James Forrestal: A Study of Personality Politics and Policy
“We cannot leave history entirely to nonclinical observers and to professional historians,” says Erik Erikson in his magnificent study of Luther; the latter become immersed in “the very disguises, rationalizations, and idealizations of the historical process from which it should be their business to separate themselves.”
Professor Rogow, a young political scientist at Stanford, isn’t overgenerous to Erikson in the book at hand. (The tone of his Preface is that of a Pioneering Work, and his single reference to Young Man Luther occurs in a footnote listing three biographical studies of public men that cast more than a “glance in Freud’s direction.”) But he plainly does share that scholar’s view of the shortcomings of conventional history. He sets out to produce a “psychological portrait…that [will] focus on the complex interplay between [Forrestal’s] personality, the policy process of which he was a part, and the political arena in which he was a central figure.” And he is quick to dismiss two familiar nonclinical appraisals of his subject’s public career. The first of these appraisals, hostile, attributes the Defense Secretary’s “Cold War militancy to his Dillon, Read background. In the simplest expression of [the] formula, Forrestal was against the Soviet Union and Communism because he was for Wall Street and capitalism.” The second appraisal, friendly, claims that Forrestal “was guided solely by objective consideration, namely the true and factual nature of the threat posed to the free world by Soviet Communism.” The trouble with both notions, according to Professor Rogow, is that they betray no awareness of the relation between policy recommendations and “personality needs.” To understand and evaluate James Forrestal’s politics you must strip away ideological disguises; you must understand the man’s “early home life,” which did not “nurture a personality that was self-confident and outgoing, but one that was insecure and withdrawn.”
The chief features of the home life, as described in the present report, were a weakly permissive father and a tyrannical mother—a lady who tolerated no “demonstrations of affection, assertions of independence…” Unloved, haunted by fears, sickly, “perhaps uncertain of his masculinity,” the young Forrestal had small capacity for love and a large need for assurance of his toughness, and was therefore compelled to “attempt to prove himself by becoming first richer, and then more powerful than most men.” Only when studied with these circumstances in mind, says this chronicle of “complex interplay,” are Forrestal’s policies fully comprehensible:
The Cold War…provided [Forrestal] with an arena for the play of transference and projection. Anxieties and insecurities, regardless of personal source, could become focused on Soviet behavior and be partially appeased by a stubborn insistence on a “tough” foreign and military policy Suspicions of all sorts readily attached themselves to real or alleged communist conspiracies at home and abroad, and fears directed at the Soviet Union could appear wholly sane and rational. Until the last few months of his life, Forrestal could impress almost everyone as a “reasonable” man because it was “reasonable,” in the context of the Cold War, to feel anxious, insecure, suspicious, and fearful. Above all, it was “reasonable” to appear “tough,” to warn against compromises and concessions, and to talk of “forcing the issue” and the necessity of “showdowns”…. A more confident man would have been more flexible in his attitude toward foreign and domestic issues…
There is more to Professor Rogow’s book than this argument. The work is conceived, in part, as a complaint against an “official mythology” which holds that public officials “do not become mentally ill, or at any rate not while they are in office”—and that complaint is sensible. The opening chapter detailing the events of Forrestal’s last months—the onset of “involutional melancholia,” resignation from office, the establishmentarian finkery that peddled a tall tale of “operational fatigue” to the public—is a well-controlled shocking piece of narrative, marked throughout by awareness of the blend of self-deception, naiveté and cynicism that is the usual root of “managed news.” The brief account of Forrestal’s boyhood in Matteawan, New York, his Princeton years, his ferocious belief in personal and national possibility, his fascination with the chic Waspvilles of his day, his stagey fatherhood, suggests a life at once pathetically and admirably in the American grain. The book’s skepticism of ideology is at moments an effective shield against the coarser platitudes of liberals and Birchers. And its middle chapters, which seek to describe Forrestal’s arbitrary manner of functioning in the Pentagon and in the Cabinet Room, at the center of the power politics of national security, provide many indirect but revealing glimpses of the exacting, exacerbating, endlessly momentous push-and-pull of summit bureaucracy.
