“The Military, Psychiatry, and ‘Unfit’ Soldiers”

Building conveniently on our earlier bibliographic histories of homosexuality (1, 2, 3), and on our coverage of psychology in the military (1, 2), a recent article by Naoko Wake — published in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences — examines the screening of U.S. soldiers during WWII.

This piece will also add an important chapter to the histories on the life and works of Harry Stack Sullivan.

After a brief look at the ideas and expectations Sullivan brought to the screening system, I discuss a major problem of the screening: the mismatch between the medical concept of disease prevention and the realities of the mass screening as a public policy. As a way to highlight this mismatch, I focus on Sullivan’s failure to protect homosexual men from medical and social stigmatization by screening them out of the armed forces. Despite his liberal approach to the issue of homosexuality before the war, which he had created in his clinical practice, Sullivan was unable to persuade the military and the public of gay men’s right to serve the nation. The examination of how his sympathetic view of homosexuality became circumscribed reveals not only the gap between clinical insights and public policy, but also how tentative views of homosexuality in public debate among liberal psychiatrists during the decade preceding the war contributed to the failure to make non-homophobic policy in the 1940s. This article shows that the relative conservatism in the politics of sexuality among liberal psychiatrists, as well as the intransigent conservatism as seen in homophobic tradition of the Army, contributed to the discriminatory screening criteria

Additional resources on Sullivan are below.


Harry Stack Sullivan.

  • Bever, C. T.  (1993).  Collaboration and conflict: Ernest E. Hadley and Harry Stack Sullivan, 1930-1945.  Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis & Dynamic Psychiatry, 21(3), 387-404.

Discusses the relationship between E. E. Hadley and H. S. Sullivan in the development of psychoanalysis in the Washington area. Psychoanalysis was hospital-based (at St. Elizabeths Hospital), and the application of the new approach to mental disorders shifted the emphasis to the psychoses and away from the conditions seen in private practice. Hadley and Sullivan formed a partnership in which Sullivan was agitator and idea man and Hadley was administrator and industrious workhorse. Hadley and Sullivan founded and administered the William Alanson White Psychoanalytic Foundation, the postgraduate Washington School of Psychiatry, and the interdisciplinary journal Psychiatry: Journal of the Biology and the Pathology of Interpersonal Relations. Their dissimilar personalities and styles were complementary, but the intrinsic incompatibilities inevitably strained their relationship to the breaking point.

  • Brody, E. B.  (2004).  Harry Stack Sullivan, Brock Chisholm, Psychiatry, and the World Federation for Mental Health.  Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 67(1), 38-42.

Harry Stack Sullivan, the founding editor of the journal, “Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes,” became an icon, emblematic of a uniquely American psychiatry of “interpersonal relations”. But his perception of psychiatry in the service of “enduring peace and social progress” and his vision of a “psychiatry of peoples” enabling world peace received little support from his colleagues of the era. Most psychiatrists were more comfortable with a narrower view of their roles as medical specialists. He was almost alone among professional clinicians of his day in regarding such issues as racial and ethnic prejudice, the avoidance of nuclear war, and the reduction of poverty and international tensions as proper subjects for practitioners of psychiatry and psychology. Together with an international and interdisciplinary group of idealistic colleagues, they embraced the concept of a global organization, which “The World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH),” helped translate into reality. The new WFMH were emphatically creatures of the peace-oriented post-World War II era. They were imbued with the optimism which led to the founding of the new intergovernmental organization, the United Nations upon which world hopes for lasting peace were pinned.

  • Cooper, A. B. & Guynn, R. W.  (2006).  Transcription of Fragments of Lectures in 1948 by Harry Stack Sullivan.  [Special Issue.]  Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 69(2), 101-106.

This issue discusses the ideas of Harry Stack Sullivan, much of which is known from a series that contains collections of previously published material and extractions from Sullivan’s extensive lectures, from both his notebooks and from transcriptions of the lectures themselves. Sullivan gave five complete lectures at the Washington School of Psychiatry and the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology in New York in the 1940s. His sixth set of lectures was unfinished at the time of his death on January 14, 1949. The books are invaluable compilations of Sullivan’s thoughts. In the following excerpts Sullivan discusses the interpersonal origins of the “Self System”, the influence of negative reactions of the parenting figures on the development of the human infant and the positive and interpersonal dynamics of tenderness. He also describes the interpersonal failures during development that can occur and which underlie certain psychopathologies. This article ends with comments from the authors regarding the editing part of this series.

  • Frie, R.  (2000).  The existential and the interpersonal: Ludwig Binswanger and Harry Stack Sullivan.  Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 40(3), 108-129.

Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger is commonly known as the founder of “existential analysis.” The purpose of this article is to introduce the larger scope and relevance of Binswanger’s work by drawing on and discussing previously untranslated texts. The author shows how Binswanger developed a contemporary perspective on self-other interaction with important clinical implications for an understanding of the therapeutic process. The article examines the interaction between the psychotherapist and patient that forms the therapeutic matrix, and argues that Binswanger used elements of Martin Heidegger’s thought and Martin Buber’s dialogical philosophy to develop an original approach to psychotherapy that has considerable parallels with the work of Harry Stack Sullivan and more recent interpersonal and relational theory

  • Frie, R.  (2002).  Binswanger, Sullivan und die interpersonelle Psychoanalyse. / Binswanger, Sullivan and interpersonal psychoanalysis.  Luzifer-Amor: Zeitschrift zur Geschichte der Psychoanalyse, 15(29), 105-122.

