Skip to main content


The Self-made Man

June 2024
6min read

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.”

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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.