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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 Navy's first supercarrier was named the 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 Academymarker, which brings prominent military and civilian leaders to speak to the Brigade of Midshipmen, and of the James Forrestal Campus of Princeton Universitymarker, in Plainsboro, New Jerseymarker.

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 unexpected decision to dismiss him as Defense Secretary on March 31, 1949 strained him to the breaking point, causing him to suffer a nervous breakdown. Within days he was diagnosed with clinical depression and admitted for psychiatric hospitalization 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 Bethesda Naval Hospitalmarker, a bathrobe sash knotted tightly around his neck. The obvious appearance of suicide was supported by physical evidence collected by investigators suggesting Forrestal had fallen accidentally while attempting to hang himself. Hospital records also indicated Forrestal had been under 24 hour watch for suicidal ideation early in his stay, but had reportedly improved with aggressive treatment and was not guarded on the day he died. The evidence was reviewed by a committee led by RADM Willcuts. The committee released an expurgated public version of their report which did not use the term "suicide", did not include the autopsy report and focused only on the physical evidence recovered from the scene and a report of the events in Forrestal's stay leading up to his death. No official cause of death was named by the public report, noting only that Forrestal "died following a fall". This report (the Willcuts Report) remained the only public government statement on Forrestal's death for years.

The committee's full findings and records were not declassified and released until 2004. The declassified records confirmed that Forrestal's death had been officially determined by the government to be a suicide. In a review of the board's evidence and findings—solicited by the Navy and kept secret with those findings until 2004—Chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Dr. Winfred Overholser agreed with the board's 1949 conclusion that Forrestal "came to his death by suicide while in a state of mental depression." 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 Yorkmarker, (now part of Beacon, New Yorkmarker), 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 Collegemarker in 1911, but transferred to Princeton Universitymarker 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 remained there until 1940, except for his service during World War I. 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.marker, at the office of Naval Operations, while completing his flight training. He eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade.

Following the war, Forrestal served as a publicist for the Democratic Party committee in Dutchess County, New Yorkmarker 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 was cold and neglectful toward his family. While working in England, Forrestal received a phone call from his two sons, then aged eight and six years. The two had missed their plane in Paris; Forrestal simply told the boys to work out the problem themselves and meet him in London.

He married Mrs. Josephine Stovall (born Ogden), a Vogue writer, in 1926. She eventually developed alcohol and mental problems.

Political career

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.

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 Kwajaleinmarker in 1944, and (as Secretary) witnessed the Battle of Iwo Jimamarker in 1945.

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 Islandmarker:

" 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 Israelmarker. Forrestal was also an early target of the egregiously-muckraking columnist and broadcaster Drew Pearson, an opponent of foreign policies hostile to the Soviet Unionmarker, 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 appropriate funds for 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 Czechoslovakiamarker and China; the Soviets imposed a blockade on West Berlin prompting the U.S. Berlin Airlift to supply the city; the war between the Arab states and Israel after the establishment of Israel in Palestine; and negotiations were going on for the formation of NATOmarker.

Soviet-inspired Communist takeovers of much of Eastern Europe, Soviet-supported communist military and political campaigns against the governments of Greece, Italy, and France, the impending Communist victory in China, and the invasion of South Korea by communist North Koreamarker would eventually demonstrate the legitimacy of Forrestal's concerns, but at the time these were not shared by the President or the rest of his cabinet. 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 Establishmentmarker (the Department of Defensemarker 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.

Forrestal's greatest legacy may have been an unrealized one. 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 Unionmarker out of the war with Japan. Had his advice been followed, Japan might well have surrendered before August 1945, precluding the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So strongly did he feel about this matter that he cultivated negotiation efforts that some regarded as approaching insubordination.

Psychiatric treatment

In 1949, exhausted from overwork, Forrestal entered psychiatric treatment. The attending psychiatrist Dr. George N. Raines was a Navy Captain handpicked by the Surgeon General.

First week: narcosis with sodium amytal.Second week and for a period of four weeks: a regimen of insulin sub-shock combined with psycho-therapeutic interviews. According to Dr. Raines, the patient over reacted 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.Fourth 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 ninety 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 Soundmarker, 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 Dr. George Raines decided to send the former Secretary of Defense to the US Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Marylandmarker, where it would be possible to deny his mental illness. He was checked into the Bethesda Naval Hospitalmarker 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 protege, 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 pajamas, was found on a third-floor roof below the 16th-floor kitchen across the hall from his room.

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. 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.

Forrestal's last written statement 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 exact contents of Forrestal's actual note, which some have alleged was an implied suicide note, was not released by the Department of the Navy until April 2004.

James Forrestal is buried in Section 30 Lot 674 Grid X-39 of Arlington National Cemeterymarker.

Assassination allegations

Doubts have existed from the beginning about Forrestal's death, especially allegations of suicide. 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 the National Naval Medical Centermarker, who convened the review board.

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 five-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 MI6marker 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 UFO.

