War as a "Group-Delusional Solution" to Internal Problems of a Nation and its Government?
"Historical amnesia is the rule: In a century in which 100 million people have been killed by wars, and on a planet where there is currently destructive power equal to 10,000 tons of TNT for every man, woman and child, the mere suggestion that there may be more destruction on the horizon is regularly met by blank stares and suspicions of mental imbalance." (Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, p.191)


In his book "Foundations of Psychohistory" (1), Lloyd DeMause interprets war and violent actions against foreign "adversaries" as  the "the group-delusional solution" to internal problems. This is very close to the poular saying that this or that ruling politician "needs a war" or "needs an external crisis" in order to regain waning popular support.

Similarly, conventional popular wisdom has often expressed the intuitive insight that ruling politicians - in order to deflect attention of the masses from their inability to solve social problems, for instance, their unwillingness or incapacity to deal effectively with mass unemployment nd a major economic crisis, or with other problems that "polarize" the country -  do in fact need internal or external "scapegoats."

In the years before the outbreak of World War I, the rapid, very massive increase of electoral strength of the Social Democratic Party in Germany (that had been outlawed not too long ago, but then readmitted as a legal party) was disconcerting and perhaps even frightened to the old "elites."  And during the last years of the Weimar Republic, the global economic crisis that caused mass unemployment among the German working class and that threw parts of the German petty bourgeoisie into misery while causing strong fears of decline among the bourgeoisie, must have created a sense of polarization of the country similar to what the US has experienced in recent years, except that in Germany a strong left emerged, challenging the old and new right. 

In the American context, the populist right-wing Tea Party Movement and the Christian Right are challenging both the so-called moderates in the Republican Party and the entire Democratic Party. This challenging movement is largely blue collar and petty bourgeois in content; they loathe the majority of the politicians in Washington - moderate Republicans representing corporations, centrist Democrats, representing other corporations, but they despise also the left-leaning liberal Democrats with ties to unions who are also champions of  so-called ethnic minority rights, gay and lesbian rights, and so on. 

In Germany, polarization - interpreted by the old elites as lack of national consensus and thus tantamount to dangerous destabilization - caused big business to finance those who promised reestablishment of national consensus, in effect by relying on an extremely nationalist and racist ideology, and by engaging on a course that would lead to war.

If this analysis is correct, the attempts to impeach President Obama, the questioning of whether he was born in the US, the fact that he is blamed for the embassy bombing in Benghazi, for not intervening militarily in the Syrian civil war, and so on, in short, the depictions of him as week, would force him, according to those who see the aforementioned examples as valid paradigms, to adopt a more dangerous foreign policy and to choose perhaps a bellicose course.

It is clear that these psychological interpretations give priority to the analysis of the "group dynamics" of a population (whether the German one, in the two first examples, or the American, in the last, is secondary), in so far as they identify these psychohistorical dynamics as causative factors of war. In this way, economic factors are relegated to a position of secondary importance, or they are - as in the case of de Mause - totally neglected.(2)

The method of interpretation of the psychic dynamics of a nation that are leading to confrontation with an "external adversary" (the "Other") developed by de Mause becomes apparent when he reflects on the changing socio-psychic relationship [a term that he does not use, however] between the American public and President Carter, interpreting the so-called Iranian "hostage crisis" as brought about by the threatening break-down of group cohesion or "group fantasy" of the American people and their need of a delusional solution to this breakdown -  an exterior conflict - in order to attain cohesion among citizens and regain their unity with the elected "leader"  (who in turn, is also, according to de Mause, subject to a psychic compulsion to opt for the dangerous delusional solution, in his case, a solution sought for his waning popularity as a "leader").

