Did Churchill’s Depression Help Win World War II? — A.D.P. Efferson

 

 In Nassir Ghaemi’s book, A First-Rate Madness, he argues that Winston Churchill’s well-documented depression (or “black dog,” as Churchill called it) may well have been the reason Churchill was able to see Hitler for who he was; whereas Neville Chamberlain, being of sound mind, could not.

Ghaemi credits Churchill’s clarity of thought to a phenomenon known as “depressive realism.” Depressive realism was discovered quite by accident, by two graduate students who were trying to test Martin Seligman’s “learned helplessness” theory of depression. Seligman believed the insidious negativity internalized by people suffering from depression as a result of early trauma precluded them from functioning as normal adults. They would learn to be helpless.

When two of his graduate students tested this theory using a simple assessment of estimations of personal control, they made a surprising discovery: the exact opposite was true. People who reported having depression were more realistic about how much control they had over a random event than were the normal students, who overestimated the level of control they had. The results of the discovery (which have been replicated in several other studies) lead researchers to conclude that depressed individuals have an acutely accurate sense of reality. (As an aside, one study where Yale students were asked to estimate the level of control they had over the outcome of a coin toss amused researchers, who found the students had an aggrandized sense of power over an event they knew to be random).

Churchill’s unquestionable facility for wartime leadership utterly betrayed his mentation at the time. He suffered great bouts of depression followed by a dramatic undulation into aggressively ebullient behavior. His friend Lord Beaverbrook once described him this way: “He is a mass of contradictions. He is either on the crest of wave, or in the trough: either highly laudatory, or bitterly condemnatory: either in an angelic temper, or a hell of a rage: when he isn’t fast asleep he’s a volcano. There are no half-measures in his make-up.”

Ghaemi reasons that it wasn’t Churchill’s manic temperament that undergirded his ability to lead a nation through the despair of war, but rather it was the “realism of his depressive suffering.” Where Churchill was savvy to the significance of the Nazi threat as early as 1930, Chamberlain believed Hitler was a man with whom he could reason, remarking of him, “In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” To call Chamberlain’s mischaracterization unfortunate is an insult to all who suffered as a result. Churchill’s years spent wrestling with depression may have provided the courage that was required to see evil for what it truly was; facing it unafraid and unapologetically.

Ghaemi’s book on the whole is an interesting read; examining the lives and minds of many great leaders: Gandhi, King, Lincoln etc. The author, however, isn’t immune to his own biases. According to Ghaemi, the psychological make-up of a pathological philanderer was the reason for Bill Clinton’s “everyman” appeal and above average popularity. By contrast, he argues that George W. Bush’s milquetoast morality injured his ability to lead the country in crisis.

My chief objection to his assessment of Clinton has to more to do with Ghaemi confusing popularity with great leadership than with the fact I don’t like Bill Clinton. I forgive him a few incorrect conclusions because I think his theory has merit.

That said, I wanted to throw it back to you all and ask: Do you see a link between great leadership and a touch of madness?

 

Published in General
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 23 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Although he leaned socialist during his Labour years, Churchill’s greatness is firmly rooted in his days as a Tory. Explaining greatness from a Conservative must indicate mental illness. Horse puckey.

    • #1
  2. StevenK85 Inactive
    StevenK85
    @StevenK85

    Churchill’s greatness was manifest both in his recognition of threats (Nazis, Communists) as well as his dealing with them (at least the Nazis).  A depression-fueled pessimism may have led to greater than normal clarity in the former.  However, during WWII he rallied his country to withstand the German blitz.  His earlier recognition of the Nazi evil may have given him credibility during the war, but it was his ability to keep the British in the war, alone, after all their continental allies had fallen, that actually gave the Allies the opportunity they needed to eventually win.  There was no historical necessity for the pre-war prophet and the wartime leader to be the same person.

    • #2
  3. A.D.P. Efferson Contributor
    A.D.P. Efferson
    @ADPEfferson

    EJHill:

    Although he leaned socialist during his Labour years, Churchill’s greatness is firmly rooted in his days as a Tory. Explaining greatness from a Conservative must indicate mental illness. Horse puckey.

     I don’t think the author’s theory is necessarily leveled solely at conservatism. I think it’s more just one possible explanation as to why men who suffered mental anguish were able to overcome their afflictions and achieve extraordinary things.

