About James Vincent Forrestal
James Vincent Forrestal (February 15, 1892 – May 22, 1949) was the last Cabinet-level United States Secretary of the Navy and the first United States Secretary of Defense.
Forrestal was a supporter of naval battle groups centered on aircraft carriers. In 1954, the world's first supercarrier was named USS Forrestal in his honor, as is the headquarters of the United States Department of Energy. He is also the namesake of the Forrestal Lecture Series at the United States Naval Academy, which brings prominent military and civilian leaders to speak to the Brigade of Midshipmen, and of the James Forrestal Campus of Princeton University in Plainsboro Township, New Jersey.
Forrestal observed a famously punishing work schedule in the last years of his life, and rumors had circulated in the press as to his health. President Truman's decision to dismiss him as Secretary of Defense on March 31, 1949 is said to have caused him to suffer a "nervous breakdown", a charge denied by Forrestal's brother. Forrestal was hospitalized on April 2, 1949. On May 22, 1949 he was found dead on the roof of a covered walkway below the window of a kitchen across the hall from his 16th floor room at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC, commonly known as the Bethesda Naval Hospital), a bathrobe sash knotted tightly around his neck. This happened on the day Forrestal was to be discharged from the hospital. The news media reported that he had committed suicide, and the local coroner and U.S. Navy officials agreed. The circumstances of the death were reviewed, however, by a committee convened by Rear Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of NNMC (1948–1951). The committee released only a brief list of conclusions several months after it had completed its work. The conclusions noted only that Forrestal "died following a fall" and that the fall caused his death. The board did not speculate as to what might have caused the fall.
The committee's full report was not released until 2004. In a review of the board's evidence and findings—solicited by the Navy and kept secret with the report until 2004—Chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Dr. Winfred Overholser concluded that Forrestal "came to his death by suicide while in a state of mental depression," but the report's own conclusions were seen to have been accurately reported 55 years earlier, that is simply that Forrestal died from the fall. Debate over the exact circumstances of Forrestal's unusual death continues today, with some critics citing the U.S. government's withholding of the official report and autopsy results as well as possible signs of struggle in evidence photos as indicating foul play.
Early life and private employment
Forrestal was born in Matteawan, New York, (now part of Beacon, New York), the youngest son of James Forrestal, an Irish immigrant who dabbled in politics. His mother, the former Mary Anne Toohey (herself the daughter of another Irish immigrant) raised him as a devout Roman Catholic. He was an amateur boxer. After graduating from high school at the age of 16 in 1908, he spent the next three years working for a trio of newspapers: the Matteawan Evening Journal, the Mount Vernon Argus and the Poughkeepsie News Press.
Forrestal entered Dartmouth College in 1911, but transferred to Princeton University sophomore year. He served as an editor for The Daily Princetonian. The senior class voted him "Most Likely to Succeed", but he left just prior to completing work on a degree.
Forrestal went to work as a bond salesman for William A. Read and Company (later renamed Dillon, Read & Co.) in 1916 and, except for his service during World War I, remained there until 1940. He became a partner (1923), vice-president (1926), and president of the company (1937).
When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the Navy and ultimately became a Naval Aviator, training with the Royal Flying Corps in Canada. During the final year of the war, Forrestal spent much of his time in Washington, D.C., at the office of Naval Operations, while completing his flight training. He eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant.
Following the war, Forrestal served as a publicist for the Democratic Party committee in Dutchess County, New York helping politicians from the area win elections at both the state and national level. One of those individuals aided by his work was a neighbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
By some accounts, Forrestal was a compulsive workaholic, skilled administrator, pugnacious, introspective, shy, philosophic, solitary, and emotionally insecure.
He married Mrs. Josephine Stovall (born Ogden), a Vogue writer, in 1926. She eventually developed alcohol and mental problems.
Secretary of the Navy
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Forrestal a special administrative assistant on June 22, 1940. Six weeks later, he nominated him for the newly established position, Undersecretary of the Navy. In his nearly four years as undersecretary, Forrestal proved highly effective at mobilizing domestic industrial production for the war effort. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, wanted to control logistics and procurement, but Forrestal prevailed.
