the following is taken from an article by PETER ROBBINS:
James Forrestal was a man whose influence, policies and presence dominated the news from 1940 until 1949. But ask the average American who he was, and they will draw a blank. Excluding a handful of exceptions, this former Secretary of the Navy, former Secretary of Defense, and key architect of America’s defense establishment has effectively been written out of the history books and our national consciousness, an Orwellian bit of historical revisionism.
How and why did this quiet purge occur, and how does it relate to the classified, UFO-related history of postwar America? Did the man who created our modern Department of Defense take his own life, or was it taken from him?
The official answer is suicide. Forrestal’s death, it is said, came from a sixteenth story fall from a window at the Bethesda Naval Hospital early on the morning of May 22, 1949, where he was being treated for depression. But this account does not hold up under study of the evidence at hand which, while circumstantial, points toward murder.
Forrestal’s death was precipitated by a nervous breakdown brought on by a combination of factors. He was a complex, driven individual who assumed tremendous responsibilities in his public life while his private life suffered. The central factor in his emotional collapse, however, was related to the unique gravity of the situation he inherited when he was sworn in as America’s first Secretary of Defense on September 17, 1947.
Forrestal’s career path was essentially Princeton, the Navy, and Wall Street. In 1940, he became Under Secretary of the Navy; then in 1944 Secretary of the Navy. He superbly directed the manufacture and flow of all the Navy’s war needs, even placing himself in harm’s way more than once.
After the war, Truman asked the Army and Navy to submit plans for unification of the armed forces. This was still under way when, on June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold’s UFO sighting became the subject of international press coverage. The modern age of UFOs began. Then, on or about the fourth of July, something, or things, crashed in the plains of New Mexico less than eighty miles from Roswell, home of the world’s only atomic bomb wing. Forty-eight hours later the story was international news.
The National Security Act was passed by Congress on July 26, and the President named Forrestal Secretary of Defense. Besides uniting the Army, Navy, and (newly independent) Air Force under a single office, the Act also created the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Research and Development Board.
Secretary of Defense
On September 17, 1947, en route from a state visit to Brazil, President Truman sent a message instructing that Forrestal be sworn in immediately. Why?
General Twining’s “Air Material Command Opinion Concerning Flying Discs,” is dated only six days later and stated “the phenomenon reported is something real and not visionary or fictitious.” That same day, September 23, Forrestal arrived at his new offices in the Pentagon.
The Eisenhower Briefing Document of November 18, 1952 is one of the controversial “MJ-12” documents, describing a crash of an alien vehicle at Roswell and an extraterrestrial presence on Earth. According to the document, the MJ-12 control group was created on September 24, 1947 as “a Top Secret Research and Development Intelligence operation responsible directly and only to the President of the United States.” James Forrestal is listed as number three of the twelve men named to this group. The Briefing Document came with a one page attachment that authorized the new Defense Secretary to proceed “with all due speed and caution upon your undertaking.”
During 1947 and 1948, there were several compelling UFO cases reported by the U.S. military. On January 7, 1948 Captain Thomas Mantell and two other Kentucky Air National Guard pilots were scrambled after a UFO “of tremendous size” was reported in the skies near Fort Knox. Mantell was killed when his plane exploded in an uncontrolled descent. During the summer of 1948, U.S. and Canadian military personnel faced a classified crisis in the form of a remarkable UFO encounter over Goose Bay, Labrador.
On December 10, 1948, a Top Secret “Analysis of Flying Object Incidents in the United States” was completed by Air Material Command. While the analysis stopped short of declaring the unknowns to be of unearthly origin, it did state that “the origin of the devices is not ascertainable.” Clearly, the U.S. military was talking about UFOs in a serious manner, at least at the classified level.
Meanwhile, throughout 1948, victory seemed all but assured for the Republican Presidential candidate, Thomas E. Dewey. By mid-October, Forrestal confided to a friend that he was deeply concerned that “since Dewey might be elected President, his representatives should be briefed in preparation for the possibility.” His proposal drew the resentment of Administration officials who equated it with disloyalty to the President. By late November, James Forrestal’s star was in decline at the White House.
Forrestal tendered his resignation on March 3 and met with Truman on the 10th. At that time the Secretary requested that White House personnel take possession of his multi-thousand page diary, given the amount of classified material it contained.
On March 28, the day of his retirement, Forrestal joined Defense Department employees assembled to see his replacement sworn in. President Truman presented the retiring Secretary with the Distinguished Service Metal, the highest civilian decoration authorized by Congress. Unable to respond to the President’s words of praise, he was led speechless from the room.
Following the ceremonies, Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington, who had regularly challenged Forrestal’s authority, spoke with him privately. It is unknown what Symington said, but the effect on Forrestal was deeply upsetting. He was found at his desk several hours later, staring at the wall and repeating the phrase, “you are a loyal fellow.”