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:

New light was shed on Forrestal's concerns in March 2006 when The Times of London, referencing newly declassified documents, revealed that a serious attempt by Menachem Begin's Irgun Gang to assassinate Britainmarker's anti-Zionist Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, had been thwarted by British intelligence in 1946.

Columnists Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell led a press campaign 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, Floridamarker, 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 a fabrication.

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 by the Viking Press 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 Universitymarker. 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."

References in pop culture

  • 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.


  1. Willcuts, Morton D. (RADM), Proceedings and Findings Of The U.S. Navy Medical Review Board On The Death Of James Vincent Forrestal, National Naval Medical Center, 13 July 1949. p64.
  2. ---, p.2
  3. Seeley G. Mudd Library, Report
  4. Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, "Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal, Naval Institute Press, 1992, page 7
  5. Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, "Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal, Naval Institute Press, 1992, pages 42-8, 47, 131-5, 216-218, 427, 432, 479
  6. Donovan, Robert J., Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945-1948, University of Missouri Press (1996), ISBN 082621066X, 9780826210661, pp. 325-335
  7. (The Forrestal Diaries, 1951)
  8. Time Magazine, Washington Head-Hunters, New York: Time Publications, 24 January 1949
  9. Blair, Clay, The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953, Naval Institute Press (2003)
  10. See Whittaker Chambers to confirm that his concerns on the domestic front were quite legitimate
  11. Immerman,James."The CIA in Guatemala." U.of Texas Press: 1982.
  12. Spencer Zimmerman The Epoch Point, pp. 193-4, Mill City Press Inc., 2008 ISBN 978-1934248935
  13. Hoopes and Brinkley, pp. 205-214. The quoted line is from p. 208
  14. Admiral M.D. Willcutts Report, p. 34, 41, 1949, released to the public 2004
  15. Richard Rhodes Dark Sun, p. 354, Simon & Schuster, 1996 ISBN 978-0684824147
  16. Donald A. Ritchie Reporting from Washington, p. 140, Oxford University Press US, 2005 ISBN 978-0195178616
  17. Jerrold M. Post When Illness Strikes the Leader, p. 113, Yale University Press, 1995 ISBN 978-0300063141
  18. Townsend Hoopes Driven Patriot, p. 464, Naval Institute Press, 2000 ISBN 978-1557503343
  19. Townsend Hoopes The Driven Patriot, p. 469, Naval Institute Press, 2000 ISBN 978-1557503343
  20. Thomas E. Devine/Richard M. Daley Eyewitness, pp. 53-4, Primer Publishers, 1987 ISBN 978-0939650484
  21. Willcutts Report
  22. transcription
  23. Who Killed James Forrestal?, 2002-ongoing
  24. hand
  25. John Loftus/Mark Aarons The Secret War Against the Jews, p. 214, Macmillan, 1997 ISBN 978-0312156480
  26. C. G. Jung, Flying Saucers; A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, Princeton University Press, 1979 ISBN 10: 0691018227
  27. Rogow, Arnold, James Forrestal, A Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy, p.181
  28. assassinate
  29. Hoopes and Brinkley, pp. 455-456
  30. The Forrestal Diaries

See also

Further reading

  • Mary Akashah and Donald Tennant (1980). " Madness and Politics: The Case of James Forrestal" (PDF). Proceeding of the Oklahoma Academy of Science 60: 89-92. Retrieved on 2007-09-09. Refutes the idea that Forrestal's "policies and positions were somehow the products of a diseased mind."
  • Robert G. Albion and Robert H. Connery, Forrestal and the Navy (1962)
  • Carl W. Borklund, Men of the Pentagon: From Forrestal to McNamara (1966)
  • Demetrios Caraley, The Politics of Military Unification (1966)
  • Robert H. Connery, The Navy and Industrial Mobilization in World War II (1951)
  • Jeffrey M. Dorwart, Eberstadt and Forrestal, A National Security Partnership, 1909-1949 (College Station, Texasmarker: Texas A&M University Press 1991)
  • Forrestal Papers, Princeton Univ. Lib.
  • Paul Y. Hammond, Organizing for Defense: The American Military Establishment in the Twentieth Century (1961).
  • Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, Driven Patriot, the Life and Times of James Forrestal ISBN 0-7366-2520-8 (1992)
  • David Martin, "Who Killed James Forrestal?" November 2002 - ongoing.
  • Walter Millis ed., The Forrestal Diaries (New York: Viking, 1951)
  • Walter Millis and E. S. Duffield (editors), The Forrestal Diaries, Kessinger Publishing, 2007 ISBN 10: 0548386072
  • Arnold Rogow, James Forrestal, A Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy (Macmillan, 1963)
  • Quinn, Peter. Looking for Jimmy. New York: Overlook Press (2007). ISBN 1585678708 James Forrestal biography at pp. 39-41.
  • Cornell Simpson The Death of James Forrestal (Western Islands Publishers, 1966)
  • Hugh Turley, "Handwriting Tells Dark Tale?", Hyattsville Life & Times, December 2007, page 3. "Historians Support Inquiry into the Death of James Forrestal," History News Network, May 29, 2009.

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