In September 1942, to get a grasp on the reports for material his office was receiving, he made a tour of naval operations in the Southwest Pacific and a stop at Pearl Harbor. Returning to Washington, D.C., he made his report to President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and the cabinet. In response to Forrestal's elevated request that material be sent immediately to the Southwest Pacific area, Stimson (who was more concerned with supplying Operation Torch in North Africa), told Forrestal, "Jim, you've got a bad case of localitis." Forrestal shot back in a heated manner, "Mr. Secretary, if the marines on Guadalcanal were wiped out, the reaction of the country will give you a bad case of localitis in the seat of your pants".
He became Secretary of the Navy on May 19, 1944, after his immediate superior Secretary Frank Knox died from a heart attack. Forrestal led the Navy through the closing year of the war and the painful early years of demobilization that followed. As Secretary, Forrestal introduced a policy of racial integration in the Navy.
Forrestal traveled to combat zones to see naval forces in action. He was in the South Pacific in 1942, present at the Battle of Kwajalein in 1944, and (as Secretary) witnessed the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. After five days of pitched battle, a detachment of Marines was sent to hoist the American flag on the 545-foot summit of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. This was the first time in the war that the U.S. flag had flown on Japanese soil. Forrestal, who had just landed on the beach, claimed the historic flag as a souvenir. A second, larger flag was run up in its place, and this second flag-raising was the moment captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal in his famous photograph.
Forrestal, along with Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew, in the early months of 1945, strongly advocated a softer policy toward Japan that would permit a negotiated armistice, a 'face-saving' surrender. Forrestal's primary concern was not the resurgence of a militarized Japan, but rather "the menace of Russian Communism and its attraction for decimated, destabilized societies in Europe and Asia," and, therefore, keeping the Soviet Union out of the war with Japan. So strongly did he feel about this matter that he cultivated negotiation efforts that some regarded as approaching insubordination.
In the beginning of the Cold War period, Forrestal strongly influenced the new Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy, concerning infiltration of the government by Communists. Upon McCarthy's arrival in Washington in December 1946, Forrestal invited him to lunch. In McCarthy's words, "Before meeting Jim Forrestal I thought we were losing to international Communism because of incompetence and stupidity on the part of our planners. I mentioned that to Forrestal. I shall forever remember his answer. He said, 'McCarthy, consistency has never been a mark of stupidity. If they were merely stupid, they would occasionally make a mistake in our favor.' This phrase struck me so forcefully that I have often used it since."
Secretary of Defense
In 1947, President Harry S. Truman appointed him the first United States Secretary of Defense. Forrestal continued to advocate for complete racial integration of the services, a policy eventually implemented in 1949.
During private cabinet meetings with President Truman in 1946 and 1947, Forrestal had argued against partition of Palestine on the grounds it would infuriate Arab countries who supplied oil needed for the U.S. economy and national defense. Instead, Forrestal favored a federalization plan for Palestine. Outside the White House, response to Truman's continued silence on the issue was immediate. President Truman received threats to cut off campaign contributions from wealthy donors, as well as hate mail, including a letter accusing him of "preferring fascist and Arab elements to the democracy-loving Jewish people of Palestine." Appalled by the intensity and implied threats over the partition question, Forrestal appealed to Truman in two separate cabinet meetings not to base his decision on partition, whatever the outcome, on the basis of political pressure. In his only known public comment on the issue, Forrestal stated to J. Howard McGrath, Senator from Rhode Island:
"...no group in this country should be permitted to influence our policy to the point it could endanger our national security."
Forrestal's statement soon earned him the active enmity of some congressmen and supporters of Israel. Forrestal was also an early target of the muckraking columnist and broadcaster Drew Pearson, an opponent of foreign policies hostile to the Soviet Union, who began to regularly call for Forrestal's removal after President Truman named him Secretary of Defense. Pearson told his own protege, Jack Anderson, that he believed Forrestal was "the most dangerous man in America" and claimed that if he was not removed from office, he would "cause another world war."
Upon taking office as Secretary of Defense, Forrestal was surprised to learn that the administration did not budget for defense needs based on military threats posed by enemies of the United States and its interests. According to historian Walter LaFeber, Truman was known to approach defense budgetary requests in the abstract, without regard to defense response requirements in the event of conflicts with potential enemies. The president would begin by subtracting from total receipts the amount needed for domestic needs and recurrent operating costs, with any surplus going to the defense budget for that year. The Truman administration's readiness to slash conventional readiness needs for the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps soon caused fierce controversies within the upper ranks of the armed forces.