De Mause writes in Foundations of Psychohistory
"A nation's foreign policy is primarily conducted for the purpose of keeping enough pots boiling around the world to enable its leader to find a sacrificial crisis on foreign soil when the nation needs one. [...]"(3)

Having shown that confidence of Americans in themselves as a nation and in their president had been ebbing (4), de Mause then goes on to say (on p. 304) that "during the fall of 1979, there was one pot that had been boiling hot during the previous months which might provide the needed group-psychotic insight and act as the humiliating enemy which was [in the collective imagination of Americans] responsible for America's feelings of pollution and strangulation: Iran [...] For months, the obvious provocation which could move the Iranians against the Americans in Teheran was at hand: the ousted Shah of Iran had been asking to enter the U.S. Despite efforts by Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and others to "save our national honor" and let the Shah in, clear reports from U.S. advisors and from the C.I.A. stated strongly that "if the Shah were admitted to the United States, the American Embassy would be taken and it would be a threat to American lives."(240)
[...] [B]both Carter and Lance stubbornly opposed letting the Shah in. Once, in late summer, when Brzezinski and Mondale pressed Carter to let him in, Carter blew up: "Blank the Shah! [Carter used the word "Blank" <instead of F...> in retelling the event.] I'm not going to welcome him here when he has other places to go where he'll be safe."(242) This resistance by Carter to the group-fantasy demands to "get tough" and "save national honor" by letting in the Shah came from personal strengths and a determination not to involve America in war risks for trivial reasons.[...] In any case, Carter remained strong (for which he was called "weak"), and continued to refuse to admit the Shah.
Yet the fact remained that the commands of the "national will" poured into the White House from all over America: "Get tough, find us an enemy, we can't stand the strangulation, we can't stand hating you so much!" The group around Carter had no choice: they had to lie to him to get his consent. Despite consistent medical advice to Carter's staff that the Shah was in no immediate medical danger and that his medical problems could be easily taken care of elsewhere,(244) Carter was told that the Shah was "at the point of death" and that he needed treatment which could only be obtained in New York. Carter, according to the report of one person present, asked, "When the Iranians take our people in Teheran hostage, what will you advise me then?"(245) and, according to another, that we "would likely be faced with a situation where a group of fanatics grab Americans."(246) Despite these clear dangers, Carter agreed to let the Shah in. There was only one crucial condition, one important omission, which accompanied his decision, and this was obviously Carter's main contribution to the cave-in to group-fantasy: the Americans in Teheran must remain unprotected. As the New York Times reporter put it, 

"One option that, curiously, was never seriously examined was the evacuation of embassy personnel prior to admitting the Shah. "(247) The next day, the Shah had his gall bladder removed in New York, and nine days later, exactly as predicted by everyone, Iranian revolutionaries took the Americans hostage."

De Mause's analysis leads him to conclude that "what was called the Iranian "Crisis" was not an external crisis at all, but in fact the wished-for and carefully-manipulated solution to the earlier real crisis of collapse of group-fantasy. The rage against Carter was now split off and projected into the Ayatollah Khomeini and his jeering mobs of demonstrators, who - having found their own solution to the collapse of their revolutionary group-fantasy - were happy to contribute to America's humiliation by parading bound hostages before TV cameras and hanging Carter in effigy. Instantly, all "collapse" imagery disappeared from the American press. As the New Yorker observed, 

"President Carter's rating of approval... doubled during the crisis. The public's sudden rush of affection for its country seems to have included its country's President."(248)

[...] Carter was now transformed into [...] a representative of every American fighting against the bestial humiliating enemy. All of America projected their personal rages into the group-delusional solution. When I asked over 800 people who attended several speeches I gave during the first week of the crisis how they felt now, most said "It feels good... we feel unified... we can't be pushed around any longer... it is good to be an American again... my personal life and disappointments don't seem so important any more. [...]" 

