- Historic Sites
The Self-made Man
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
But one senses that it was work itself, not the specific goal to which Forrestal’s work was intended to lead, that in the end meant the most to him. As Secretary of the Navy, for example, he had tirelessly championed complete Navy autonomy. But when that battle was largely lost and he became Harry Truman’s Secretary of Defense in 1947, he found himself fighting just as relentlessly to unify the services—and in the process making enemies of the officers who had once been his staunchest allies.
They were not alone. Just as he had felt uneasy among his fellow financiers on Wall Street, he now had little time for the liberal advisers who surrounded both of the liberal Presidents he served. Their views on foreign policy seemed to him sentimental rather than realistic, based on emotion rather than objective assessment of America’s national interest. Nothing offended his sense of logic or propriety more than the clumsy way in which the Truman administration came to acquiesce in the partition of Palestine and the recognition of Israel. Forrestal, who had cut off all ties with his own family and the Old World from which they came, could never understand the emotional link between American Jews and the dream of a Jewish homeland. For him, it was a matter of politics, plain and simple.
Years later Robert Lovett, his ally in the losing struggle against partition, summarized Forrestal’s case: ”…unless the American support of the Zionist demands guaranteed that the rights of the Palestinians would be justly upheld and the boundaries of the new state explicitly drawn, the United States would alienate not alone the Arabs of the Middle East, but of the whole Moslem world…and the eventual harvest would not be a peaceful homeland for a race exhausted by persecution and massacre, but a reaping of a whirlwind of hate for all of us.”
Forrestal fought with the White House over the size of the defense budget in 1948, and he met several times in private with Truman’s Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey (who may have promised to keep him in the cabinet once he won the Presidency).
Alone and driven, Forrestal had almost become his job. When Truman finally resolved to remove him from it, he simply fell apart.
By early 1949 Forrestal’s enemies were calling for his head. The columnists Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell pursued him in print and on radio and television, charging that he was an anti-Semite and a tool of Wall Street and the oil industry; that he had prevented the Allies from bombing the I. G. Farben works in Germany during the war because he owned stock in the parent company; that he was a physical coward who had fled in panic when his wife was robbed on a New York street.
None of it was true. All of it was wounding. He lost weight, complained that someone was tapping his telephone and opening his mail, and seemed unable to make the simplest decision without consulting the President by telephone, sometimes several times a day.
One evening an assistant found him sitting in his darkened office long past dinnertime. Shouldn’t he be going home? he asked.
“Go home?” Forrestal said. “Home to what?”
His marriage a wreck, cut off from his children, unable to open up even to the women who continued to seek him out, James Forrestal had almost become his job. And when Truman finally resolved to remove him from it, he simply fell apart. (It did not help Forrestal’s equanimity that his replacement was to be Louis Johnson, a gladhanding legionnaire and Democratic fund-raiser with presidential ambitions who would prove to be one of Truman’s worst appointments.)
Eight exhausting years of public service ended with a White House ceremony at which he was too overcome to speak. Afterward a friend found him barricaded in his house, blinds drawn against the assassins he was certain lurked outside. He was helped onto a plane to Florida, where, anxiously pacing up and down the beach, he warned a friend that the empty beach-umbrella holders all had been bugged. He was sure that the FBI was tailing him, that Soviet and Zionist spies were everywhere, and he repeated again and again that he had done something “bad” for which he was being punished.
A friend speculated that he must have been remembering his youthful abandonment of his church and his disavowal of his parents. In any case he was sent back to Washington, to a special suite on the seventeenth floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Truman visited him there, bearing a bottle of good bourbon as a token of his old friendship. Forrestal seemed to brighten. Security was loosened, and he was encouraged to make himself snacks in a kitchenette just across from his room. There, in the early-morning hours of May 22, 1949, he quietly opened the window and stepped out.