James V. Forrestal
Forrestal was born on 15 February 1892, in Matteawan (now Beacon), New York. His father, an Irish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1857, managed a construction company. After graduating from high school in 1908, Forrestal worked for three years on local newspapers in New York State and then entered Dartmouth College as a freshman in 1911. The following year he transferred to Princeton University in New Jersey, but left in 1915 a few credits short of his degree, apparently due to academic and financial difficulties. During his time at both schools he also participated in boxing, tennis and wrestling. He then worked briefly as a financial reporter, a clerk for a zinc company and as a tobacco salesman. The next year Forrestal joined an investment banking house, William A. Read and Company of New York (which became Dillon, Read and Company in 1923), as a bond salesman. World War I interrupted his career in finance, however, and he enlisted in the United States Navy as a seaman second class on 2 June 1917.
World War I
The young sailor became enthused by naval aviation and he took flight training with British instructors from the Royal Flying Corps at Camp Borden – considered to be the birthplace of the Royal Canadian Air Force – and at Deseronto, both in Ontario, Canada. He commissioned as an ensign, Naval Reserve Flying Corps (NRFC) at Boston, Massachusetts, on 17 November of that year, and he gained his wings of gold as Naval Aviator No. 154 [HTA–heavier-than-air] on 6 December 1917. Soon thereafter, Forrestal served in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
Between the wars
Following the Armistice, Forrestal, discharged from the Navy with the rank of lieutenant on 30 December 1919, returned to banking through 1940. He rose rapidly in the company, becoming a partner in 1923, vice president in 1926, and president in 1938. Meanwhile, he met and courted Josephine Ogden, a beautiful 26-year-old chorus girl for the Ziegfeld Follies, and after a tempestuous romance the couple married on 13 October 1926, a union that would produce two sons, Michael V., and Peter. Although “Jim Forrestal was the man I wanted” the bride afterward confided to an interviewer, and their matrimonial voyage began happily, their marriage eventually grounded on the husband’s extra-marital affairs and his wife's descent into alcoholism and mental illness.
World War II
In June 1940, Forrestal accepted a post as a special assistant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, serving as a liaison for the chief executive in handling the National Defense Program, part of the country’s belated rearmament efforts as it prepared for World War II. In August 1940, the President nominated Forrestal to fill the new position of under secretary of the Navy. Secretary of the Navy William Frank Knox assigned his under secretary to handle contracts, taxes and legal affairs, and as a liaison with several other government agencies. A highly capable administrator and manager, Forrestal built his office into an efficient organization, and he ran very effectively the Navy’s machinery for industrial mobilization and procurement, a vast system that ultimately produced the largest fleet ever to put to sea. The seemingly tireless under secretary made numerous trips across the country and to the far-flung battlefields, coming under fire by the Japanese more than once during inspection and morale-building tours on Kwajalein and Iwo Jima. When a heart attack took Secretary Knox, Forrestal succeeded him on 19 May 1944. He guided the Navy through the last year of the war and into the two difficult years of demobilization after the Japanese surrendered.
Forrestal visited Joint Task Force 1 at Bikini Lagoon in the Marshall Islands for Test Able of Operation Crossroads to witness the detonation of an atomic bomb and its effects upon over 90 ships, together with weapons and equipment, during late June and early July 1946. The explosion stunned the secretary, who made a number of references during interviews over succeeding days to the tremendous power unleashed by the blast and its effect upon viewers. Complex global problems made more urgent by the Cold War confronted the nation, however, and planners developed a new national security system to begin functioning without delay. Forrestal participated prominently in the development of the National Security Act of 1947, even though he initially opposed unification services. Nonetheless, under pressure from President Harry S. Truman and others, Forrestal made use of the 1945 Eberstadt report and negotiations with Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson to play a primary role in shaping the initial form of the plans. Although the President preferred Patterson as his first choice for secretary of defense, the latter intended to return to private life. The President’s subsequent selection of Forrestal, however ironic it might appear given the Secretary’s resistance to unification, was deserved and logical considering his long experience in the Defense establishment and dedication to effective administration.
Tensions between the West and the East Bloc continued to build and intelligence analysts feared that Yugoslav Marshal Josip Broz Tito might attempt to seize the Adriatic city of Trieste, still occupied by U.S. and British troops to ensure the orderly transition of power following the Axis collapse. Therefore, when President Truman selected Forrestal as the first secretary of defense, he also directed that be sworn-in several days earlier than originally scheduled, on 17 September 1947.
Forrestal brought to his new office a deep distrust of the Soviets and a determination to make the new national security structure workable. He recognized the magnitude of the job; he wrote to a friend shortly after announcement of his appointment confiding his serious apprehensions about the future of the new organization. He soon discovered that perhaps the chief obstacle to accomplishing his objectives would be the inherent weakness in the secretary of defense’s powers as defined in the National Security Act. Another problem became the existence of virtually autonomous heads for the military departments. These organizational difficulties, combined with a steady escalation of Cold War tensions, ensured 18 months of frustration.