At the close of World War II, millions of dollars of serviceable equipment had been scrapped or abandoned rather than there having been funds appropriated for its storage costs. New military equipment en route to operations in the Pacific theater was scrapped or simply tossed overboard. Facing the wholesale demobilization of most of the US defense force structure, Forrestal resisted President Truman's efforts to substantially reduce defense appropriations, but was unable to prevent a steady reduction in defense spending, resulting in major cuts not only in defense equipment stockpiles, but also in military readiness.
By 1948, President Harry Truman had approved military budgets billions of dollars below what the services were requesting, putting Forrestal in the middle of a fierce tug-of-war between the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Forrestal was also becoming increasingly worried about the Soviet threat. His 18 months at Defense came at an exceptionally difficult time for the U.S. military establishment: Communist governments came to power in Czechoslovakia and China; the Soviets imposed a blockade on West Berlin prompting the U.S. Berlin Airlift to supply the city; the 1948 Arab–Israeli War after the establishment of Israel; and negotiations were going on for the formation of NATO.
Dwight D. Eisenhower recorded he was in agreement with Forrestal's theories on the dangers of Soviet and International communist expansion. Eisenhower recalled that Forrestal had been "the one man who, in the very midst of the war, always counseled caution and alertness in dealing with the Soviets." Eisenhower remembered on several occasions, while he was Supreme Allied Commander, he had been visited by Forrestal, who carefully explained his thesis that the Communists would never cease trying to destroy all representative government. Eisenhower commented in his personal diary on 11 June 1949, "I never had cause to doubt the accuracy of his judgments on this point."
Forrestal also opposed the unification of the military services proposed by the Truman officials. Even so, he helped develop the National Security Act of 1947 that created the National Military Establishment (the Department of Defense was not created as such until August 1949). With the former Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson retiring to private life, Forrestal was the next choice.
Resignation as Secretary of Defense
Governor of New York Thomas E. Dewey was expected to win the presidential elections of 1948. Forrestal met with Dewey privately and it was agreed, he would continue as Secretary of Defense under a Dewey administration. Unwittingly, Forrestal would trigger a series of events that would not only undermine his already precarious position with President Truman but would also contribute to the loss of his job, his failing health, and eventual demise. Weeks before the election, Pearson published an exposé of the meetings between Dewey and Forrestal. In 1949, angered over Forrestal's continued opposition to his defense economization policies, and concerned about reports in the press over his mental condition, Truman abruptly asked Forrestal to resign. By March 31, 1949, Forrestal was out of a job. He was replaced by Louis A. Johnson, an ardent supporter of Truman's defense retrenchment policy.
In 1949, exhausted from overwork, Forrestal entered psychiatric treatment. The attending psychiatrist, Captain George N. Raines, was handpicked by the Navy Surgeon General. The regimen was as follows:
1. 1st week: narcosis with sodium amytal.
2. 2nd – 5th weeks: a regimen of insulin sub-shock combined with psycho-therapeutic interviews. According to Dr. Raines, the patient overreacted to the insulin much as he had the amytal and this would occasionally throw him into a confused state with a great deal of agitation and confusion.
3. 4th week: insulin administered only in stimulating doses; 10 units of insulin four times a day, morning, noon, afternoon and evening.
According to Dr. Raines, "We considered electro-shock but thought it better to postpone it for another 90 days. In reactive depression if electro-shock is used early and the patient is returned to the same situation from which he came there is grave danger of suicide in the immediate period after they return... so strangely enough we left out electro-shock to avoid what actually happened anyhow".
Although Forrestal had told associates he had decided to resign, he was shattered when Truman abruptly asked for his resignation. His letter of resignation was tendered after Truman's dismissal on March 28, 1949. On the day of his removal from office, he was reported to have gone into a strange daze and was flown on a Navy airplane to the estate of Under Secretary of State Robert A. Lovett in Hobe Sound, Florida, where Forrestal's wife, Josephine, was vacationing. William C. Menninger of the Menninger Clinic in Kansas was consulted and he diagnosed "severe depression" of the type "seen in operational fatigue during the war". The Menninger Clinic had treated successfully similar cases during World War II but Forrestal's wife Josephine, his friend and associate Ferdinand Eberstadt, Dr. Menninger and Navy psychiatrist Captain Dr. George N. Raines decided to send the former Secretary of Defense to the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, Maryland, where it would be possible to deny his mental illness. He was checked into NNMC five days later. The decision to house him on the 16th floor instead of the first floor was justified in the same way. Forrestal's condition was officially announced as "nervous and physical exhaustion"; his lead doctor, Captain Raines, diagnosing his condition as "depression" or "reactive depression."
