Jim Forrestal: A Portrait in Politics

From his observation tower as editor of the Washington Post, HERBERT ELLISTON had as good an opportunity as any writer for watching Secretary Forrestal at work. Before he came to Washington. Mr. Elliston had served as foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and the New York Herald, as chief editor of the Chinese government’s economic publications, and as financial editor of the Christian Science Monitor. His record commended him to Forrestalthe two often compared notes or exchanged booksand out of this friendship, the editor was able to measure the inner man whose self-portrait is partly revealed in The Forrestal Diaries published by Viking this autumn.



ABOUT James Forrestal, dead only two years, legends have already clustered. In some quarters he is regarded as the apostle of preparedness — the prophetic voice in the wilderness when post-war America was demobilizing its bristling might and, in consequence, demobilizing its ability to safeguard the general peace. He is reputed to be the man who would have rearmed to the teeth as soon as hostilitics were over. By others he is esteemed as a model of statecraft for wanting America to “settle” with the Soviet Union before sitting down to draw up the Charter of the United Nations, let alone, as Winston Churchill put it, before Russia exploded its own atom bomb. Greatness and prescience have been accorded to him in the afterevent.

That legends have collected around Forrestal is a testimony to the man’s position and personality. Forrestal enjoyed high office in a period when America was climbing dizzily onto the world’s summit and attempting to consolidate itself there. Upon Forrestal fell vital decisions first as Secretary of the Navy in the war, then as the first Secretary of Defense, where he had to create the greatest of military establishments as well as run it. The assignment was an impossible burden. He was never a believer in unification of the armed services, preferring, in deference to his fear of the man on horseback and to his respect for checks and balances on power, a sort of integrated coördination — impostor phrase! — and yet he took over a mammoth job which was aimed at producing unification. The result was that his secretarial post looked like an eyrie, with the subordinates way down below, when they should have been connected to his desk along a channel of deputy secretary and assistant secretaries, such as his successor promptly introduced. The load, coupled with the inability of a tired man to feel any increasing confidence in his own decisions, crushed him utterly.

It is rare for such a busy administrator to keep a diary. Forrestal simply jotted down or dictated a rough outline of his activities when he had a moment to spare, not when the mood was upon him or as a studied avocation. Thus the jottings in the Forrestal Diaries are vagrant. Mr. Walter Millis has woven the items together with his own commentary. It is a highly competent job of editing and a skillful one in grafting the connecting tissue onto the diaries. His annotations show fidelity to the diarist and scrupulousness over his facts. But, alas, Forrestal seldom put down, as Ciano did, what he thought. There is no word of praise, for instance, for the men whose words and acts as Forrestal records them implied that they stood well in his eyes — namely, Averell Harriman, John J. McCloy, Robert A. Lovett, and Ferdinand Eberstadt.

On only one occasion that I can discover is there a flash of the subjective Forrestal speaking, and that is an angry outburst against Harold L, Ickes. “Bathed in the serene light of his own self-approval,” Mr. Ickes emanates “the ectoplasm of conscious virtue.” Would that Forrestal had let himself go about other people as well as about the Curmudgeon, for he had the prejudices for which, as Hazlitt has said, we are liked. But the curtain is lifted only for this instant, and, I suspect, some at least of the spleen may have been due to envy of Mr. Ickes’ self-confidence and intellectual muscle.

Mr. Millis labored under many difficulties. Some of Mr. Forrestal’s entries had to be taken out. He had a habit of recording Cabinet meetings, sometimes of writing up the comments of his colleagues there, and he recorded copious data about atomic energy. Publication of all of these passages would have violated either the secrecy rule for Cabinet meetings or security.

There is something unsatisfactory in issuing a diary that is not quite the original. Still, pruned and slightly doctored as it is, the diaries are rewarding. They are a record, however partial, of big events in the making, and, since the record is by one of the principals, they are valuable to the student if not the historian.