By February 1948, the Russians had largely completed their network of satellite nations across eastern Europe, as communists supported by Moscow seized control in Czechoslovakia. That June, the Soviets blockaded land routes from the western zones of Germany to Berlin, forcing the Americans and their allies to initiate an airlift which supplied Berlin until Moscow relaxed the blockade more than 10 months later. In the meantime, war broke out in Palestine between the Arabs and Israelis. As these events occurred, Congress approved the Marshall Plan, providing economic aid for 16 European nations, and in June 1948 the Senate adopted the Vandenberg Resolution, encouraging the administration to enter into collective defense arrangements. The Americans and British led in developing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formally established in April 1949. On the other side of the world, the Chinese communists defeated the Nationalists and drove them from the mainland, leading in 1949 to their emergence as a growing threat to freedom within Asia.
The national security apparatus played an important role in the development of U.S. policies and programs to meet these Cold War challenges. Forrestal believed strongly in the need for close coordination of defense and foreign policy and saw the National Security Council as a major instrument for accomplishing this coordination. Although President Truman deemed the council a subordinate advisory body he met infrequently with it before the Korean War erupted in June 1950. Forrestal thought it should originate policy proposals and provide firm guidance for strategic planning. He labored hard, for the most part unsuccessfully, to increase its influence. In addition, during these years many Western leaders feared that the Soviets would use their enormous armed forces to conquer Western Europeans, who World War II largely weakened and made destitute. These men sought desperately for aid to brunt the (perceived) Russian steamroller and embraced many former Axis leaders due to the latter’s expertise in and dedication to containing communism.
Forrestal became one of these leaders who established a chain of contacts and infrastructure with émigré anti-communists, including the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN, better known by their code name of Nactigall, or Nightingale), a group of zealously xenophobic Ukrainians who fought both the Poles and the Russians from World War I onward. Some of these men gained a notorious reputation for supporting Nazi efforts to exterminate Jews, Gypsies and other victims of the Holocaust.
While the public did not become aware of these classified operations for sometime, the highly publicized War Crimes trials drew attention to the atrocities of the Holocaust, and to those even remotely affiliated with them in whatever manner.
Last days and death
National security issues plagued the Secretary and the defense budget became a source of tension between Forrestal and Truman. Due to public pressures to limit defense expenditures and his predilection for a balanced budget, Truman would not agree to budget levels proposed by Forrestal or the larger amounts desired by the services. Disagreements between the services over roles and missions complicated the matter. Because the budget limits Truman imposed intensified the competition for scarce funds, the services developed elaborate rationales justifying their views of roles and missions and the funds to support them.
The Air Force argued that strategic air power as exemplified by long-range bombers carrying nuclear weapons could be key factor in future wars, and that service wanted funds to support 70 combat groups as well as exclusive use of atomic weapons. On the other hand, the Navy wanted to build large flush-deck carriers from which it could launch naval aircraft carrying atomic weapons. These and other differences among the services surfaced especially during annual consideration of the budget.
For all the problems, Forrestal could list 15 “solid accomplishments in the process of unification” in his first report as secretary of defense in December 1948. These included the formulation of long-range and short-range strategic plans, the development of an integrated defense budget for FY 1950, the definition of service roles and missions, the coordination of service procurement efforts, and the establishment of additional overseas unified commands. Forrestal observed that: “the mere passage of the National Security Act did not mean the accomplishment of its objectives overnight. The most difficult part of the task of unification is to bring conflicting ideas into harmony… How fast we complete the process of resolution will depend on the speed with which we achieve the harmony of thought which is inherent in true unification. I am confident that we shall reach that accord.”
The 1949 amendments to the National Security Act stand as testimony to Forrestal’s determination to improve the Defense structure. The 1949 amendments began the legislative process of clarifying and expanding the powers of the secretary of defense. Centralization of authority in the Office of the Secretary of Defense became a constant objective under Forrestal and many of his successors. Unfortunately, Forrestal no longer served in the Pentagon when Congress approved these amendments.
In March 1949, because of Forrestal’s outspoken criticism of these and other policies of the Truman administration, Truman demanded his resignation.
While Forrestal was on vacation in Florida the Surgeon General had him brought back to Washington and admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital. It is unclear why the government was involved with the health of a civilian, and to what extent the admission was voluntary. The hospital doctors described Forrestal as suffering from exhaustion and depression due to overwork.
The central building of Bethesda Naval Hospital has 18 floors. Forrestal was placed on the 16th. After several weeks rest he had apparently recovered but still remained hospitalized. In the early hours of May 22 he fell to his death from his suite’s kitchen window, landing on a ledge or roof 13 floors below, clothed only in pajamas—the belt cord of his robe knotted around his neck.
On May 23 a military board of investigation was convened, headed by Morton D. Willcutts, Rear Admiral of the Navy Medical Corps. The resulting report is now known as the Willcutts Report. A copy was not made available to the general public until April 2004, 55 years later. The Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University has a PDF photocopy. A searchable text version is available online.
The report contains a number of discrepancies. Perhaps the most blatant is that the poem alleged to have been copied by Forrestal the night of his death is obviously in someone else’s handwriting.
Much has been written about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Forrestal’s death, that predating April 2004 uninformed by the Willcutts Report.
The country acknowledged Forrestal’s services to American security and freedom through two world wars by interring Forrestal's remains with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. The Finnish artist Kalervo Kallio sculpted a bronze bust of Forrestal which officials unveiled at the Mall entrance to the Pentagon on 22 September 1950. The USS Forrestal, launched in 1954, was named after him.