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HISTORICAL NOTES: Civilian Casualty

8 minute read

In the last days of World War II and the years that followed, a handful of selfless men within the Government fought a long, grueling battle to save the nation while the nation slept. The most important of these was James Vincent Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, and in 1947, the Secretary of Defense. Not until Forrestal jumped to his death from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, in May 1949, did the world catch a hint of how exhausting the battle had been.

This week an assortment of Forrestal’s dictated memoranda, calendar notes and letters were bundled together and published as The Forrestal Diaries (Viking, $5). The title is actually a misnomer, because Forrestal’s notations were largely his personal reminders about people and events and rarely reported on his own actions.

Fragmentary as they are, however, the Diaries add new insight to the character of the tough, purposeful Government servant whom Washington remembers—the middleweight of the broken nose, the level gaze, the straight-lined lips and few words. James Forrestal was a man whose mind never put down the burden of responsibility for U.S. military security. His inner conflict was between his intense loyalty to his chiefs and his equally intense concern for the safety of his country. When politics or expediency dictated policies that violated Forrestal’s calculations of military necessities, he kept his worries within the official family, obeyed orders, and waited for the next chance at temperate persuasion. The sum total of his influence slowly moved the U.S. toward military realism, yet he had few personal victories to record. He could never bring himself to break security and either boast or speak out against his critics, but the criticism cut him deep. “Public service,” he once observed, “is no place for an introvert.”

On Russia. In 1945 Forrestal noted happily that Harry Truman had grasped the point that the Russians despise concession as weakness. After Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes had left office, he confided to Forrestal that Stalin did not like Truman personally. Observed Forrestal: “Mr. Truman was the first one who had ever said ‘no’ to anything Stalin asked . . . [Stalin] had good reason for liking F.D.R. because he got out of him the Yalta agreement, anything he asked for during the war, and finally an opportunity to push Communist propaganda in the United States and throughout the world.”

But in the tensing years of the cold war, Forrestal found that Harry Truman would talk tough at the right times, but was uninterested in working out a hardheaded plan for pursuing the cold war. When the Russians tried to drive the allies out of Berlin with the 1948 blockade, Truman summoned a Sunday afternoon session and said that “we were going to stay, period.” But there had been no advance planning for the crisis. The happy solution of the airlift was never even suggested at the first conferences; it grew into a policy because the military men in Berlin had the good sense to get it started.

On Asia. The same kind of improvisation carried over to Asia, with far less happy results. In 1945, Forrestal noted, the Navy was busy transporting Nationalist troops to Manchuria so they would be in position to fight the Communist armies. The State Department put a stop to it, and cabled General Wedemeyer in China that the U.S. “will not support the National government vis-à-vis the Communists except in so far as necessary to get the Japanese disarmed and out of China.”

On Palestine. In the spring of 1948, the issue of Palestine found Forrestal silhouetted like a solitary sentry on a ridgetop. All-out U.S. support of a Zionist state, he believed, “was fraught with great danger for the future security of this country.” But his concern for U.S. military strategy ran head-on into a political legend that pro-Zionism is worth its weight in the Jewish vote. Democratic National Chairman J. Howard McGrath (now U.S. Attorney General) gravely warned him that the Democrats would probably lose the states of New York, Pennsylvania and California if they didn’t heed Zionist ambitions.

Forrestal tried desperately to get the Republican and Democratic politicos to avoid making Palestine the basis for political promises. He failed, and in failing became the target for the bitterest criticism of his career. In May 1948, as soon as it was established and just in time for the campaign, Harry Truman decided on U.S. recognition of Israel. As Forrestal had foreseen, all-out U.S. support of Israel left scars of hatred and distrust of the U.S. on the Arab world.

On Arms. As Secretary of Defense, his concern over U.S. military safety soon had him in an even deeper conflict with loyalty. In 1948 Truman let his Bureau of the Budget clamp a $14.4 billion ceiling on all three armed services. Forrestal argued quietly that the cuts would force the Navy to withdraw its Mediterranean task force (which had done more to stabilize conditions in Greece, Turkey and Italy than was generally recognized). This would leave the U.S. with no means for counterattacking in Europe except bombing from Britain. One of Forrestal’s sad discoveries was that Secretary of State George Marshall, who probably could have turned the verdict, gave him no help in his plea for arms.

The presidential decisions went coldly against Forrestal, and, like an almost-too-good soldier, he turned to obey his orders. He forced the Joint Chiefs of Staff to spend their time working out the details of a $14.4 billion budget (although Forrestal himself realized that some figure around $18 billion should be the absolute minimum).

In 1945 Forrestal made a diary note that after a Cabinet meeting, Henry Wallace was “completely, everlastingly and wholeheartedly in favor of giving [the atomic bomb] to the Russians.”

When the Forrestal statement was printed last week in the newspapers, Wallace published a scorching denial. “This is a lie,” he wrote. “I said under oath [in testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950] that there was a leaking liar in the Cabinet and the President agreed … I do not wish to quarrel with a dead man or his widow and children. Their husband and father wished very much to see me a few months before he died . . . Undoubtedly at that time he was trying to set his spiritual house in order. May God rest the soul of this curiously tortured man who served his country and the armed services so well in time of war.”

Last Entries. Forrestal’s entries in the diary dribble off around January 1949. Last week some of his close friends pieced out the Forrestal story with unpublished recollections of his last months.

His personal aides began to notice signs of exhaustion in February. Once he tore up a draft of a speech at 2 a.m. and sent the writer back to rewrite it by 8 o’clock. He summoned generals and admirals to his office on Sunday afternoon to advise him, then was unable to make up his mind on the problem at hand. One associate noticed that Forrestal had worn a “hole in his head” by indulging his nervous habit of scratching his scalp. On March 1, Harry Truman sent for Forrestal and asked for his immediate resignation. This, say his friends, was a “shattering experience,” the final proof to his exhausted mind that he was a failure. He submitted his resignation gracefully and made his appropriate farewells. Then he walked to the Mall entrance of the Pentagon to wait for his car. “Oh, you don’t have a car any more,” an aide reminded him. Forrestal looked perplexed. The aide called another car and sent him home, then called Forrestal’s old friend Ferdinand Eberstadt, and warned him that Forrestal was “acting peculiarly.”

Eberstadt raced to Forrestal’s home in Georgetown and found Forrestal mumbling: “I’m a disgrace to my friends. I have failed. The Department of Justice is going to indict me on Monday.” Eberstadt whisked him to Hobe Sound, Fla. in an Air Force Constellation, where Bob Lovett took charge. “They’re after me,” Forrestal kept repeating. For a few days he swam and sunned himself and seemed to rally. Then one night he scratched his wrist with a razor blade. Psychiatrists ordered him to Bethesda Hospital and there, seven weeks later, he killed himself at 2 a.m.

The diaries give no reason for his suicide. But the sum total of the cryptic entries, the reflections, the worries and the responsibilities, add up to a strong case that James Forrestal was a casualty in a desperate battle to save the American people from complacency.

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