FORRESTAL gave the appearance of being the most natural and unaffected man in public life. It is often said that as soon as a friend takes office, out the window goes friendship, with the friend taking on a new and relatively aloof personality. As likely as not he will become starchy. Forrestal was an exception. He remained “Jim” to everybody all the way up his ladder of fame. Mr. Millis in the foreword to the book says he was not a man of many friendships. If by friendship is meant the evocation in human relations of a quality of doing things for another, Forrestal had a plethora of friends. In his early years he cultivated them — in part because of his gregariousness, in part because of the drive to succeed of a boy born and reared in modest circumstances who had no connections. The world was an oyster to the young Forrestal as he came down from Princeton to make his fortune. Those who knew him at that, time called him, affectionately, “ Runt,”for he was a gaminlike and awkward youngster with a broken nose, gained in boxing, which deceived people into thinking he was a tough guy.

There was nothing of the crony in Forrestal, though. And this explains why he was never an intimate of Mr. Truman’s, much as Mr. Truman, whom, incidentally, he liked, was fond of him. What Roosevelt thought of him, I don’t know, but I know he didn’t like Roosevelt, though Tom Corcoran brought him to Washington as one of the anonymous assistants at the White House. He was no backslapper, and he had no relish for the back room, none for the hypocrisies of politics. Yet he was a person you instinctively liked, and this was Jim’s good fortune. It is said he was so successful as a bond salesman that Dillon, Read had to make him a partner in order to save money! Anyway, he got ready patronage. There was in him a disarming simplicity, an eagerness to taste and to know the mystery of life, a dislike of pretense and the stuffed shirt. He read voraciously and admired brains inordinately, but despised the arrogant intellectual, the know-it-all, equally with the know-nothing.

Forrestal was not a great man if by greatness is meant uniqueness and irreplaceability. A great man has to be on top of everything, to be lacking in self-consciousness, and neither at t ributeForrestal had. He built up on his mountain a pile of uncertainties, and ever had a superawareness of self.

However, if Forrestal was not a great man, he was a sizable man. The little men limit their horizons, as so many top officials do, to their departments. Forrestal, on the contrary, saw his job in the context of the task of government in a new age of American fulfillment. And his activities ranged far and wide over the Administration. He wanted and slaved for coördination; for an end of ad hoc policy-making; and for effective and prompt executive action. “The great mistakes we made during the war,”said Forrestal, “ were caused by America’s failure to realize that military and political action had to go hand in hand.” So he gave heart and soul and time to the Hoover Commission on reorganization, and helped Senator Lodge when the Gentleman from Massachusetts sponsored it in the Senate. He was a co-builder of the apparatus of interdepartmental liaison which took shape in the National Security Council and the National Security Resources Board. However, he insisted there must be no appearance “either of duplicating or replacing the functions of the Cabinet, or giving thi’ impression that our foreign policy was completely dominated by a military point of view.” Forrestal was a good democrat, and wedded to American institutions.

This framework of reform was duly absorbed and incorporated in the Executive pattern of government. Forrestal was not satisfied, particularly with Cabinet performance. It was much too sloppy for him. He envied the smooth operation with which Cabinet decisions in democratic and parliamentary Canada moved inevitably into executive action. He made studies of extra-administrative devices for speeding up action, and he sent members of his staff abroad to gather information. The man who captured his admiration in particular was the former Secretary of the British Cabinet, Lord (formerly Sir Maurice) Hankey. Forrestal kept up a campaign in the Cabinet for an American Hankey. Senator Clinton Anderson, formerly Secretary of Agriculture, tell me he had a Secretary in mind, Averell Ilarriman, and that the President would have named Ilarriman but for the resignation of Secretary Wallace and t he appointment in his place of Mr. Ilarriman. “If they won’t put in a regular secretariat and formalize the proceedings,” he once said to me, “why not let Harold Smith [then Director of the Budget] come along, and then pedal his bike from department to department to make sure that what we decide is acted upon.” His sense of neatness and order rebelled at the thought that the hints and indirections resulting from the meetings of the President with his Cabinet were likely to be either forgotten or never followed up.

In the government Forrestal was almost alone for a long time in his concept of the necessity and obligations that had fallen to America to keep the general peace. So he fought demoralized demobilization in 1945. He struggled to prevent the vacuum in Far Eastern Asia that yawned ahead of a knockout blow administered to Japan. To him the unconditional surrender formula ought to have been modified, He used to talk as if the entry of Soviet Russia into the war in the Pacific would be a disaster. How far he went with his pressures I have no reason for knowing. Judging from Averell Harriman’s memorandum on Yalta to the MacArthur Committee, he did not go very far. Mr. Harriman quotes an “overall strategical concept for the prosecution of the war in the Pacific’ issued by the Combined Chiefs of Staff on July 24, 1945. or five months after Yalta, which looked to a Russian entry.

