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.

Forrestal’s fascination with guerrillas, shared by several presidents, including Kennedy and Reagan, was only a sideshow to his major interest in building a powerful military force with the Navy as centerpiece. Even before the end of the war it became clear that the Navy would have to confront the problem of an eventual unification of the armed services. President Truman, in an effort to end the duplication, waste, and self-serving rivalries of the separate forces, wanted to centralize control in a civilian administrator to whom the individual service chiefs would be subordinate. The Navy, fearing it would lose its influence, and its air wings, to the upstart Air Force, sought to bend reform to its own purposes.

As the Navy’s chief civilian defender, Forrestal sought the aid of Ferdinand Eberstadt, his old Princeton and Wall Street friend, who became his adviser on dealing with the increasing demands for integration of the armed forces. The way in which these two men stymied Truman’s goal, twisted the unification act to augment the influence of the Navy, and created a monster that later tormented Forrestal himself is an important part of Hoopes’s and Brinkley’s story, and the centerpiece of Jeffrey Dorwart’s analysis, Eberstadt and Forrestal.

Unlike the biographers, Dorwart sees the unification plan not simply as an organizational labyrinth in which the Navy got its way to the nation’s detriment, but as a “corporatist” blueprint which ensured “leadership by an organizational elite that mediated between conflicting groups, generated public consensus, designed policies, and managed national affairs.” Dorwart develops this argument skillfully, showing the corporatist origins of New Deal bureaucracies like the National Recovery Administration, and of such cold war structures as the National Security Council. Set up in 1947, the NSC included not only the president and vice-president and the secretaries of defense and state but a considerable civilian staff appointed by the president. It was intended to combine the military, political, economic, and intelligence components of American power in formulating defense policy; but the extent of its authority became a matter of contention.

Through assiduous lobbying of Congress and the press, Forrestal and Eberstadt succeeded in making their plan for quasi-independent military services the major alternative to Truman’s. Interservice rivalries, the drive of the Air Force for dominance, the public relations power of the Navy, and what Truman described as a Marine Corps “propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s” did the rest. Truman surrendered. He abandoned the plan to install a strong civilian chief of staff and accepted a hamstrung secretary of defense subject to the competing fiefdoms of the three service Joint Chiefs. Truman also adopted Eberstadt’s plan for a National Security Council, even though he feared it would create a rival cabinet, along with a host of agencies and boards that he distrusted for their links to business. One of Truman’s first actions was to turn the NSC from an independent to a coordinating agency; but when it came to bringing pressure on the military services, he failed. Forrestal in fact intended to run the NSC, control its staff, and house it at the Pentagon—thereby putting him in control of policy-making. Truman overruled this idea at the start and put the NSC under White House direction.

Truman hoped to mitigate his failure to gain full unification by appointing Robert Patterson, deputy to Stimson in the War Department, to head the new Defense Department. But after seven years in government, Patterson wanted to return to his law practice. Truman then turned to Forrestal, the man who knew the military bureaucracy and the workings of Capitol Hill. In the summer of 1947 he became the nation’s first secretary of defense. It was an ascension rich in irony. The “unification” plan he had earlier pushed through in order to preserve the power of the Navy now prevented him from exerting authority over the feuding services. Hoopes and Brinkley, trying to find an explanation for his suicide two years later, maintain that he became deeply depressed when he realized that his own concept of organization was seriously flawed. This, they write, “delivered a severe shock to his self-confidence and presented him with the prospect of a major personal failure.”

Forrestal’s failure lay not only in his creation of an unmanageable organization, but in his unwillingness to face down the service chiefs. When in the fall of 1948 Truman insisted that the military budget be kept at $14.4 billion, Forrestal refused to impose his authority over them, and even tried to subvert the ceiling by suggesting higher levels of his own. By this time, as Hoopes and Brinkley note, he had “clearly lost his sense of political reality, for he refused either to accept the President’s position or to resign.” In a desperate search for bureaucratic support he flew to Europe to meet with US officials, and then sent to the NSC a long catalog of US global commitments designed to reveal Truman’s budget limits as unrealistic. These included occupation duties in Germany and Japan, support of UN peacekeeping, foreign military aid, and prospective force allocations to Europe under the pending North Atlantic Treaty. But Forrestal was challenged by Secretary of State George Marshall, who was far less concerned about US military capacities than strengthening European confidence. Further, the NSC, in a review of US defense needs that had been requested by Forrestal himself some months earlier and been prepared by Kennan’s policy planning staff, noted that while Soviet military capacity was growing, the Kremlin “is not now planning any deliberate armed action calculated to involve the United States and is still seeking to achieve its aims primarily by political means, accompanied by military intimidation.” It warned against “excessive or wasteful usage” of US resources.4

The problem, as Leffler points out, was more than just Forrestal’s inability to force the Joint Chiefs of Staff to accept limits on their power. The political-defense establishment, from Truman on down, was committed to a view of American interests that perceived any extension of Soviet influence as threatening, regardless of what form it took. This is why Forrestal initiated a plan organized by the CIA to ensure—by bribery, propaganda, and sabotage—that the Italian Communist Party, which was seen as firmly supported by Moscow, not win the 1948 Italian elections. US policy makers may not have believed that the Soviets were preparing to launch an attack, but their methods for countering Communist influence—including the ability to conduct a global nuclear war—put enormous pressure on any budget ceiling. Less than eighteen months later, in the spring of 1950, the State Department’s policy-planning staff, now under the direction of Forrestal’s former assistant Paul Nitze, put forth a plan to triple the military budget. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, that budget became a reality.