He was driven back to his Georgetown home where his friend Ferdinand Eberstadt soon arrived. Eberstadt was distressed by his old friend’s manner. Forrestal told him he was a total failure and was considering suicide. He was also convinced that certain persons in the White House had formed a conspiracy to “get him,” and had finally succeeded.
On April 2, Forrestal and Eberstadt flew to Florida, where their friend Robert Lovett had an estate. Over the next three days Forrestal is said to have attempted to take his life several times. The Navy sent Captain George M. Raines, Chief of Neuro Psychiatry at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, to see him. But an examination had to wait. Forrestal’s family had asked Dr. William C. Menninger to be psychiatrist of record, and as such Raines was duty-bound to wait until Menninger arrived the next day.
The following afternoon the doctors examined the patient. They concluded the best course of action was confinement at Bethesda. Menninger, then flew back to his clinic and, while regularly briefed, never saw his patient again.
Raines accompanied Forrestal from Florida to Maryland. On the drive from the airfield to the hospital Forrestal had to be restrained from throwing himself out of the moving car. Once admitted and secured in a room on the sixteenth floor, a twenty-four hour Marine guard was put on his door. For much of the first month he was kept heavily sedated.
A week passed with no mention of Forrestal’s breakdown or hospitalization in the press or on the radio. The New York Times first ran the story on April 8 and noted that doctors were “very much encouraged by the former Defense Secretary’s response to care.”
One of the first people Forrestal called when he was allowed phone privileges was Monsignor Maurice J. Sheehy, a highly regarded prelate at the Catholic University in Washington. Forrestal asked the Monsignor to help him return to the church. Sheehy agreed and planned a visit to Bethesda.
Forrestal also phoned the White House, insisting that someone be sent over to check for a listening device in the wall of his room. The White House sent Sidney Souers, the first Secretary of the National Security Council and a former Director of the Central Intelligence Group (the direct precurser of the CIA). Admiral Souers was one of the Harry Truman’s closest friends.
Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson visited Forrestal on April 27. He reported that his predecessor looked fine and “should be out of the hospital in two to three weeks.” Also on April 27, the Air Force distributed copies of “Project Saucer” to the press, its sanitized civilian version of Project Sign.
On May 17, the New York Times reported that Forrestal had gained twelve pounds since being confined on April 2. Visitors and hospital personnel agreed that the Secretary’s condition was improving.
But Monsignor Sheehy could not get to see Forrestal. By mid-May, he had tried six times, each time being told that Forrestal was unable to see him. Frustrated, Sheehy met with Secretary of Navy John Sullivan on May 20. Sullivan contacted Bethesda and was assured that Sheehy would be able to see the patient in time. Not enough time as it turned out: James Forrestal had two days left to live.
Henry Forrestal was also concerned about his brother. He telephoned hospital administrators on May 20, telling them that he would be taking custody of his brother on Sunday, May 22, to enable him to complete his recovery privately in the countryside. He never got to see his brother, either.
Official accounts of James Forrestal’s death vary slightly, but follow this basic scenario:
At 1:45 a.m. on May 22, staff psychiatrist, Commander R. R. Deen, was asleep in the room next to Forrestal’s. An attendant, hospital apprentice R.W. Harrison, looked in on the Secretary, finding the patient awake and copying a Sophocles poem from a poetry anthology. Harrison asked Forrestal if he would like a sleeping pill. Forrestal said no. Harrison reported to Commander Deen’s room (though according to another account he reported to the hospital security station on another floor) and updated the officer on the patient’s condition. Harrison allegedly forgot to lock Forrestal’s door behind him. When he checked the room again at 1:50, it was empty and a search began.
The seventh floor duty nurse then reported hearing a loud sound from her window. This was the sound of Forrestal’s body hitting the third floor roof. Hospital authorities surmised that the patient, finding his door unlocked, walked across the hall to the efficiency kitchen, pushed open the unsecured screen window, knotted his bathrobe sash tightly around his neck, tied the free end to the radiator below the window, lowered himself out of the window, and was killed when the knot at the radiator end of the sash slipped its mooring.
Newspapers worldwide headlined the tragedy on May 23. Two days later Josephine Forrestal returned to Washington from Paris where she had been for the duration of her husband’s illness. Her first public act was to absolve everyone of blame in her husband’s death, without benefit of even a cursory investigation. That afternoon, with six thousand in attendance, James Forrestal was buried at Arlington Cemetery with full military honors, including a nineteen Howitzer salute. He was fifty seven years old.
A special naval investigating board inquired into Forrestal’s death on May 23, and concluded a week later. Despite promises by Navy and National Military Establishment press sections to release the report, none was forthcoming. On July 19, the New York Times reported that “considerable mystery surrounds a delay in releasing the report.”