    • #3
  4. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Abraham Lincoln is thought to have suffered from depression or even bipolar disorder (contemporaries said he had “melancholy”). I don’t think that mental health issues make great leaders, but neither are they disqualifying. One concern I have with our pharmaceutical culture is that society at large is trading many of its manic creators and brooding geniuses for a mass of generic sameness.

    • #4
  5. user_9474 Member
    user_9474
    @

    Extending a form of victimhood to Churchill to explain his greatness as a war leader seems like a bridge too far to this student of the great man. He didn’t need to be depressed to understand what Hitler was up to. Churchill was one of the best informed man in the world about the Third Reich long before he entered the government in May of 1940 as civilian head of the Admiralty. That Chamberlain had a head-in-the-sand attitude toward developments in Germany is well known. What is less known is that Churchill built a private spy network that included high-ranking military officers, diplomats, businessmen and others whose warnings about Hitler were brushed off or wished away by His Majesty’s government. Churchill received their briefings at private dinners and lunches and used what he heard to attack Chamberlain and his ministers for their slowness in preparing for the coming conflict. He knew Hitler would see Neville as “a bourgeois  pacifist” when they met, and would react like a wild beast getting a smell of blood. He  told a friend no such mistake would be made with him

    • #5
  6. A.D.P. Efferson Contributor
    A.D.P. Efferson
    @ADPEfferson

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:

    Abraham Lincoln is thought to have suffered from depression or even bipolar disorder (contemporaries said he had “melancholy”). I don’t think that mental health issues make great leaders, but neither are they disqualifying. One concern I have with our pharmaceutical culture is that society at large is trading many of its manic creators and brooding geniuses for a mass of generic sameness.

     I don’t want to live in a world where Beethoven liked himself.

    • #6
  7. user_188825 Member
    user_188825
    @WadeMoore

    I just finished the 3rd volume in Manchester’s biography – or the one Paul Reid finished up after Manchester died.  It takes pains to show that the intensity of Churchill’s depression was overblown.  Reid has said in interviews that he and Manchester differed on that point.  Reid said the evidence for it is based on a only a few statements made by Churchill associates and not really backed up by the medical record provided by his personal physician.  Anyone have an opinion on this? 

    P.S.  If you have read the first two volumes you should really read the third – it is very good.

    • #7
  8. A.D.P. Efferson Contributor
    A.D.P. Efferson
    @ADPEfferson

    Wade Moore:

    I just finished the 3rd volume in Manchester’s biography – or the one Paul Reid finished up after Manchester died. It takes pains to show that the intensity of Churchill’s depression was overblown. Reid has said in interviews that he and Manchester differed on that point. Reid said the evidence for it is based on a only a few statements made by Churchill associates and not really backed up by the medical record provided by his personal physician. Anyone have an opinion on this?

    P.S. If you have read the first two volumes you should really read the third – it is very good.

     Churchill’s physician has commented on it. I’ll try to find the quote.

    • #8
  9. A.D.P. Efferson Contributor
    A.D.P. Efferson
    @ADPEfferson

    Lord Brain, a british neurologist who knew Churchill both as long time friend and patient described him as a “cyclothyme.”  Other physicians who knew Churchill concur he likely had cyclothymia, a mild form of bipolar I.

    • #9
  10. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    It’s hard to create a theory that greatness as a war leader is enhanced by depression, but it’s worth pointing out that America’s greatest war leader, Abraham Lincoln, likewise suffered from depression. Depression has a way of making some people better.

    I have a son who has suffered from serious depression (which has improved as he’s made it through his twenties, and with the help of some meds).  It’s not bipolar because he has no manic phases (I understand Lincoln’s depression was of the same nature).  He has a well-developed talent for clear thinking and for seeing things realistically.  I believe, but can’t prove, that this talent is enhanced by his depression.  He loves life, but he has no rose-colored view of it.

    • #10
  11. A.D.P. Efferson Contributor
    A.D.P. Efferson
    @ADPEfferson

    tabula rasa:

    It’s hard to create a theory that greatness as a war leader is enhanced by depression, but it’s worth pointing out that America’s greatest war leader, Abraham Lincoln, likewise suffered from depression. Depression has a way of making some people better.

    I have a son who has suffered from serious depression (which has improved as he’s made it through his twenties, and with the help of some meds). It’s not bipolar because he has no manic phases (I understand Lincoln’s depression was of the same nature). He has a well-developed talent for clear thinking and for seeing things realistically. I believe, but can’t prove, that this talent is enhanced by his depression. He loves life, but he has no rose-colored view of it.