In this memorandum the Army and Navy chiefs based their hopes not only upon Russian participation but also upon a monster invasion of mainland Japan. How could the American Navy attach its signature to such a document ? Its top officers had expressed confidence long before then that, as a result of the sea blockade and the air bombardment, Japan was licked. Several weeks before this memorandum, indeed, the first peace overtures had come out of Japan. Even before we heard of these, Forrestal had expressed confidence in winding it all up. Yet there is this memorandum! No light is shed in the diaries on the contrast between his words and this memorandum, though there is a hint — and only a hint — that he couldn’t have gone along with the memorandum. The hint occurs in a reference to the dropping of the atom bomb as a strategical blunder.

This reference is contained in a note on a magazine project by Mr. McCloy on the major strategic decisions of the war, which included the dropping of the atom bomb: —

I raised the question of whether this [the dropping of the atom bomb] did turn out to have been a sound decision or not, in view of the exchange of dispatches between Sato in Moscow and the Japanese Foreign Office which by mid-July 1945 clearly indicated the hopelessness of the Japanese situation.

One comes across this note in his mid-1947 passages, and it is a sudden revelation of what, in my memory, he felt in his bones in 1945. Yet there is no preparation in the diaries for the remark. The peace feelers had all been intercepted; yet, according to the Harriman memorandum, the Joint Chiefs were oblivious of what was happening in Japan, and unprepared to take advantage of it. In any event, it was Forrestal who, feeling the Japanese were through in early 1945, put Captain (later Rear Admiral) Zacharias to work on his psychological warfare on the Japanese.

It was also Forrestal, working closely with Messrs. Byrnes and Grew, who insisted upon clarifying the unconditional surrender formula to the extent of a pledge that the Emperor’s prerogatives would be spared — despite Mr. Churchill’s recent statement that the credit goes to General MacArthur. In all this activity Forrestal was guided by the need to protect our power situation in the Far East vis-à-vis the Russians.

In this preoccupation with power Forrestal antedated General MacArthur on the American need to hold “the Pacific moat.”That is why he fought Mr. Ickes and Secretary Acheson on the Pacific islands. He subscribed to the trusteeship principle, but only if the United States were the trustee.

Toward Europe he had the same power approach. To a correspondent he wrote: —

As you know I hold that world stability will not be restored until the vacuum created by the destruction of German power and the weakening of the power of western Europe has been filled — in other words, until a balance of power has been restored in Europe.

But he never did encompass a complete course of action on the power front.

Basic in his mind in the expression of power, of course, was military strength at home, and on this subject Forrestal has been used as a stick with which to beat the Administration. He is reputed to have pressed the year before he resigned for more or less the same kind of military budget under which we are now operating. The notion is mythical. Forrestal, who as a hardheaded businessman knew that the first line of defense is sound economy, pared his last budget request to $17.5 billions, or $10.9 billions after deducting a stockpiling item. lie got Secretary of Slate Marshall’s approval. But the President refused to go a nickel higher than $14.9 billions, which he considered, then, the watershed between a peace and a war budget. I feel sure that today Forrestal would be supporting a Fabian approach to preparedness, rather than the approach of the all-out boys in Washington.


IN so FAR as an external power policy was concerned, his ideas beyond “the Pacific moat ” seem to have been unformed. Whether he would have intervened in Asia prior to Korea is unclear. Toward Europe he saw his chance to contribute power in the permission he gained to dispatch a task force (later the 6th Fleet) to the Mediterranean, He got Secretary Byrnes’s instant concurrence, with a suggestion for a first assignment which was typical of his friend “Jimmy’s” sharp mind. Ambassador Ertegun had just died in Washington. Mr. Byrnes proposed that the E.S.S. Missouri bear the body home, and there was a ceremonial display of American naval power in Turkish waters which served the dual purpose of demonstrating aid and comfort to the Turks and American concern to the Russians. Here was a decisive contribution in safeguarding the Mediterranean. “Jimmy" and “Jim" ran in sympathetic harness. And in consequence it was a smooth job. Thanks to Forrestal’s insistence, moreover, the people knew, as they should know, “clearly what our policies involve,”and there was neither misunderstanding nor misapprehension, a point that needs to be underscored nowadays!