On September 23, the New York Times first reported the existence of Forrestal’s diary, and that it was being held at the White House. It was described as filling an entire filing cabinet, “accompanied by many documents that still are stamped top secret.” Interestingly, two years later, a massively edited version of the diaries was published by the Viking Press, which stated that its 581 pages were drawn from the over 2,800 pages alleged to be the full extent of Forrestal’s writings. This does not square with the facts reported in the New York Times article. After all, it takes a lot more than 2,800 pages to fill a standard four or five drawer filing cabinet -- 15,000 to 20,000 pages would be a more realistic estimate.
On October 11, 1949, the Navy finally released the investigating board’s report. The report said that Forrestal died of injuries sustained in the fall, that his behavior prior to death “was indicative of a mental depression,” and “that the treatment and precautions in the conduct of the case were in agreement with accepted psychiatric practice and commensurate with the evident status of the patient at all times.”
The report also absolved “all” of any blame in Forrestal’s death: “the death was not caused in any manner by the intent, fault, negligence or inefficiency of any person or persons in the naval service or connected therewith.”
Such language suggests the Navy was more concerned with protecting itself than pursuing the matter actually under investigation.
The Death: Murder or Suicide?
New York Times features reporter Walter H. Waggoner was the lead journalist assigned to the story immediately following the tragedy. Within hours of Forrestal’s plunge, Waggoner established the following:
1. “The sash of his dressing-gown was still knotted and wrapped tightly around his neck when he was found, but hospital officials would not speculate as to its purpose.”
2. “Mr. Forrestal had copied most of the Sophocles poem from the book, but he had apparently been interrupted in his efforts. His copying stopped after he had written night of the word nightingale.”
3. “…reports from his doctors and hospital authorities had indicated steady progress toward his recovery.”
4. “It had been accepted that continued treatment would have brought Mr. Forrestal to complete recovery in a matter of months.”
5. “On the window sill from which Mr. Forrestal jumped were marks suggesting he might have changed his mind and tried to climb back in the window.”
Why was hospital apprentice R.W. Harrison, who had never had any previous contact with Forrestal, assigned to him on this particular night? One account has it that the regularly assigned attendant did not appear for his shift due to drunkenness, something which had never happened before.
Then there is the matter of Monsignor Sheehy. Forrestal had expressed a desire to return to the Church, and by implication the sanctity of the confessional. From the point of view of anyone who considered Forrestal a security risk or potential security risk, Father Sheehy would have been the last person the Secretary should have been allowed to speak with. And in six attempts to see him, the Monsignor never got beyond the reception area.
Henry Forrestal, who never did get his brother out of the hospital, became convinced that his brother had been murdered. He wasn’t alone in this belief.
Arnold A. Rogow’s book, James Forrestal: A Study of Personality, Politics and Policy is a scholarly work for which the author interviewed many who were closest to Forrestal, including Dean Acheson, Clark Clfford, Louis Johnson, Robert Lovett, Arthur Krock, Henry Forrestal, Dr. William Menninger, Dr. George Raines, and Harry Truman. Rogow was anything but a conspiracist, but did write, “among those close to him, there are even a few that are certain he was murdered, or if not murdered, that his death was very much desired by individuals and groups who in 1949 held great power in the United States.”
Fifty-four years ago a dedicated public servant broke under the strain of combined factors, not the least of which was his first-hand knowledge that the most powerful nation on Earth was powerless in the face of an unknown threat. He died seven weeks after suffering a nervous breakdown, was buried, eulogized, and then essentially forgotten.
I think many of us imagine that for the sufferer, an emotional breakdown is marked by internal confusion and clouded thinking. In fact, the central experience of such a dysfunction may be a terrible sense of clarity, real or imagined, about the causal circumstances of one’s undoing.
I am convinced that once James Forrestal broke under the strain, he saw the writing on the wall and knew that if he did not ‘do the right thing’ -- that is, kill himself -- that others would certainly do it for him. But once his darkest days began to fall away, and the prescribed therapy actually began to produce results, the patient on the sixteenth floor grew stronger. He began to recover his sense of self, and his will to live. This turn of events seems to have sealed his fate.
To the select group who held power in the U.S. in the mid-twentieth century, James Forrestal’s mental collapse had to be treated as a priority national security matter: the man knew everything and might say anything. The decision to force him out of that window was in no way personal. The murder of James Forrestal was simply the only way to guarantee the resolution of what this group had come to perceive as a potential security risk of the first magnitude.
But history has shown James Forrestal to have been a true patriot in word and deed, and when he was interred at Arlington National Cemetery, more than his body was laid to rest. UFO secrecy-related matters aside, his work in the Roosevelt Administration to help counter the effects of the Great Depression, his remarkable accomplishments as Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense, not to mention the story of an extraordinary American life, are now all but unknown to most of us, and that is something that needs to be changed.