Psychoanalyzing Dictators: CIA Psychologists Dig Into Their Mysterious Minds

The truth about Nikita Khrushchev's barnyard humor and Muammar Qaddafi's impending midlife crisis.

march 2016 who knew psychoanalyzing dictatorsJohn Cuneo for Reader's Digest

A secret Pentagon 2008 study concluded that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s defining characteristic is … autism. Scrutinizing hours of Putin footage, the Department of Defense
researchers found “that the Russian president carries a neurological abnormality … identified by leading neuroscientists as Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic disorder that affects all of his decisions.”

Putin’s spokesman dismissed the claim as “stupidity not worthy of comment.” But it was far from the first time the intelligence community tried to diagnose foreign leaders from afar on behalf of American politicians and diplomats. The CIA has a long history of crafting psychological profiles of international figures, with varying degrees of accuracy. Enjoy this sampling of its attempts to get inside the heads of heads of state.

Adolf Hitler: Neurotic narcissist
In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s World War II–era predecessor, commissioned Henry A. Murray of the Harvard Psychological Clinic to evaluate Hitler’s personality based on remote observations. Murray and his colleagues returned with an unsparing 240-page assessment. Diagnosis: Hitler was an insecure, impotent, masochistic, and suicidal neurotic narcissist. From the report:
■ “There is little disagreement among psychologists that Hitler’s personality is an example of the counteractive type, marked by intense and stubborn efforts to overcome early disabilities, weaknesses, and humiliations (wounds to self-esteem), and by efforts to revenge injuries and insults to pride.”
■ He suffered from “hysterical blindness” while he was a soldier in World War I. “This psychosomatic illness was concomitant with the final defeat of Mother Germany, and it was after hearing of her capitulation that he had his vision of his task as savior. Suddenly his sight was restored.”
■ The dossier predicted eight possible finales for the führer, including going insane, sacrificing himself in battle, contriving to be killed by a Jewish assassin, and committing suicide: “Hitler has often vowed that he would commit suicide if his plans miscarried; but if he chooses this course, he will do it at the last moment and in the most dramatic possible manner … For us it would be an undesirable outcome.”

Nikita Khrushchev: ‘Unpredictable and two-faced’
The CIA profiled the Soviet premier in advance of his 1961 meeting with President John F. Kennedy in Vienna. Reading up on his adversary got JFK hooked on CIA personality profiles—particularly “salacious secrets about foreign leaders.” Meanwhile, the Soviets also profiled Kennedy for Khrushchev, describing him as a “typical pragmatist” whose “ ‘liberalism’ is rather relative.” Diagnosis: The CIA saw Khrushchev as “a crude peasant who liked to be unpredictable and two-faced.” From the report:
■ “An uninhibited ham actor who sometimes illustrates his points with barnyard humor, Khrushchev is endowed on occasion with considerable personal dignity.”
■ “He is immoderately sensitive to slights—real or imagined—to himself, his political faith, or his nation, all of which he views more or less interchangeably.”
■ “Capable of extraordinary frankness, and in his own eyes no doubt unusually honest, Khrushchev can also be expert in calculated bluffing. It is often hard to distinguish when he is voicing real conviction and when he is dissembling.”
■ “It is also difficult with Khrushchev to tell whether his anger is real or feigned … He is less able to conceal his formidable temper when he is tired.”

Fidel Castro: Highly neurotic
The CIA’s psychiatric staff published a secret report on the Cuban leader in December 1961. Diagnosis: Fidel Castro is not technically “crazy,” the CIA says, “but he is so highly neurotic and unstable a personality as to be quite vulnerable to certain kinds of psychological pressure.” From the report:
■ “The outstanding neurotic elements in his personality are his hunger for power and his need for the recognition and adulation of the masses.”
■ “Castro has a constant need to rebel, to find an adversary, and to extend his personal power by overthrowing existing authority.”
■ “Whenever his self-concept is slightly disrupted by criticism, he becomes so emotionally unstable as to lose to some degree his contact with reality.”
■ “Castro’s egotism is his Achilles’ heel.”

Muammar Qaddafi: Borderline personality disorder
In the early 1980s, the CIA tried to make sense of the Libyan strongman whose erratic actions were worrying the Reagan administration. Investigative journalist Bob Woodward quotes the study in his book Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA. Diagnosis: “Despite popular belief to the contrary, Qaddafi is not psychotic,” the report said. He was, however, “judged to suffer from a severe personality disturbance—a ‘borderline personality disorder.’ ” From the report:
■ “Under severe stress, he is subject to bizarre behavior when his judgment may be faulty.”
■ His behavior could have been attributed to “an approaching or actual midlife crisis.”

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