The Realpolitik in Forrestal, it always seemed to me, required a little dilution in this America of ours. Forrestal was certainly an antidote for the welfare politicians, He was needed in those days when we seemed to express ourselves abroad only through UNRRA, when we thought we could go to bed assured of protection by something beyond ourselves called the Ended Nations. Forrestal was pro-Enited Nations, but felt we had oversold it. What he abhorred was the UNRRA approach to our foreign responsibilities. But he could not get excited over a fresh approach to the problem of the European order. The need was for a unifying idea to restore the European order. A century and a quarter ago it had been legitimacy, but, as Ferrero saw, the unifying idea nowadays was—unity.

Not a word about the need of a foreign policy based upon the unity of Europe can be found in these diaries. General Eisenhower has now taken it up, but Forrestal never mentioned it. Nor is there any recognition of the revolutionary turmoil that had all Asia in its grip, and an interest in ways and means of dealing with it. Forrestal was empirical in his ideas. However, he was not Secretary of State and, indeed, was careful not to infringe upon another’s jurisdiction, except when a policy called for what he called “focused government action.”


IT WAS Forrestal’s views on Palestine that made him a swirling center of disputation. This part of the diaries will excite a stir. It is through his intervention over Palestine that he acquired the reputation of anti-Semitism. How absurd! No man had less race or class consciousness. He was instinct with democratic feeling. Moreover, close to the top of his friendships were several Jewish associates, first in business and then in government. He stuck his neck out with the high-ranking admirals over Captain Zacharias, and hoisted that versatile sailor, with a record at sea as noteworthy as his record at the intelligence desk, to Rear Admiral. Actually what animated him on the Palestine issue was, purely, an objective consideration of what he conceived to be the national interest.

The wrongness of his estimate of the situation was total. It came from the intelligence services and the Middle Eastern desks in both the armed services and the State Department. Forrestal alone couldn’t be blamed. Intelligence is slowly stumbling into an exercise, based on knowledge, in refined and subtle thinking, though there are still more wishfulthinking intelligence officers in ihe Capital than you can shake a stick at. In those days the intangibles and the imponderables had no place in the estimate business.

Forrestal cared not for the case-in-itself—that the old Turkish sanjak, with the British departure, had become a juridical vacuum, with both Arab and Jew canceling each other out in historical claim. Forrestal thought only as a realist. On all sides he was warned that the Arab world would rise to a man, launch a jihad, and throw the Jews into the Mediterranean. In addition, he had been given dark forebodings that access to Middle East oil would be cut off, and that there would be a world shortage. If all that were true (and Forrestal believed it) our power could not cope with the result; and anyway, we would have general war. The agitated Forrestal communicated his anxieties to all and sundry.

We now know — though we should have learned it in wartime Burma — that mass cannot compete with modern airpoxver. But neither can mass compete with clan. The Arabs turned out to have no mass, there was not the faintest chance of a jihad, and, what was even more important, the Jews had clan, and an electrical amount of it. The result ought to have been foreseen. How Forrestal would have been chagrined today to seethe Arab states snarling over the Palestinian remains that Abdullah left!

In other respects the American policy on Palestine had its shameful side. It was blown this way and that by what Forrestal calls “squalid" pressures upon the President and upon the Democratic National Committee. This was the first instance in the post-war world of a vagarious American leadership dependent upon the clash of domestic interests. There had been many instances in past history. For example, there was the Silver Purchase Act of 1034, which pulled silver out of silverstandard China and compelled her to go on a managed currency, with disastrous results to both her economy and her polity. The silver Senators who precipitated this senseless proceeding are now the China-Firsters of the Senate! The politicking over Palestine, which caused the Administration to turn a weekly handspring, was almost as scandalous. Forrestal felt the humiliation. He pleaded that Palestine policy should be “taken out of polii ics,”but in vain.

