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home life,” which did not “nurture a personality that was self-confident and outgoing, but one that was insecure and withdrawn.”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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.