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A Self-Made Man

Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal

by Townsend Hoopes, by Douglas Brinkley
Knopf, 587 pp., $30.00

A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War

by Melvyn P. Leffler
Stanford University Press, 689 pp., $29.95

If James Forrestal had not existed, he could not have been invented except by himself, and this is precisely what he did. Take a poor Irish boy from a small town, propel him by sheer determination into a prestigious university and a Wall Street firm, give him the drive to become a millionaire, teach him to appear confident in his power and privilege, drive him mercilessly to perfection of mind and body, put him in command of the nation’s armed forces in the dangerous early years of the cold war, and tout him as a strong candidate for the White House. Until that point in his life, Forrestal could have been following his own plan. But he suffered a nervous breakdown, tormented himself with a host of imagined enemies, and then committed suicide.

Forrestal’s life is a strange story of triumphs and disaster. He is among the “Wise Men,” lawyers and financiers who shaped America’s global role after World War II: men like Robert Lovett, Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, Paul Nitze, and John J. McCloy. These were men who came from corporate law firms and boardrooms, and once they experienced the thrill of command were usually reluctant to give it up. Among this group Forrestal was in many ways the most complex and enigmatic. Today he is remembered as an architect of the cold war and a casualty of it.

He was not the only high national security official to crack under strain. Consider the trials of Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War and his bouts of public weeping. Such actions make us realize the high degree of irrationality and the power of emotion at the heart of supposedly rational decision-making. Forrestal should be considered not only as a creator of the world’s mightiest military machine, but as a warning of what can happen in the darkest recesses of the control centers.

He can be viewed as a financier who made a fortune on Wall Street, as an apostle of America’s military strength, as a cold war zealot, as a self-made man, as a victim of himself or others, and as an example of a social type who made a Faustian bargain. Such a person lends himself readily to psychobiography, as Arnold Rogow demonstrated nearly thirty years ago in a thoughtful study rich in speculation.1

But Rogow neither knew his subject nor was familiar with the inner workings of government. Townsend Hoopes, author of books on John Foster Dulles and the Vietnam War, worked in the government and even for Forrestal in the Pentagon. He found his boss the “model hero,” and here confesses that he “experienced his suicide as a towering loss to the country and a profound personal tragedy.” While such reverence should put one on guard, Hoopes and his collaborator, Douglas Brinkley, a young historian who has written a study of Dean Acheson’s career after he served as secretary of state, have, with only a few lapses, been admirably objective in examining Forrestal and the world in which he worked.

Forrestal would have been an interesting subject for analysis even had he not entered the government. Born in 1892 into a pious Irish-Catholic family of modest means in an upper Hudson River town, he worked himself up through a combination of intelligence, determination, charm, and the ability to exclude whatever stood in the way. After a year at Dartmouth, he talked himself as a transfer student into Princeton, the most social of Ivy League schools. There, despite being from a poor family, he became editor of the school paper, was admitted to a prestigious eating club, and met the men who would be useful to his social and economic ambitions. Among these the most important was the lordly Ferdinand Eberstadt, who became his trusted friend, his financial partner, and his collaborator on the postwar plan to unify the armed services.

Forrestal suddenly left Princeton, for reasons that the authors cannot fully ascertain, only a few weeks before he would have graduated, and found a job on Wall Street selling bonds along with other young swells. But for him it was a serious choice of career, not merely a gentleman’s occupation. He impressed the shrewd financier Clarence Dillon, who made him a partner in his firm, Dillon, Read, and by 1929 he was able to buy a thirty-acre estate on the smart North Shore of Long Island. Three years later, notwithstanding the Great Depression, he was worth five million dollars and built himself a townhouse of brick and marble on Beekman Place. There he established his wife, a former Vogue editor who had been a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies, and their two sons, to whom he paid as little attention as possible. But in this his children did somewhat better than his parents, whom he entirely abandoned, along with his Catholicism. Indeed, he even kept from his children knowledge of their shanty Irish Forrestal relatives.

By 1940, still shy of fifty, Forrestal was rich and successful, and began to look for challenges beyond making more money. Excitement and opportunity offered themselves in the shape of the European war, in which the United States would clearly soon be involved. Although a financial operator, he was not a conventional Wall Street Republican. Like such colleagues as Russell Leffingwell and Thomas Lamont he recognized that the New Deal had saved Wall Street, and he maintained useful ties to the Roosevelt administration. Through his friend Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, he gained an appointment to the White House as special assistant to FDR. Trying to build a political consensus for the coming entry into the war, Roosevelt was appointing influential Republicans to his administration, including Henry Stimson as secretary of war, and Frank Knox as secretary of the navy. Within a few months the agile Forrestal was named as Knox’s deputy, and on the older man’s death in 1944 took over the post as secretary.