When Israel was established and all Forrestal’s theories turned sour, he was equally troubled over his wrongness, and the first Israeli Ambassador to Washington once told me that several times he had had telephone calls from Forrestal saying that he had a deep personal feeling of his mistakenness. This does not appear in the diaries. What does appear there is his acknowledgment that he was equally wrong about the oil situation in the Middle East, both as to what would happen and as to the impact upon the world if the worst did happen.

In the lonelier recesses of his mind, in Harold Nicolson’s words about Lord Castlereagh, Forrestal found neither comfort nor companionship, even in books. He was an exile from the Roman communion. He knew that as a “renegade” he had put a limit to any political ambition with the Democratic Party that he may have entertained. Some of his friends feel in retrospect that he may have been reaching out for a rock of spiritual sustenance. Rut to his soul they were strangers in his lifetime. A hedonist as well as a public servant, he had a gritty look about him which belied any divine discontent.

Yet the inner Forrestal brooded over every problem in work and life, no matter how seemingly simple. He took an overserious view of his tasks. One of his associates tells me he went over every clause in a new set of service regulations which were not of enough consequence to crowd his desk and mind. A decision came hard. In his later months nudges had to be directed at him to jog his mind on something or other the significance of which lay more in decision than in substance. I recall an exciting Army—Navy football game to which he invited me and of which he was so oblivious that he had to be shaken out of a brown study in order to escort the President in the next box to the field for the Presidential change-over. There was never enough time to read, to ponder, to do in For restal’s life. On the golf course he seemed to be on a perpetual jog trot, grim and set. of mien, as if the idea were to get around rather than recreutionally to pursue the ball from hole to hole. Nothing bothered him more than to make engagements ahead of time. Hostesses had to become accustomed to his dropping in if he felt like it, friends to a call on the telephone at any hour on the chance of getting in a quiet chat over a nightcap.

The manner of Forresinl’s death reminded more than one commentator of the death of Lord Castlereagh a century and a quarter before. The atmosphere was similar. The overworked Castlereagh, struggling to restore a post-Napoleon order on the principle of “security without revenge,” had to endure vicious criticism which impugned motives and acts in regard to public positions. Even poets, such as Shelley and Byron, got after Castlereagh for not sharing their romantic feeling about their favorite countries, Forreslal had his tormentors, too. They were among the columnists, particularly in connection with his Middle Eastern stand. Certainly they were not so harsh as the early nineteenth century vilifiers of Castlereagh. One thing led to another in Forrcstal s case, and at one time he contemplated a libel suit. Dissuaded, he gave hospitality to fancies and phantoms, and, like Castlereagh, imagined I ha I all men’s hands were turned against him. “They” loomed as conspirators against his life— they being now the President and ihe men around him, now the Zionists, now Stuart Symington and the pro-Air enthusiasts, now Louis Johnson, his successor. It is the opinion of those close to him that the contentions over unification polities were far more contributory to bis disintegration than the calumny of his newspaper critics. Thus, pursued by his demons, and with a desolating feeling of failure, he kept citing Jan Masaryk’s suicide, and eventually, a year later, took Masaryk’s way out.

Jim Forreslal had, I sincerely believe, the basic honesty of being true to himself which Mr. Hoover says is rare in our public life, Hoover is right. But Forrestal was a rara avis, for he had a sense of the significance of life beyond the spur of career.

Yet he was haunted by a sense of shortcoming, by the constant fear that somebody or other was engaged in “pinning” something on him. The tragedy of it! One can imagine those last days and, worse, those last nights at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. The recall of decisions that — horrors! — may have been or had already been proved wrong! Mr. Millis does not try to recapture the time Forrestal spent in the valley, a desolation familiar to those who knew him best. When the end came, the Capital mourned, for there was an instant realization that in his passing America had lost a selfless patriot and a good American who gave his all, and had died because he felt he had not enough to give.

The diaries, alas, don’t afford any clue to all this, because he himself, cogitating deeply but inarticulately, couldn’t fuse his thoughts out of the maelstrom of thinking. But I feel sure that nothing prosaic or earthy entered his last moments. I, for one, knowing him (though by no means intimately) and being fond of him as I was fond of only a few ether public men I have known, would rather have seen these diaries gather dust in a library for Students on our contemporary history than exposed to public view. In his grave he will shrink from this kind of imperfect publicity.