De Mause adds,
"America felt good again. One columnist put it bluntly. In his article "Why The Ayatollah Deserves Our Thanks," he explained: 

"The Ayatollah and the street mobs that pass for government in that backward, chaotic land, have done this country a hell of a favor. And I don't mean by practically guaranteeing the reelection of Jimmy Carter. The Iranians' contribution lies in prodding the United States into a renaissance of national pride and unity we feared had evaporated... "(250)

Even when Russia invaded Afghanistan, Americans could feel good about their strength. Carter, calling the Russian move "the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War,"(251) could easily end detente, begin "the new Cold War," and threaten "military force" in the Persian Gulf as though his earlier promises of military restraint were never made.(252) With the adoption of the delusional solution, the world made sense once more. The mood of the nation at the beginning of 1980 was one of calm pride:

"What's it like in Washington now? Breathtaking. Let's begin with President Carter. Crisis everywhere... He looks calm. He invites in small groups of reporters and answers questions off the record with such low-keyed candor that they find themselves, in spite of themselves, feeling protective... Carter is an impressive figure... Carter looks calm..." (253)


According to de Mause, it was a"delusional solution" to internal socio-psychological problems affecting both the population  and the population-political leader relationship that was found when internal psychic insecurity and resulting "rage" were directed against the hetero-image of the foreign "foe." De Mause relies on depth-analytic terminology, in interpreting a cartoon that allows him to sum up his conclusion: 
"The cartoon [...] shows the delusional solution which produced this strength and calmness. The ambivalent leader was now split into two parts. The good leader, now young, strong and determined, wrapped in a

placental American flag and drawn in white, is shown at the left. The bad leader, the Poisonous Placenta, old, foreign-looking and drawn in black, is shown at the right. The price of the split, squeezed in birth agony by the um-bilical rope the two leaders pull between them, is the sacrificial hostages. These hostages were vitally necessary to the delusional solution. 

As William F. Buckley said, the real danger was that they might be freed without violence:

"But what if the Ayatollah merely frees the prisoners... The public will be left with the sense of an unconsummated transaction. We will be looking to Carter to see what form he elects for punishing the enduring government of Iran, and here is the rub. It is unlikely, the hostages having been returned, that the U.S. will want direct military action of the kind that results in death for men, women and children."(254)

During the early months of 1980, the unconscious aim of American policy was to keep the hostages in captivity, even to provoke their death, as a cleansing sacrifice and as a punishment for our rage. The Shah was officially escorted around to various military hospitals by Air Force planes, infuriating the Iranians, and the press constantly played up Carter's speeches of his "readiness to use military force" regardless of the consequences. After the Shah finally left the U.S., Carter even wrote what the New York Times called an "inexplicable" letter to the Shah's sister, asking him back, saying "Our preference now is that he receive treatment under Dr. DeBakey's care either at Gorgas, the U.S. hospital in Panama, or in Houston, Texas" - a move which was tantamount to a death sentence for the hostages. "We were certain," Hamilton Jordan recalled later, "that if the Shah exercised his right to come back to the United States, some of the hostages would be killed. We had real warnings to that effect."(256)