The gap between virtually unlimited policy objectives and finite resources intensified over time, culminating in the military spending extravaganzas of the 1980s. Yet, as Leffler emphasizes, few American officials seriously feared an unprovoked Soviet attack in Western Europe. What concerned them was a loss of “influence” if the Marxist model should spread. The result was not only to exaggerate the importance of third world regimes, but also to add fuel to an arms race that distorted or ignored political objectives. While Forrestal cannot be held responsible for all that followed him, he played a major part in setting the nation on an immensely costly path from which it did not begin to emerge until the recent collapse of the Soviet Union.

Forrestal fought with Truman not only over the size of the military budget but also over foreign policy priorities, most notably the recognition of Israel. Relying for advice on oil company executives he knew from Wall Street, concerned about access to Arab oil and Arab bases for the projection of American power, and sharing the general anti-Zionist sentiments common in the upper reaches of the State Department, Forrestal was a determined opponent of an independent Jewish homeland. Like most of Truman’s advisers, he deplored the 1948 decision to recognize Israel—although not enough to resign.5

This subjected him to considerable criticism from liberals, who also thought he was provoking confrontation with the Soviets. Henry Wallace accused him of continued association with German industrialists who had supported Hitler. Proponents of a powerful air force, led by Secretary Stuart Symington, opposed him as a barrier to their own goals. Criticism came from practically every direction, and particularly from the nation’s two most flamboyant columnists, Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell. Despite his years in government, Forrestal was unnerved by such attacks. They seemed to undermine his self-confidence, which was already shaken by the frustrating limits his own unification plan had imposed on his control over the Defense Department. He became moody, withdrawn, and suspicious, obsessed by his struggles with the armed services bureaucracy and consumed by a mounting sense of failure. Sensing enemies everywhere, he complained to Attorney General Tom Clark that he was being shadowed by the FBI and “followed by Jews or Zionist agents.”

By this time he seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown. Truman, who was rearranging his cabinet after his surprising reelection victory in 1948, decided to replace him with a Democratic Party fundraiser, Louis Johnson. According to Hoopes and Brinkley, Truman told Forrestal privately on January 11 that he was appointing Johnson, but did not formally ask for his resignation. Nor did Forrestal tender it. Instead he remained there in limbo until March 1, when Truman announced his replacement. Yet Forrestal could not bear to leave. On the day the farewell ceremonies were to take place he telephoned the White House to make sure that Truman really wanted him to go.

Feeling a crushing sense of failure as well as physically threatened, he was in a state of nervous collapse. A visit to friends in Florida only confirmed the seriousness of his condition. He entered the naval hospital at Bethesda and was put under observation in the psychiatric wing. He believed his old enemies—“commies,” “Zionists,” and the like—were tormenting him even there. At the end of May 1949, less than two months after leaving office as the guardian of the nation’s defenses, he jumped to his death from a sixteenth-floor window of the hospital.

For Hoopes and Brinkley Forrestal’s tragedy was that “his standards were higher and nobler than contemporary circumstances could sustain, and he was thus consumed by his quest for a transcendent ideal.” That ideal was presumably one of mastery: over events, over the future, over life itself. Naturally it was doomed to failure. But talk of mythic transcendence seems misplaced. One can accept that Forrestal was a particularly gifted, even attractive man, without turning him into a hero of classic tragedy.

In a real sense, as the authors indicate, Forrestal’s virtues—determination, self-reliance, discipline—were his undoing. He was closer to Gatsby than to Oedipus, more a case of a young man from the provinces with unrealizable dreams than an outsider who defied the gods. He deserves our attention not for the money he made or the battleships he built but for the brilliant if often desperate determination with which he created himself. That is the Forrestal one would like to understand. Hoopes and Brinkley reveal aspects of the man. But despite their impressive success in recreating Forrestal’s world and offering a convincing portrait of how he made his way in it, the man himself remains elusive. In his complexity, his cultivated air of mystery, his driving ambition, his icy self-sufficiency, and his self-punishing stoicism lies his attraction. He was, like the financial and military empires over which he presided, an impressive construction, but a brittle one and prey to strains he could not control. Yet as his son Michael, later a government official himself, remarked, had his father been more balanced he would have been less interesting.

This Issue

August 13, 1992