James Forrestal

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James Vincent Forrestal (February 15, 1892May 22, 1949) was a Secretary of the Navy and the first United States Secretary of Defense (19471949). He suddenly resigned the Defense position, took refuge in a mental hospital, and shortly thereafter committed suicide by throwing himself from the hospital window.

He was a tremendous supporter of naval battle groups centered on aircraft carriers. The newly created Department of the Air Force opposed his plans to build new ones, claiming that operations could be accomplished from ground bases. The conflict between Forrestal and the Air Force was probably the foremost cause of his mental breakdown and ultimate suicide. One year after his suicide his ideas were vindicated by the Korean War, which showed an essential role for aircraft carriers in future wars. The Navy's first supercarrier, USS Forrestal was named in his honor.


Early Life and Career

Forrestal was born in Matteawan, now Beacon, New York. After graduating from high school, he worked for newspapers for three years, entering Dartmouth College in 1911, and transferring to Princeton University a year later, although he left just short of a degree. After college, he went into business. When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the Navy and ultimately became a Naval Aviator. Following the war, Forrestal went to work as a bond salesman for William A. Read and Company (aka Dillon, Read and Company), rising to become president of the company in 1938.

Government Work

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Forrestal to be a special assistant in June 1940, then appointed him Under Secretary of the Navy in August, where he was very effective at mobilizing industrial production for the war effort. He became Secretary of the Navy May 19, 1944, Frank Knox having died of a heart attack, and led the Navy through the closing year of the war and the demobilization following.

Forrestal opposed the unification of the services, but even so helped develop the National Security Act of 1947 that created the National Military Establishment (the Department of Defense was not created as such until August 1949), and with the former Secretary of War Robert Patterson retiring to private life, Forrestal was the next choice.

His 18 months at Defense came at an exceptionally difficult time for the US military establishment; Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia and China, West Berlin was blockaded, necessitating the Berlin Airlift to keep it going, Israel's declaration of independence brought war to the Middle East, and negotiations were going on for the formation of NATO. His reign was also hampered by intense interservice rivalries.

At the same time, President Harry Truman constrained military budgets billions of dollars below what the services were requesting, putting Forrestal in the middle of the tug-of-war. At the same time, Forrestal was becoming more and more worried about the Soviet threat (see The Russians are coming).

Forrestal's Death

Forrestal resigned on March 28, 1949, due to a "mental breakdown" and was checked into the Bethesda Naval Hospital. On May 22, his body was found on a third-floor roof below the 16th-floor room where he was staying. Officially ruled a suicide, reports of paranoia and of involuntary commitment to the hospital, as well as suspicions about the detailed circumstances of his death have fed a variety of conspiracy theories, ranging from Soviet agents to UFOs. Forrestal himself maintained that he was being tracked by Israeli security agents. It was later learned that Israeli agents, fearing that America was making secret arrangements with Arab nations, had indeed been observing his movements.

His suicide note was an extract from Sophocles' tragedy Ajax:

Frenzy hath seized thy dearest son,
Who from thy shores in glory came
The first in valor and in fame;
Thy deeds that he hath done
Seem hostile all to hostile eyes...
Better to die, and sleep
The never waking sleep, than linger on,
And dare to live, when the soul's life is gone.

Further reading

External links

  • DoD biography ( (includes more details of DoD formation process and budget negotiations)

Preceded by:
Frank Knox
United States Secretary of the Navy
Succeeded by:
John L. Sullivan
Preceded by:
United States Secretary of Defense
Succeeded by:
Louis A. Johnson

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