- John Waterford


(1)Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory

(2) Rejecting a materialist Marxist approach to history but also the kind of sociological analysis typical of a Weberian approach (or that of Talcott Parsons), de Mause insists that "history is the final receptacle for the repressed, the final resting-place for infantile traumata, the group-fantasy which at last reenacts and makes real that which we would most disown - our own childhood." (Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, p.116) - In his view, "the notion of the environment causing major psychic and social change" ignores deeper psychic experiences and dynamics that determine our motivation and the way we shape the environment by our praxis.(Ibidem, p.125) In his view, it is a "holistic fallacy that the group exists as an entity over and beyond its individual constituents."(Ibidem, p.133)  Such an ideological assumption in fact amounts to hypostization. Likewise, our understanding of society, of class, etc. amounts usually to a hypostasis. De Mause also rejects a "holistic concept of 'culture'" (ibidem, p.133) and critiques the fact that an anthropologist like "Steward states that "Personality is shaped by culture, but it has never been shown that culture is affected by personality""(ibidem, p.133) which latter hypothesis expresses exactly what de Mouse asserts. (Perhaps both refuse to see the dialectical interplay, each one emphasizing one side of the coin.) De Mause admits, however, the effect of ways of child rearing on the individual psyche of the individual (thus of a type of social praxis). His rejection of the assumption that economic factors have a determining causative effect on human beings, on their motivations, praxis, and thus history and his insistence that the psychic dynamics are the key to an understanding of what we do and why we do it, becomes very apparent when he writes that  "hunting, like war, is the group-fantasy men do while women gather the food which supports these religious activities. 'Kill the Beast' is mainly a game played for fetal and not for caloric motives, whether it is acted out in a cave or in a forest."(Ibidem, p.281) Interpreted in terms of "worship of an 'animal-soul' which rules over the species and the forest," hunting or killing the beast "is displaced worship of a placental beast which nourishes, threatens, kills and gives birth to all living beings - the group itself very much included - whether it is represented as a bear-spirit or as a Mistress of the Animals. As Eliade points out, killing this sacred animal is a ritual each time it is done [...]" (Ibidem, p.281) Though the assumption that the nutritional value of animals hunted is probably lower than the calories spent by hunting may not always have an empirical base, he makes a strong point which underpins the hypothesis that the ritual (or psychodynamic) significance of hunting for the "group" is of primary importance. If we transfer this argument to his understanding of the causes of war which also reflects his rejection of an economistic interpretation, we are forced to admit that in all likelihood the material destruction of value (houses, factories, infrastructure) during World War II, the war in Vietnam, the wars on Iraq, in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and the cost, in dollars, of waging war outweighed subsequently realized or at least  possible material gain by far. Still, public costs,  reckoned in terms of human lives lost and in dollars spent, are balanced by the enrichment of the few which lets us emphasize the class nature of war in modern times. It is also shortsighted to ignore the seductive effect on "elites" when they are told of large oil and gas deposits in Central Asia or large rare earth deposits in Afghanistan. It can be shown that at least on the surface, the pipeline through Afghanistan coveted by UNOCAL and the knowledge of large rare earth deposits in this country, were real factors contributing to a desire to attack that country. De Mouse would argue that what is visible on the surface hides the depth-psychological group dynamics in a nation, just like the manifest content (or tagrest) recounted by the analyzed patient hides the real significant of the dream.

3) De Mause, ibid, p. 304.

(4) Describing the process as a "collapse of group fantasy" (that is, a disastrous break-down or deterioration of the collective auto-image that the American masses had of themselves as a nation, and of their elected leader, which - as a result - makes the masses crave a war-threatening crisis or a war that reconstitutes group identity again, and which forces leaders previously seen as "weak" to project strength and determination), de Mause detailed this by relying heavily on an analysis of the media. Discussing the US auto-image in the period leading up to the Tehran hostage crises, de Mouse says that "American confidence in him [Carter] rapidly declined throughout the first eight months of the year. Time magazine's "State of the Nation" poll in April was headlined "The Trouble Is Serious;" reporters began asking Carter at news conferences why he was "exhibiting weakness and impotency;" George Will in Newsweek said Carter was now on "a downward crumbling path [as] America's decline accelerates;" the Washington Star headlined America's "SLIPPING TOWARD IMPOTENCE ACROSS THE GLOBE;" the New York Times one day carried two articles, the first asking Carter to resign as "the weakest and most incompetent president since Martin Van Buren" and the second by a psychiatrist saying that Carter needed psychiatric treatment; and a nationwide poll for the "most out-standing incompetent" in history elected Carter hands down.(228) Speculations about Carter's sanity multiplied; one day, when Carter simply delayed a speech he was to give to the press, "the unexplained cancellation caused worldwide speculation that Carter had gone bonkers," and his appointments secretary had to assure newsmen that "Carter was sane and in charge and knew what he was doing."(229) [...]" (DeMause, ibid,  p.301)
At present, we notice that for more than a year already, President Obama has been attacked by the media and political opponents as a weak president. He was critiqued because of the way he handled the killing of CIA personnel in Benghazi, and he was depicted as weak because he shunned open military intervention in the Syrian civil war. In this context, it is interesting that German public radio noted on July 19th, 2014 -  one day after the news that a Malaysian airliner was shot down over Eastern Ukraine - that "the pressure in Obama to get tough is increasing." [Der druck auf Obama wird starker, endlich harter zu werden.] This corresponds to the group dynamics described by de Mouse in periods leading up to wars. It reflects the paranoia he notes and the pressure for "delusional solutions."