As a person who prized anonymity and once stated that his hobby was "obscurity", he and his policies had been the constant target of vicious personal attacks from columnists, including Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell. Pearson's protégé, Jack Anderson, later asserted that Pearson "hectored Forrestal with innuendos and false accusations."
Forrestal seemed to be on the road to recovery, having regained 12 pounds since his entry into the hospital. However, in the early morning hours of May 22, his body, clad only in the bottom half of a pair of pyjamas, was found on a third-floor roof below the 16th-floor kitchen across the hall from his room. Forrestal's last written statement, which some have alleged was an implied suicide note, was part of a poem from Sophocles' tragedy Ajax:
Fair Salamis, the billows’ roar,
Wander around thee yet,
And sailors gaze upon thy shore
Firm in the Ocean set.
Thy son is in a foreign clime
Where Ida feeds her countless flocks,
Far from thy dear, remembered rocks,
Worn by the waste of time–
Comfortless, nameless, hopeless save
In the dark prospect of the yawning grave....
Woe to the mother in her close of day,
Woe to her desolate heart and temples gray,
When she shall hear Her loved one’s story whispered in her ear!
“Woe, woe!’ will be the cry–
No quiet murmur like the tremulous wail
Of the lone bird, the querulous nightingale–
The official Navy review board, which completed hearings on May 31, waited until October 11, 1949, to release only a brief summary of its findings. The announcement, as reported on page 15 of the October 12 New York Times, stated only that Forrestal had died from his fall from the window. It did not say what might have caused the fall, nor did it make any mention of a bathrobe sash cord that had first been reported as tied around his neck. According to the full report, which was not released by the Department of the Navy until April 2004, the official findings of the board were as follows:
After full and mature deliberation, the board finds as follows:
FINDING OF FACTS
1.That the body found on the ledge outside of room three eighty-four of building one of the National Naval Medical Center at one-fifty a.m. and pronounced dead at one fifty-five a.m., Sunday, May 22, 1949, was identified as that of the late James V. Forrestal, a patient on the Neuropsychiatric Service of the U. S. Naval Hospital, National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.
2.That the late James V. Forrestal died on or about May 22, 1949, at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, as a result of injuries, multiple, extreme, received incident to a fall from a high point in the tower, building one, National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.
3.That the behavior of the deceased during the period of his stay in the hospital preceding his death was indicative of a mental depression.
4.That the treatment and precautions in the conduct of the case were in agreement with accepted psychiatric practice and commensurate with the evident status of the patient at all times.
5.That the death was not caused in any manner by the intent, fault, negligence or inefficiency of any person or persons in the naval service or connected therewith.
James Forrestal is buried in Section 30 Lot 674 Grid X-39 of Arlington National Cemetery.
Doubts have existed from the beginning about Forrestal's death, especially allegations of homicide. The early doubts are detailed in the book The Death of James Forrestal (1966) by Cornell Simpson, which received virtually no publicity. As Simpson notes (pp. 40–44), a major reason for doubt is the fact that the Navy kept the full transcript of its official hearing and final report secret. Additional doubt has been raised by the 2004 release of that complete report, informally referred to as the Willcutts Report, after Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of NNMC, who convened the review board.
There were unsubstantiated reports in the press of paranoia and of involuntary commitment to the hospital, as well as suspicions about the detailed circumstances of his death, which have fed a variety of conspiracy theories as well as legitimate questions. For example, among the discrepancies between the report and the accounts given in the principal Forrestal biographies are that the transcription of the poem by Sophocles appears to David Martin, author of the six-part series Who Killed James Forrestal? to have been written in a hand other than Forrestal's. If Forrestal's, according to some intelligence sources, then he could not scribble the word "nightingale" in the poem because it was the code name of the Ukrainian Nazi elite unit Nachtigall Brigade which Forrestal had helped to smuggle to the United States to supplant Kim Philby's failed ABN (Anti Bolshevik Nationals), an MI6 Soviet émigré fascist group. There was also broken glass found on Forrestal's bed, a fact that had not been previously reported. Theories as to who might have murdered Forrestal range from Soviet agents, to U.S. government operatives sent to silence him for his knowledge of UFOs.