Examines, in the words of Roger Frie (a psychoanalyst of the William Alanson White Institute of New York) the connection between Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) and the parallels between Binswanger and Sullivan on the subject of the former’s “existential analysis” and the latter’s “interpersonal theory,” which, as Frie notes from the onset, is consistent with all psychoanalytic theories. Frie describes how Binswanger and Sullivan related to the philosophies of Martin Heidegger (1884-1976), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Martin Buber (1878-1965). In his article, Frie corrects the misunderstanding prevalent in Anglo-Saxon psychoanalytic circles that Binswanger was a follower of Heidegger, showing instead Binswanger’s devotion to Buber, in addition to his unbreakable friendship and affinity with Freud. The present article contains a description of the historical context and the affinities between Binswanger and Sullivan, along with the perceived primacy of the interpersonal theory over the essentially intrapsychic nature of the “existential analysis.”

  • Kahtalian, A.  (1993).  Harry Stack Sullivan e os teóricos das relações do objeto. / Harry Stack Sullivan and the theoreticians of object relations.  Revista Brasileira de Psicánalise, 27(1), 79-86.

Discusses the evolution of psychoanalytic ideas and theories after Freud’s death, highlighting the work of Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949). Sullivan departed from some of Freud’s basic concepts, so that he does not sound like a real psychoanalyst, especially since he introduced a new set of words for almost every psychological concept. The present author looks at Sullivan as a “contextualist,” who did not see the individual as isolated, but always in the context of his/her environment and interpersonal relations. In transference (a term Sullivan did not use), he distinguished between the prototaxic, parataxic and syntaxic bond. He did not consider Freud’s oedipus complex and superego as central to his own conceptualization of the psychic apparatus.

  • Rioch, D. M.  (1985).  Recollections of Harry Stack Sullivan and of the development of his interpersonal psychiatry.  Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 48(2), 141-158.

Reviews H. S. Sullivan’s life experiences during 5 periods of his professional career that shaped his view of psychiatry. It is asserted that in each of the 5 periods, Sullivan’s place of work, his technical procedures, the type of patients or students he worked with, and his personal associates changed and that these changes were consistently directed toward the development of psychiatry as a social science in the philosophical sense, and as a rigorous therapeutic discipline in the clinical sense. It is demonstrated that after the assumption of this objective, the changes in his work were based mainly on the results of his preceding clinical investigations.

  • Wake, N.  (2006).  “The Full Story by No Means All Told”: Harry Stack Sullivan at Sheppard-Pratt, 1922-1930.  History of Psychology, 9(4), 325-358.

Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) is well known for his interpersonal theory of mental illness, but little is known about how he actually worked as a clinician with patients. This article examines a pivotal time in Sullivan’s career at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore from 1922 to 1930. Using clinical records as well as published writings, the article focuses on 2 crucial issues that are not fully addressed either in Sullivan’s published writings or in past studies of him: first, his treatment as a gay psychiatrist of patients who he believed had homosexual orientations; second, the intellectual and institutional paradigm in psychiatry that influenced his practice. Finally, this article addresses the circumstances surrounding Sullivan’s departure from Sheppard-Pratt, suggesting psychiatry’s limited confrontation with the social stigmatization of homosexuality.

  • Weisberg, I.  (1995).  The participant-observer from America: Harry Stack Sullivan.  International Journal of Communicative Psychoanalysis & Psychotherapy, 10(3), 81-87.

Presents a short chronicle of the life of Harry Stack Sullivan, from the foothills of rural Appalachia in central New York State to his sudden death in Paris 57 yrs later. It follows the steps he took helping to found the Washington School of Psychiatry, the journal, Psychiatry, the William Alanson White School of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology, and in shaping a basic interest in human communication into the Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry.

See also:

  • Ortmeyer, D. H.  (1997).  Revisiting our psychoanalytic roots: The early interpersonalists.  Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 33(2), 313-322.

Discusses the history of the interpersonalist school of psychoanalytic thought. The 6 analysts who became the school of early interpersonalists include Harry Stack Sullivan, Clara Thompson, Sandor Ferenczi, Erich Fromm, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, and Karen Horney. A brief introduction to these interpersonal psychoanalysts’ lives, thinking, and clinical work is presented.

  • Wiggins, J. S.  (1996).  An informal history of the interpersonal circumplex tradition.  Journal of Personality Assessment, 66(2), 217-233.

Gives an informal history of circular representations of human nature including the modern interpersonal circumplex tradition conceptualized by psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan. The Kaiser Foundation Psychology Research Group (M. Freedman et al, 1951) operationalized key Sullivanian concepts which were later extended by T. Leary in Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality (1957) to form the conceptual basis for contemporary circumplex models. The circle design, involving dimensional classification in which category membership is continuous, and the quadrant design, which reduces the circumplex to 4 broad categories, and their relatedness, are discussed.

 -JTB.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

1 thought on ““The Military, Psychiatry, and ‘Unfit’ Soldiers”

  1. Fascinating grouping of articles. I’ve been reading numerous books by Stephen Mitchell and am fascinated by H. Sullivan’s
    influence on relational psychology. I am interested in H. Sullivan’s being influenced by his “Chicago School” pragmatic influence. Are there articles integrating pragmatism and relational psychoanalysis?

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