Approval ratings of Kennedy decreased in the period leading up to the Cuban missile crisis but increased dramatically due to the stepped-up crisis


                          Go back to Art in Society # 14,  Contents





An online version of Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory is available via this URL: http://www.psychohistory.com/

"So powerful is the derealization process of a group-trance that I have never been able to find any nation anywhere in history going to war which bothered to estimate the number of dead and injured expected to result from their actions. The dead are quite unreal to the planners, who are operating out of their delusional trance. During the Vietnam War, for instance, the Pentagon never once tried to make an accurate estimate of total civilian casualties, even of the civilians we were supposed to be protecting. When in 1966 a Harvard student asked Secretary of Defense McNamara, who was famous as a "real numbers whiz," how many civilians had been killed in Vietnam, he admitted he simply had no idea.
The function of dead people in the group-trance state is to confirm the internal violence of the group-delusion. If, for some reason, not enough people are dying to match the internal fantasy, something seems amiss. As Nixon put it when the number of American casualties had dropped sharply toward the end of the Vietnamese War: "American casualty figures in Vietnam had been reaching new lows. I knew that these reductions might be a ploy on the part of the Communists to make escalating the fighting that much more difficult for me."(23)" (Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, p.231)

"The study of cycles of violence in the history of nations is one just beginning to be developed, but already many regularities are well established. The latest research into the periodic upswing in the level of national violence, that of Denton and Phillips(101), which is in turn based on original statistics covering the period 1480-1900 and collected by the pioneer of war studies, Quincy Wright, confirm previous country-by-country studies that there exists a 25-year cycle in major violence. The 17 major American wars shown in the chart (Illustration 9), covering a period of 365 years, produce an average 21-year cycle, somewhat more frequent than the world 25-year average. Periods of peace in America have lasted from a minimum of four years at the end of the 18th century to a maximum of 34 years at the beginning of our history as colonies. Still, on the average, once every 21 years, just as each now generation reaches fighting age, the young men of America have been thrown into the mouth of Moloch as sacrifices to the national need for group purification." (Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, p.231)

"That major paranoid episodes precede wars and revolutions is a notion that is only now beginning to reach the edge of awareness among those historians who are opening their thinking to psychoanalytic influence. The earliest of these historians, Richard Hofstadter, outlined over a decade ago what he termed "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," and he described how paranoid "movements of suspicious discontent... come in waves of different intensity" throughout much of American history.(102) Although Hofstadter only gave a few instances of these movements, and did not tie them in to war and revolution, his wry dissection of the repetitive use of typical paranoid imagery in political life is a good starting point for the psychohistorian studying the subject." (Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, p.231)

"[...] when [...] George Forgie [...] recently published his book Parricide in The House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age,(105) accurately depicting the American Civil War as a displaced fratricidal ritual in which the "good" brothers killed the "bad" brothers as scapegoats, he thought he had discovered something unique to the period, attributable to a special need to overthrow "Founding Fathers," rather than an instance of a group-fantasy dynamic generic to all of history. Even with this limitation, Forgie's book skillfully explains some of the psychodynamics behind both Northern and Southern conspiracy theories and Lincoln's own peculiar conspiracy theory, which was central to his political thought, and which Forgie calls "an object of puzzlement and even embarrassment to scholars, because it seems to have so little to do with the events it purported to explain."(106)(Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, p.232)