     Your son’s “well-developed talent for clear thinking” despite having experienced serious depression is a phenomenon that’s fully supported in the research literature. I am also very glad to hear his illness has been improved and his love for life isn’t illusory.

    • #11
  12. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:

    Abraham Lincoln is thought to have suffered from depression or even bipolar disorder (contemporaries said he had “melancholy”). I don’t think that mental health issues make great leaders, but neither are they disqualifying. One concern I have with our pharmaceutical culture is that society at large is trading many of its manic creators and brooding geniuses for a mass of generic sameness.

     The name Ritalin comes to mind.  

    • #12
  13. user_9474 Member
    user_9474
    @

    William Manchester was a wonderful historian, but I wonder if his own mental problems that led  to a horrendous writer’s block might have led him to lay such a heavy emphasis on the depression Churchill felt from time to time.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/magazine/the-fan-who-finished-william-manchesters-churchill-biography.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    • #13
  14. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    I read Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness years ago, during a “Philosophy of Happiness” course in college. As I recall, optimists and pessimists tend to be realistic about different subjects. Optimists willfully fail to recognize situations which threaten to disrupt their happiness. But their stubborn hope serves them well when disaster strikes. If I remember right, depressed people are least realistic about health issues because they are eager for their struggles to end.

    Does bipolarity make one an optimist and a pessimist by turns? Does it offer the benefits or shortcomings of both mania and depression? I don’t know. But both depression and mania can take a variety of forms. Depression slows one down, sometimes encouraging careful reflection; but it also commonly leads to egocentric thinking. Mania can result in ideaphoria, which can help with strategy if those ideas are recorded and revised. But mania can also take the form of irritability and obsession.

    Joy and depression vary from person to person not just by scale and frequency but also by manifestation. Like some people are silly drunks and others are mean drunks, some benefit from depression and others do not.

    • #14
  15. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    Perhaps it’s the other way around.  Because Churchill saw Hitler for who he was, and couldn’t do anything about it, he was depressed.

    Caveat: I don’t know much about capital-D Clinical Depression.  So I’m thinking in terms of lowercase-d depressed.

    I personally find conservatism depressing.  In my country I can see the family disintegrating, the national debt exploding, free speech eroding, and the forces of destruction in control of the cultural high ground.  Beyond our shores I see tyrants on the march and sharia law infiltrating the West.

    Personally I take comfort in my Christianity.  At the end of the book, after a period of strife God wins, and for those written in the Book of Life there’s no more crying or tears.  I don’t recall that Churchill was terribly religious (I could be wrong).  Perhaps he took comfort in his wife, a good brandy and a cigar.

    If I were non-religious I’d much rather be a liberal.  For my time on earth I could believe that progress was always just around the corner.

    • #15
  16. user_129440 Member
    user_129440
    @JackRichman

    I’m used to pundits medicalizing all sorts of character flaws, but medicalizing greatness?! Self-delusion is not a sign of better mental health.

    • #16
  17. Giantkiller Member
    Giantkiller
    @Giantkiller

    I agree with Wade Moore’s point, and also second his endorsement of the third installment of the Manchester biography.  I also note that this third installment is not entirely the work of Manchester; it was a final volume based heavily on Manchester’s research and preliminary drafts.  A great deal of the final was the original work of Paul Reid, more of a writer than an historian.  It shows a bit, in that this final volume is more thinly sourced than Manchester’s first two.  Nonetheless, it is well worth the read.

    The point about Churchill’s depression is entirely too tenebrous a subject to draw conclusions, especially an astounding one – that is was somehow key to his great success as a war leader.  Every man is a mix of traits and abilities, and even disabilities.  To ascribe “greatness” to one among many factors is reductionist to the point of absurdity.  Even more absurd is post hoc diagnosis  of historical figures.  Phooey.

    • #17
  18. SParker Member
    SParker
    @SParker

    Plus when was it he joined Labour?  Wikipedia says running as a “Constitutionalist” in 1924 was a swipe at Labour indicative of a hostility to socialism.  Liberal /= Labour.

    • #18
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    A.D.P. Efferson: I don’t want to live in a world where Beethoven liked himself.

     Where do we nominate for the line of the week?

    • #19
  20. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    Churchill drank a lot, from morning to very late at night. Perhaps to squash his depression.

    • #20
  21. user_44643 Inactive
    user_44643
    @MikeLaRoche

    JimGoneWild:

    Churchill drank a lot, from morning to very late at night. Perhaps to squash his depression.

     A fine cigar goes a long way toward relieving depression, too.

    • #21
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.