A Self-Made Man

Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal

by Townsend Hoopes and 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…

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