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.
1st United States Secretary of Defense
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.
life and private employment
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
some accounts, Forrestal was a compulsive workaholic,
skilled administrator, pugnacious, introspective, shy,
philosophic, solitary, and emotionally insecure.
married Mrs. Josephine Stovall (born Ogden), a Vogue writer,
in 1926. She eventually developed alcohol and mental problems.
of the Navy
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.
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".
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.
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
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.
counsel on ending the war was finally followed, but not
until the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki. The day after the Nagasaki attack, the Japanese
sent out a radio transmission saying that it was ready
to accept the terms of the allies' Potsdam Declaration,
"with the understanding that said declaration
does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives
of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler." That position
still fell short of the U.S. "unconditional surrender"
demand, retaining the sticking point that had held up
the war's conclusion for months. Strong voices within
the administration, including Secretary of State James
Byrnes, counseled fighting on. At that point, "Forrestal
came up with a shrewd and simple solution: Accept the
offer and declare that it accomplishes what the Potsdam
Declaration demanded. Say that the Emperor and the Japanese
government will rule subject to the orders of the Supreme
Commander for the Allied Powers. This would imply recognition
of the Emperor while tending to neutralize American public
passions against the Emperor. Truman liked this. It would
be close enough to 'unconditional.'"
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."
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.
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:
group in this country should be permitted to influence
our policy to the point it could endanger our national
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."
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
Navy and Marine Corps soon caused fierce controversies
within the upper ranks of their respective branches.
the Reagan years, Paul Nitze reflected upon the qualities
which made a Secretary of Defense great: the ability to
work with Congress, the ability at "big-time management,"
and an ability at war planning. Nitze felt that Forrestal
was the only one who possessed all three qualities together.
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.
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 ArabIsraeli
War after the establishment of Israel; and negotiations
were going on for the formation of NATO.
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."
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.
as Secretary of Defense
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.
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
3. 4th week: insulin administered only in stimulating
doses; 10 units of insulin four times a day, morning,
noon, afternoon and evening.
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
Forrestal told associates he had decided to resign, he
was shattered when Truman abruptly asked for his resignation.
His letter of resignation was tendered 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. Dr. 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 successfully treated 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."
National Naval Medical Center
a person who prized anonymity and once stated that his
hobby was "obscurity," Forrestal 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."
seemed to be on the road to recovery, having regained
5.5 kg (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 ones 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
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
FINDING OF FACTS
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.
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,
That the behavior of the deceased during the period
of his stay in the hospital preceding his death was indicative
of a mental depression.
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.
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.
Forrestal is buried in Section 30 Lot 674 Grid X-39 of
Arlington National Cemetery.
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. 4044), 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.
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
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.
those who see Zionist conspiratorial designs behind Forrestal's
unexplained death note Rogow's footnote to his work:
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."
Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell led a press campaignwhich
many would today find libelousagainst 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
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.