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Forrestal, James Vincentlocked

(15 February 1892–22 May 1949)
  • Jeffery M. Dorwart

James V. Forrestal.

[left to right]James V. Forrestal and Captain Joy Bright Hancock.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Forrestal, James Vincent (15 February 1892–22 May 1949), secretary of the navy and first U.S. secretary of defense, was born in Matteawan, New York, the son of James Forrestal, a construction contractor, and Mary Ann Toohey, a schoolteacher. Raised in a small-town Irish-Catholic community, Forrestal attended Dartmouth College in 1911. In 1912 he transferred to Princeton University, where he developed social and business connections with the Protestant establishment. He withdrew before graduating with his class, possibly over a dispute with a professor. He held a number of sales jobs before a Princeton alumnus arranged for him to join the Wall Street investment firm of William A. Read and Company. The First World War interrupted Forrestal’s rising career as a bond salesman. During the war he served as a lieutenant junior grade in the Aviation Division of the newly created Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C. In 1926 he married Josephine Ogden, a Vogue magazine editor. They had two children.

During the postwar “New Era” of business expansion, Forrestal rose to social and economic prominence as top executive for Wall Street investment banker Clarence Dillon. Forrestal became president of Dillon, Read & Company in 1938. While he prospered in the unregulated, highly speculative bond market of the era, in October 1933 he also had to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on the Stock Exchange Investigation headed by Ferdinand Pecora. During the hearings, Forrestal revealed that he had created investment trusts to avoid paying taxes, a practice that Pecora’s committee thought contributed to the stock market crash and economic depression in 1929. The unhappy experience with the Senate subcommittee probably convinced Forrestal to cooperate with William O. Douglas and other New Dealers who sought to bring order to and regulate the stability of the stock market. In 1940 Douglas recommended Forrestal to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for a position as a presidential assistant, maintaining that Forrestal was the New Deal’s friend on Wall Street.

Roosevelt hired Forrestal as an assistant in June 1940. Forrestal set up for the president business and possibly espionage contacts in Latin America that could be activated if the United States were drawn into the world war that had broken out in 1939. On 22 August 1940 he became under secretary of the navy, a position created a few months earlier to coordinate the industrial expansion of the navy and the construction of a great fleet to fight a two-ocean war. Gradually Forrestal centralized all legal and administrative functions in the procurement and distribution of raw materials and contracts throughout a naval bureaucracy noted for jealously guarding its individual bureau interests. In 1941 he set up the Procurement Legal Division that bypassed the Judge Advocate General’s Office in issuing contracts to private industry. In January 1942 he created an Office of Procurement and Material to define requirements, distribute materials, and coordinate the navy with the Army and Navy Munitions Board, War Production Board, and the other agencies established to facilitate wartime military production. Forrestal also developed public relations and information offices to ensure full national recognition of the navy’s role during the Second World War. In the process, he asserted civilian control over the business of the navy, initiating a rivalry with Admiral Ernest J. King, the commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet (COMINCH). When Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox died in office in April 1944, Roosevelt selected Forrestal to replace him. Forrestal became secretary of the navy on 9 May 1944.

With the end of the Second World War, Forrestal adjusted the navy to postwar cutbacks and to a changing strategic role. His most difficult task was to defend the navy’s interests in the face of a movement to unify the armed services under a single secretary and a single department of defense and to create an independent air force. Advised by his navy air admirals, he argued that unification meant the subordination of naval aircraft carrier defense to that of army air force strategic bombers carrying atomic weapons, which would, he claimed, result in the weakening of America’s military position in the world. Harry S. Truman, who became president upon Roosevelt’s death on 12 April 1945, sided with General George C. Marshall and other army and army air force generals who favored the single defense department and strategic air force doctrine. In response, Forrestal turned to Ferdinand Eberstadt, his only close friend and most intimate adviser since Princeton, to develop a counter proposal. Eberstadt constructed a plan for a national security establishment with coordinate agencies. The resultant National Security Act of 1947 created a compromise military establishment with one department, one secretary, and an independent department for the air force but also included a series of coordinate national security agencies and offices. Truman asked Forrestal to organize this compromise system, and Forrestal was sworn in as the first U.S. secretary of defense on 17 September 1947.

Forrestal soon discovered that he had helped create a nearly unmanageable organization. Though he was cabinet head of the national military establishment, he lacked adequate power over the subordinate secretaries of the navy, army, and air force. Moreover he found the Joint Chiefs of Staff structure torn by interservice rivalries. The National Security Council appeared of little value in assisting him in coordinating military and foreign policies or in developing estimates upon which to build a national defense budget adequate to provide for the national security. The latter was of most concern, since Truman insisted that Forrestal cut military spending. Forrestal tried desperately to balance service missions and budgets in the national interest. Thus he alienated both his former navy comrades, who revolted at the thought of giving up their aircraft carriers, and the air force, which saw the former navy secretary as overly sympathetic to the navy’s interests.

Unable to organize the national military establishment smoothly or to maintain adequate force levels and defense budgets, Forrestal worried that the U.S. military could not defend American interests against growing postwar Soviet Communist expansionism. If the Soviet Union developed the atomic bomb, Forrestal worried that Soviet Russia and communism would pose the greatest threat in history. Thus he adamantly opposed sharing atomic secrets with the Soviets. Forrestal saw postwar signs of Soviet Communist intrigue in postwar Germany, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and China. He advised Truman to develop military, foreign, and economic programs to contain this Communist menace. Convinced that neither the government nor the public understood the threat, Forrestal dabbled on his own in foreign policies, probably developing covert anti-Communist operations in Italy, France, and Greece. He worked for closer U.S. ties with the Arabs to ensure American access to critical Middle Eastern oil supplies and in the process seemed to oppose the development of an independent Jewish state. This drew vicious and entirely unfounded public accusations of anti-Semitism. Already exhausted by eight consecutive years of government service, the intense, dedicated Forrestal began to break down. When Truman asked for his resignation in 1949, Forrestal’s health collapsed. He was hospitalized and committed suicide at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Forrestal was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Forrestal held three vital governmental positions during one of the most critical wartime and postwar eras in American history, 1940–1949. He performed diligently at each post, particularly as under secretary of the navy, where he modernized navy supply, procurement, and industrial systems. He brought business management methods into government and developed public-private partnerships for national defense. Forrestal helped design and found the post–World War II American national security organization. He became a leading advocate for the containment of Soviet communism and can be seen as one of the architects of the Cold War. However, he never became an influential adviser to either President Roosevelt or President Truman and hence made no major impact on the direction of U.S. policies. In the end, Forrestal was one of the most prominent members of a dedicated legion of organizational experts from business and industry that helped to protect and preserve American capitalism and democracy from its many enemies between 1940 and 1949.


The James V. Forrestal Papers and Unpublished Diaries are in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University. Important manuscript collections are in the Records of the Office of Secretary of the Navy (RG 80) and Secretary of Defense (RG 330), National Archives and Records Service; and in the Operational Archives, Navy Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. The standard Forrestal biography is Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal (1992). The most important studies on Forrestal’s place in American history are Jeffery M. Dorwart, Eberstadt and Forrestal: A National Security Partnership, 1909–1949 (1992), and Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Robert Howe Connery, Forrestal and the Navy (1962).