "unquestionably the world is sick—mentally sick." But if society were a sick patient, then it could recover, especially if the right healers were consulted. Psychiatrist Richard Brickner endorsed this view in his 1943 book, appropriately rifled Is Germany Incurable? After noting that "the national group we call Germany behaves and has long behaved startlingly like an individual involved in a dangerous mental trend," he confidently asserted that "anthropology, psychiatry and sociology are probably well enough advanced by now to make 'treatment' conceivable." That treatment would involve a wholesale therapeutic strategy for postwar German society, in which citizens were inoculated against "paranoid contagion" via an artificially designed emotional atmosphere. Brickner compared this "treatment" to placing a premature newborn in an incubator.
War work was a warmup for nothing less than "restructuring the culture of the world," agreed Margaret Mead. The sense that responsibility was tied to power underlay all wartime work on morale. Not
only could psychological experts decipher the emotional patterns of enemy propaganda to help win the war; they could also hope to become social engineers at war's end, designing a blueprint for psychological reconstruction on a mass scale that would bring the national characters of Germany and Japan back into the normal range, away from perverse dependence and toward a healthy self-reliance. For the experts involved in psychological warfare, the innovative concept of national character, however rudimentary, illustrated what colleagues were learning in fields far removed from wartime activity: military usefulness and scientific progress were entirely compatible, even destined for a glorious and coordinated march into the future.
The effort to scientifically systematize the basic elements of psychoanalysis, in the form of a series of concrete behavioral principles that could be empirically or experimentally validated, was another important theoretical development within psychology during the World War II era. It had a major influence on the techniques experts used both to boost and to destroy morale. Located at the Yale Institute of Human Relations, the effort to generate a "science of human behavior" was related to but distinct from the "culture and personality" studies mentioned above. Psychologists affiliated with the effort at various points in the 1930s and 1940s included John Dollard, Leonard Doob, Erik Erikson, Ernest Hilgard, Clark Hull, Neal Miller, O. H. Mowrer, Robert Sears, and Robert Yerkes.
One trademark Yale product, published on the eve of war, was the collectively authored Frustration and Aggression . Intended to test the basic notion that "aggression is always a consequence of frustration," the authors' ambitious goal was to restate psychoanalytic ideas "quantitatively in the form of a connected set of postulates or behavior principles which have been confirmed by a wide range of facts drawn from laboratory experiments, clinical case studies, social statistics, and anthropological field work." The authors believed this effort had both theoretical and practical value. They aimed to dispel the notion that behaviorism and psychoanalysis were conceptually incompatible and simultaneously provide a psychological framework for the analysis of sociological problems ranging from racial prejudice to political ideology itself.
War was not the least of the social phenomena they wished to explain in terms of aggression and frustration, and in doing so, the members of the Yale group were simply following Freud's clear lead. Social progress of any kind required massive efforts to repress hostility, as Freud had argued in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), and the costs in personal happiness were steep enough to constantly threaten modern civi-
lization with reversion to a state of unrestrained violence and barbarism. In his famous exchange of letters with Albert Einstein, Freud equated the task of eliminating war with the challenge of advancing civilization itself. Both rested on the shaky foundation of repression.
There is no use in trying to get rid of men's aggressive inclinations. . . . For incalculable ages mankind has been passing through a process of evolution of culture. . . . We owe to that process the best of what we have become, as well as a good part of what we suffer from. . . . The psychical modifications that go along with the cultural process are striking and unambiguous. They consist in a progressive displacement of instinctual aims and a restriction of instinctual impulses. . . . Whatever fosters the growth of culture works at the same time against war.
In the early years of the Yale Institute, even its sympathetic Rockefeller Foundation funders worried that such socially oriented goals as analyzing the roots of bigotry and warfare would generate storms of criticism for being insufficiently scientific. Less than a decade later, following U.S. entry into World War II in 1941, Rockefeller Foundation officer Alan Gregg told Yale Institute director Mark May, "I did not see that the Institute was open to valid criticism since the psychological element in the present war was such as to make psychological studies of an importance that could not be disputed."
Thus institutionally strengthened and intellectually vindicated by the outbreak of war, the Yale academics involved themselves in an ambitious Social Science Research Council plan to summarize, for the use of government policy-makers, research on the social effects of war, including studies of the family, minority groups, crime, and all varieties of morale. One of the Yale Institute's projects that proved militarily useful during the war was an ambitious data bank called the Cross-Cultural Survey (later incorporated as the Human Relations Area Files). Started in 1937 by anthropologist George Peter Murdock with the aim of keeping comprehensive files on four hundred of the world's most representative "primitive" cultures, the project was greatly expanded by the navy (which gathered lots of information about Pacific societies) and the coordinator of inter-American affairs (who kept track of Latin America).
Many psychologists found the formulation of Freud's frustration-aggression theory offered by John Dollard and his Yale colleagues to be a compelling, not to mention timely, explanation of international events. Gardner Murphy approvingly cited Frustration and Aggression and wrote, "Fighting in all its forms, from the most simple to the most complex, appears to derive from the frustration of wants. . . . Satisfied
Frustration and Aggression embodied many of the basic assumptions commonly accepted among psychologists. Even those not inclined toward Freudian theory could agree, on scientific grounds, that individual and collective behavior alike consisted of discrete adjustments that could be scrutinized methodically, if not experimentally. But Frustration and Aggression also represented a step toward a unified and integrated basic science of human behavior that, in expert hands, could handle with ease the complicated business of diagnosing and treating society as the patient. As John Dollard pointed out, scientific experts should be recruited for these delicate, but critically important tasks, if only because
life would be unbearable in a world where one was constantly having to choose. Uncertainty is exhausting and choice demands special psychological strengths and reserves. It is, therefore, a human necessity that the world be, to some extent, predictable. Behavior must flow along at least some of the time in golden quiet. Man needs orderly knowledge, scientific knowledge, a kind of knowledge which permits him to act most of the time without the excruciating necessity of choice.
No experience illustrated better than war what could happen if behavior did not "flow along at least some of the time in golden quiet." By exposing the irrationality of motivation, the unpredictability of behavior, and the capriciousness of mass attitudes, World War II reinforced the psychological experts' faith in themselves and increased their confidence that even shaky psychological theories could guide public policy better than popular will or the conventional wisdom of diplomats. Conveniently, war also gave these experts an opportunity to operate outside the ordinary constraints of democracy. This precious and, they believed, temporary freedom was at a maximum in the military, especially in the area of psychological warfare.