But to say that James Forrestal isn’t a valueless book is not to say that it is a credit to the academic culture that nurtured it. The right name for this culture hasn’t yet been found—call it the culture-studying culture, or the functionalist culture, or what you will. And its style of thought cannot be described in a word. What is most obvious about the style, perhaps, is multiplicity of perspective; the writing of the functionalist masters like Erikson is marked by an organic intensity of movement from one intellectual discipline to another. Everything counts—this is the impression left by such writers; every relevant term and color of discourse must be alive in the pigment; if at the end you achieve only another “partial understanding,” original sin is the cause, not laziness or obliviousness. Professor Rogow’s book leaves no impression of this kind. The writing is jargon-jello laced with unshredded cliché (“a final tragic moment of truth”). And the author, presenting himself as a man with an eye for complication, is in fact addicted to over-simplification and hobbyhorse reasoning.
The addiction is apparent in his treatment of many small matters—witness the discussion of the Defense Secretary’s work habits. It is possible that the significance of endurance as an element of political power ranks as another of those secrets that politicians have successfully withheld from political scientists. It is also possible that there are some well-placed bureaucrats, bent on a course their equals and subordinates can subtly alter, who are stupid enough to believe their power goes home with them to cocktails. And certainly it is true that extended tours of guard duty, in or out of oak-paneled offices, are not the sine qua non of the Good Life. (If you are the ambitious son of an uneducated Irish Catholic carpenter turned contractor around Newburgh, New York, you don’t have a lot of choice about pulling these tours.) Still, a disposition to harp on long work hours as evidence of “psychic deprivation” does seem tendentious. “Did Forrestal understand why he worked sixteen hours a day?” asks Professor Rogow (himself a four-book-numberless-articles man in his thirties, according to the jacket). Implicit in the tough stubborn question is the writer’s own uncertainty about whether the biographical materials available to him are sufficient to support an edifice of psychological speculation. But that this uncertainty should lead a specialist to ignore homely pertinent truths of his own specialty is one measure of this book’s weakness.
It is not, however, the most telling measure. Lack of alertness to the relation between a good job and a hard work-week would be understandable if the author were attempting at one and the same time to weigh “personality needs” and the pressure of history. But, as the passage about the Cold War as an “arena for the play of transference” indicates, that is not his game. Professor Rogow allows at one point, to be sure, that not all the events of the Forties occurred within Forrestal’s consciousness:
It may well be that future historians will endorse [Forrestal’s] approach to crisis and preparedness and that some of them will even entertain similar suspicions of certain officials who made policy in the United States between 1940 and 1950. But whatever the judgement of history, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Forrestal’s personality needs and policy recommendations were closely related.
And if Forrestal had carried militancy so far as to endorse the concept of a preventive war, or if he stood alone as an anti-Stalinist, or if anti-Stalinism were now established as a totally wrongheaded prejudice—well then, history might conceivably be left out of the equation. But, as everyone knows, the language of Kennan, Harriman, and a half-dozen others—men whose papers are actually quoted in this treatise—was hardly a whit less militant than Forrestal’s. Moreover, as Professor Rogow himself admits, Forrestal never advocated preventive war—indeed he enthusiastically recommended James Conant’s powerful moral essay against the concept to his colleagues in government. And although the final word about anti-Stalinism in the Forties hasn’t been spoken, the suggestion that no sound lines have yet been laid down for a judgment is disingenuous. Forrestal did collapse; he did take a fierce line against the Soviets; he did distrust people who believed “Old Joe” could be honeyed up. But these positions and events occurred in time, in history, and to explain them in terms of “early home life” is only to provide occasion for one more savage attack on the genetic fallacy—and upon psycho-social studies as a whole.
Can the latter, regardless of attacks, take care of themselves? Maybe. The best writings of Harold Lasswell, who once collaborated with Professor Rogow on a book about power and corruption, are intelligently impatient with quickie reductive “explanations” of the behavior of public men. And Erikson, to speak once more of him, is no more severe about old-style history than about airy ahistorical psychoanalytic interpretations that “flutter around…lost like bats in the daytime.” A psychoanalytical critique of a public man or of a society, he once wrote, can be counted promising “only when the relation of historical forces to the basic functions and stages of the mind has been jointly charted and understood.” And since this scholar is still writing, still adding dignity and weight to the ideal of an adequate history, an encompassing understanding of the behavior of leaders, the culture he represents is assured of strength at least for a time.
James Forrestal, though, is plainly in a hard case. A tormented man who had a firm grip on fact and lost it, he now becomes—on the evidence of Professor Rogow’s study—grist for cleverness, nourishment for local tens of thousands whose only certainty is the endlessness of American guilt. The first Secretary of Defense was no Saviour, but he deserves better than this. Pity ourselves as well as the man if the National Review alone has the decency to give it to him.