His accession coincided with a growing concern in Washington over the shape of the postwar world, a concern that was to turn into a full-scale debate after Roosevelt’s death and the end of the European war. Some of FDR’s advisers, like Stimson and Henry Wallace, believed, as the deceased president apparently had, that it was both possible and desirable to maintain the wartime alliance by working out a modus vivendi with the Soviets. In retrospect, given Soviet imperial objectives and US interests in an autonomous Eastern Europe, this now seems unlikely. Others, however—particularly those, like McCloy, Harriman, and Lovett, who had been international lawyers and bankers—were alarmed by the Soviet Union’s ruthlessness and use of terror in the countries it occupied, by the dominating influence it might exert over postwar Europe, and by barriers it might impose to the open world economy on which they believed American prosperity rested.2

The position of Forrestal and the other “Wise Men” in this debate over America’s postwar role, and the later development of the cold war during the Truman administration, are ably laid out by Melvyn Leffler in his detailed reconstruction of the period, A Preponderance of Power. By preponderance, he argues, these men did not seek domination of the USSR, but to create “a world environment hospitable to US interests and values.” The Soviets, for their part, had similar objectives, which led to the forty-odd years of the cold war.

Could it have been averted or mitigated? Were US policymakers unduly suspicious and belligerent? These are the questions revisionists and their opponents have been raising since the 1960s. But Leffler sees the cold war mostly as a huge misunderstanding in which each side “in pursuit of its security interests, took steps that aroused the other’s apprehensions.” Although reluctant to assign blame, Leffler chides the Americans for placing too much stress on Marxist ideology, for exaggerating the importance of the third world, and for stimulating an arms race beyond rational justification. But he applauds Forrestal and the other Wise Men for having helped “forge a configuration of power in the industrial core of Eurasia that continues to safeguard vital US interests.” Impressively researched and extensively documented, his study supplants earlier cold war histories in its thoroughness, although it lacks a larger analytical conception that could give it greater intellectual edge and cohesion.

Forrestal, as Leffler shows and Hoopes and Brinkley stress in detail, was among the first of those who saw the Soviets as a threat to American security. During World War II he had been influenced by the arguments of the former ambassador to Moscow, William Bullitt. Once naively pro-Soviet, and since the mid-1930s vehemently anti-Soviet, the choleric Bullitt saw Marxism-Leninism as a messianic religious force animating the Soviet Union to global expansion. Shortly after the end of the war Forrestal, seeing capitalism everywhere under siege, instructed his staff members to analyze Soviet ambitions. Eager to please, but lacking any genuine expertise, they reported that Kremlin leaders were likely to “deliberately provoke war” with the US—a peril the nation must counter by building an “invincible defense” against this new enemy. This reflected Forrestal’s own views and also fit neatly into the Navy’s budgetary ambitions. He made sure the report was distributed to key members of Congress and the bureaucracy.

But more powerful ammunition for the emerging policy landed a few weeks later, in February 1946, in the form of a “Long Telegram” from the American Embassy in Moscow. Written by the respected, though then little-known, Soviet specialist George Kennan, it was what Forrestal and other influential advisers had been waiting for: a powerfully argued and intellectually coherent blueprint for an active American engagement to “contain” Soviet communism. What did the Russians want? The fusion of Russian power and Marxist “religion,” Kennan explained, had produced a messianic state “committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life destroyed, the international power of our state be broken if Soviet power is to be secure.”

Although the message had been sent to the State Department, it was Forrestal who acted upon it, distributing thousands of copies to legislators, journalists, businessmen, and naval officers. Kennan, now under Forrestal’s wing, was brought back triumphantly from Moscow to lecture on communism to high officials at the National War College, and then to take over the policy-planning staff at the State Department. After a revised version of the paper appeared as the famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs, the prescription of “containment” became the guidepost of American foreign policy for the next forty years.

But Hoopes and Brinkley also recount another recommendation of Kennan’s that is rather less known. With the eager support of Forrestal he proposed that a “guerrilla warfare corps” be set up to foment dissent behind the Iron Curtain. Duly authorized by the National Security Council and carried out by the CIA, this project (expanded, according to Kennan, beyond his intentions) involved such schemes as the financing of groups that had formerly been pro-Nazi in order to convert them into anti-Communist brigades. As Christopher Simpson revealed four years ago in an important and unjustly neglected study, Blowback,3 one of these groups was composed of Ukrainian nationalists whom the Nazis had used to execute Jews and Russians during their invasion of the Soviet Union. Members of this militia, code-named Nightingale, were brought by the CIA to the US for training, and some were secretly granted citizenship under special arrangements with the immigration authorities. Curiously, Forrestal was copying a poem by Sophocles on the night of his suicide, and “nightingale” was the last word he wrote before he jumped out the window to his death.

  1. 1

    James Forrestal: A Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy (Macmillan, 1963).

  2. 2

    For a provocative and eclectic reexamination of the cold war in perspective, see the recent collection of essays by Michael J. Hogan, The End of the Cold War: Its Meaning and Implications (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  3. 3

    Blowback: America’s Systematic Recruitment of Nazis and Its Disastrous Effect on Our Domestic and Foreign Policy (Grove Weidenfeld, 1987).

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