Forrestal's single known public statement regarding pressure from interest groups, and his cabinet position opposing the partition of Palestine has been significantly magnified by later critics into a portrayal of Forrestal as a dedicated anti-Zionist who led a concerted campaign to thwart the cause of the Jewish people in Palestine. These critics tend to characterize Forrestal as a mentally unhinged individual, a hysteric with deep anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish feelings. Forrestal himself maintained that he was being shadowed by "foreign men", which some critics and authors quickly interpreted to mean either Soviet NKVD agents or proponents of Zionism. Author Arnold Rogow supported the theory that Forrestal committed suicide over fantasies of being chased by Zionist agents, largely relying on information obtained in interviews conducted with some of Forrestal's fiercest critics inside and outside the Truman administration.
However, those who see Zionist conspiratorial designs behind Forrestal's unexplained death note Rogow's footnote to his work:
"While those beliefs reflect the fact that Forrestal was a very ill man in March 1949, it is entirely possible that he was 'shadowed' by Zionist agents in 1947 and 1948. A close associate of his at the time recalls that at the height of the Palestine controversy, his (the associate's) official limousine was followed to and from his office by a blue sedan containing two men. When the police were notified and the sedan apprehended, it was discovered that the two men were photographers employed by a Zionist organization. They explained to the police that they had hoped to obtain photographs of the limousine's occupant entering or leaving an Arab embassy in order to demonstrate that the official involved was in close contact with Arab representatives."
Columnists Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell led a press campaign—which many would today find libelous—against Forrestal to make him appear paranoid. But official evaluations of his psychiatric state never mentioned paranoia. One of Pearson's most spectacular claims was that at Hobe Sound, Florida, shortly before he was hospitalized, Forrestal was awakened by a siren in the middle of the night and ran out into the street exclaiming, "The Russians are attacking." No one who was there that night confirmed this claim. Captain George Raines, the Navy doctor in charge of Forrestal's treatment, called it an outright fabrication.
The first US ambassador to Israel James G. McDonald writing in 1951 describes the attacks on Forrestal as "unjustifiable", "persistent and venomous" and "among the ugliest example of the willingness of politicians and publicists to use the vilest means - in the name of patriotism - to destroy self-sacrificing and devoted public servants."
Publication of diaries
His diaries from 1944 to March 1949 were serialised in the New York Herald Tribune in 1951, and published as a 581 page book The Forrestal Diaries, edited by Walter Millis in October 1951. They were censored prior to publication. Adam Matthew Publications Ltd publishes a micro-film of the complete and unexpurgated diaries from the originals preserved in the Seeley G Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University. An example of censorship is the removal of the following account of a conversation with Truman- "He referred to Hitler as an egomaniac. The result is we shall have a Slav Europe for a long time to come. I don't think it is so bad."
The James V. Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C., completed in 1969, is named for him.
In the 1994 television movie, Roswell, Forrestal is portrayed by Eugene Roche. He is depicted as sitting on a commission concerning the Roswell UFO incident and advocating the eventual release of information to the public. The film treats his death and classified diary as highly suspicious.
An opera concerning the conspiracy theories behind Forrestal's death, "Nightingale: The Last Days of James Forrestal" composed by Evan Hause with a libretto by Gary Heidt, premiered in New York City at the Present Company Theatorium on May 19, 2002.
In The Golden Age, a DC Comics Elseworlds "imaginary story", 4-issue prestige format mini-series by James Robinson (writer) and Paul Smith (artist), Forrestal's death is shown to have been a murder. Forrestal is pushed from the window of his Bethesda Naval Hospital room by the Golden Age Robotman.
In the PC game Area 51 one of the secret documents the player can collect talks about the Majestic 12 initiative being threatened with "receiving the same punishment as his last secretary, Forrestal", implying the murder of Forrestal was an alien conspiracy to cover his operation from the public.