- Historic Sites
The Self-made Man
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
Even paranoids have enemies, the old joke runs. And according to Driven Patriot , the elegantly crafted new biography of James V. Forrestal by Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley (Alfred A. Knopf, 587 pages, $30.00), when America’s first Secretary of Defense committed suicide in 1949, the enemies he had come to see everywhere were by no means all phantoms.
Forrestal was born in the Hudson River township of Fishkill, New York, in 1892, the youngest of three sons of a hard-drinking Irish-born builder who inculcated in him the virtue of work. “Whatever you got for nothing should be regarded with deep suspicion,” the elder Forrestal taught his son, “because somewhere along the line one lost either independence, self-respect or honor.” Work would one day literally consume James Forrestal, and he was finally driven to the window ledge by savage attacks on his self-respect and honor.
Despite his father’s admonitions, something went badly wrong in Forrestal’s boyhood. His mother, censorious and churchly, campaigned so relentlessly for her youngest son to join the priesthood that he was driven at seventeen to reject not only Catholicism but his own family and origins as well. Thereafter he evidently determined to succeed strictly on his own terms, to become his own creation. While still a Princeton undergraduate, he earned the nickname “The Man Nobody Knows.” Tall, aloof, close-mouthed, he refused to speak of his family, never visited his parents, would not even tell his two sons of their grandparents’ existence. “Until he became a famous public figure,” his latest biographers write, “and thus the subject of press interviews in which the acknowledgment of humble beginnings enhanced his reputation or served his political ambitions,” he would present himself “as if sprung full-blown into Wall Street…—a man without a past.”
Forrestal did well as a bond salesman on Wall Street, became a partner in what would become Dillon, Read at thirty-one, owned homes in Manhattan and on Long Island’s North Shore. But he remained both scornful and envious of those who had been born to the wealth and status he struggled so relentlessly to achieve, and he made few real friends anywhere.
Inventing oneself requires extraordinary effort and often takes a terrible toll. Forrestal’s personal life was a disaster. His wife, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl and fashion writer for Vogue, became an erratic, abusive alcoholic (”a wild bird,” Joseph Alsop remembered. “You never knew whether she would fly into the curtains or out the window”) and a perpetual source of embarrassment to a man who had schooled himself to believe that appearances meant everything. He proved a cold and distant father, so uninterested in the birth of his first son that he did not even drop into the hospital to see him until the day after the baby’s birth. “Never coddle a growing boy,” he later told a friend. “Let the little bastards learn to stand on their own feet.” His sardonic smile and rugged good looks drew women to him all his life, but none of his many affairs seemed to bring him joy. “He enjoyed his successes with the ladies,” an old friend remembered, “but he did not really love anyone.”
In 1940 he joined the legion of young bankers and lawyers and businessmen whom Franklin Roosevelt lured to Washington, first to help prepare for the world war he knew was coming and then to win it. Forrestal spent two months as a White House assistant, then became Undersecretary and, finally, Secretary of the Navy. In the latter post, working alongside Adm. Ernest King, he was perhaps more responsible than any other man for building the Navy that destroyed its Japanese counterpart in the Pacific and made possible the landings that liberated Europe from the Nazis.
Not content to remain at his desk, Forrestal followed the first wave of Marines onto the beach at Iwo Jima, where his abstract dislike of war was instantly transformed into active hatred of it. “We cannot go from Iwo to Iwo,” he told a friend. “We must find a formula to sustain peace without this endless, frightful bloodshed.” And by the summer of 1944 Forrestal was already anxious that the Soviets presented the gravest threat to a permanent postwar peace. “Whenever any American suggests that we act in accordance with the needs of our security,” he wrote privately to a friend, “he is apt to be called a Goddamned fascist or imperialist, while if Uncle Joe suggests that he needs the Baltic provinces, half of Poland, all of Bessarabia and access to the Mediterranean, all hands agree that he is a fine, frank, candid and generally delightful fellow who is easy to deal with because he is so explicit in what he wants.”
Hoopes and Brinkley are first-rate guides to the way policy is made in Washington, effortlessly leading the reader through the many bureaucratic battles Forrestal lost and won as he struggled to streamline America’s defenses and ready the country for what he saw as certain confrontation with the Soviet Union. Forrestal was George Kennan’s principal patron inside the government, urging that the younger man’s call for containment of the Soviet Union become American gospel. “In a real sense,” they write, “he was the godfather of the national security state.”