[The Cuban Missile Crisis]
"It was not until a full month [...] after a limited blockade had been put into effect, followed by demands from the media and much of Congress for full military blockade and/or invasion, that the very first discovery was made on October 14, by a U-2 pilot of a possible Russian offensive missile base.(69) Finally, America had an "objective reason" for its group-delusion. Not that the new Russian missiles threatened to change the balance of power. Everyone from Kennedy to the military agreed that 'the challenge was solely psychological. As Eugene Rostow, former Under-Secretary of State, put it recently, "Why were we so excited by the Cuban missile crisis? . . . there are missiles on Soviet submarines. And missiles can reach the United States from the Soviet Union itself, and from bombers. But the Cuban episode is worth studying because we were ready to go then. There was a rage in the country and a sense of threat, and these were extremely dangerous."(70)
The "psychotic insight" that Cuban missiles were an insufferable threat to America which had to be removed immediately by military action rather than by diplomatic means required at least two major delusional elements as rationalizations, both of which required open lies by Kennedy to the American public. The first was the claim that America had to move militarily because negotiations might take time and the missiles might become operational, which would both be dangerous to American security and would make Kennedy's negotiation position weaker. This rationalization has been proven quite false by a little-known CIA report which was recently declassified, which showed that Kennedy knew as early as October 22nd that the missiles were already operational, and that he simply lied to the American public when he said otherwise.(71) There was no reason for the speed, no reason for the heart-quickening military confrontation at high seas with Soviet ships none, that is, except group- delusional needs.
The second rationalization needed to sustain the delusion was that there existed no acceptable negotiable alternative to the game of "chicken" which the two countries played out [the US is at present playing that game in Ukraine, betting that Russia will be afraid and step down, when it fact, in the medium run, this is a risky bet, if the provocation gets ever vaster...] as the ships approached each other and which necessarily risked a nuclear exchange. But there was in fact a perfectly acceptable alternative, which Khrushchev offered: that Russia would remove its Cuban missiles in exchange for America removing its Turkish missiles from the Russian border." (Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, p.218)
"even before Khrushchev's offer, when Adlai Stevenson suggested this solution to the ExComm group on October 20th, he was thought to be a "coward" by many, an accusation which dogged him to the end of his days at the U.N.(72) In fact, any negotiated solution was "cowardice" if military humiliation of the delusional enemy was the goal. The Turkish missiles were of so little real importance to the ExComm group that at one point in their considerations many members came to support what one historian calls "a crazy scheme ... first disarm the missiles in Turkey and so inform the Soviets; then bomb the missile sites and invade Cuba." (ibidem, p. 219)

"The next American group-delusion after Kennedy's assassination was, of course, the Vietnam War. As national confidence in Johnson began its inevitable decline during 1964, fears of "an impending collapse" were consistently projected onto "Khrushchev's Crumbling Empire,"(78) and cartoons began to appear(79) which were identical to the Herblock "collapse" cartoon, reproduced earlier in Illustration 1, of presidential doors collapsing from outside pressures. Shortly after, the first American troops began fighting in Vietnam. Likewise, after Nixon took over the war, and also began to experience collapse messages from the country in 1969, he invented what he himself termed the "Madmen Theory" of "appearing irrational... with his finger on the nuclear button,"(80) and by invading Cambodia plunged America into yet another group-delusion. However, rather than at this point giving my month-by-month documentation for these two group-fantasy cycles leading to the Vietnam and Cambodian wars, since they repeat so many of the patterns of the military group-delusions I have already documented, I would like to examine the one instance in the past 25 years of an attempt by a president to use a peace treaty to resolve the collapse of confidence in himself. Although we have seen above how Eisenhower used the peaceful removal of troops from offshore Chinese islands to appear heroic and restore public confidence in himself, there was at least ostensible danger in doing so it was, after all, a military maneuver. The only time during the 25-year old period we are here examining that a President succeeded for a time in restoring confidence in himself purely through peaceful efforts was in the case of Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Middle East summit meetings." (Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, pp.220f.)

"The central terror which underlies all group life, from primitive taboo to modern political paranoia, is that of pollution. All social order is upheld, no matter how irrational it may be, to prevent the imminent danger of pollution of group life by a transgressor. Every ritual, every "sacrificial crisis," is performed to cleanse the pollution from the group.(96) The two opposite poles of holiness and impurity have a single placental source; the word "sacred" (sacer) originally meant both holy and defiled in Latin.(97) The menstrual blood of women is the most universally taboo substance on earth [...]" (Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, p.267)