In early 2020, I sent an email to 14 members of the history faculty of my alma mater, Davidson College, including one emeritus professor, whose primary purpose was to call their attention to a recent article by Laurent Guyénot entitled, “Fifteen Years before Kennedy, Zionists Murdered Forrestal.” I have no idea how it was generally received, because only the emeritus professor responded, and, curiously, he ignored the main subject and chose to take issue with my take on the U.S. Civil War as he deduced from my article, “Mencken and More on Lincoln’s Speech,” which I had alluded to in passing in the email.
You can read about the episode in the beginning of my review article, “Life in the Confederate Army.” I happened to be reading the Scotsman William Watson’s Civil War memoir at the time and was more than eager to take up the challenge that the retired history professor had presented to me. Only after I had written that article would I take a look into the background of the man who had changed the subject from the apparent assassination of our first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, to our bloody and wrenching internecine experience of the 19th century. At that point, the strangeness of his response, as I perceived it, became even greater. The man’s scholarly specialty is the 20th century, in particular the period of the Cold War. James Forrestal, one would think, would have been right in his wheelhouse, as they say in baseball, but he completely whiffed on it. Was he, in the breech, conceding that Forrestal had, indeed, been murdered and had not committed suicide, as we have been given to believe?
Why would a putative expert on the Cold War steer completely away from Forrestal in favor of a topic in which his knowledge is much less? And what was Forrestal’s Cold War importance, you might ask. It’s really very difficult to underestimate it. Chapter 21 of Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal, the 1992 biography by Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, is entitled, “The Godfather of Containment.” President Truman’s transition to containment of the expansion of the international influence of the Soviet Union from one of conciliation signaled the Cold War’s beginning. Forrestal was Secretary of the Navy, a Cabinet level post at the time under discussion. Here are some key passages:
From his first awareness of the Communist phenomenon, Forrestal’s skeptical mind seems to have seen clearly that it was in basic conflict not only with free enterprise but with the human spirit, that there was moral evil in the very nature of the system, and that this defect made its promise to bring about the material and spiritual elevation of mankind a gigantic falsehood and fraud. At a time when major figures like Roosevelt, Hopkins, Stimson, Byrnes, Marshall, and Eisenhower were acting on the belief that nothing basic about Stalin’s Soviet Union precluded a friendly relationship with it, Forrestal perceived in its nature and purposes a fundamental threat to the United States and to the idea of free men. (p. 260)
To Forrestal, [George Kennan’s Long Telegram] was exactly the authoritative explanation he had been seeking…and he immediately became the principal promoter of both document and author, responding, as Truman’s biographer Robert Donovan put it, “like Paul Revere to the lanterns in the Old North Church.” Harriman thought Forrestal’s reaction was a “decisive” catalyst in shaping American opinion on this issue. Forrestal sent copies to the President and the Cabinet, to newspaper publishers and columnists throughout the country, to senators and congressmen, to bankers and businessmen. He made it required reading for thousands of officers in the navy. This wide dissemination was designed to push public opinion toward a state of alert by underlining the fundamental differences in assumptions and values between Russia and the West and the harsh reality of the East-West conflict. As Daniel Yergin later observed, “The postwar anti-communist consensus existed first in the center, in the policy elite, before it spread out to the nation.” Forrestal hardly achieved this single-handedly, but he was an exceptionally energetic and forceful figure in the vanguard.
Determined to exploit this newly discovered intellectual resource, he persuaded Byrnes to bring Kennan back from Moscow and arranged for his appointment as Deputy Head of the National War College, a newly created year-long resident seminar in political-military affairs for senior military officers and diplomats, in the establishment of which Forrestal played a leading role. The result of such sponsorship from a ranking Cabinet officer was to lift George Kennan out of bureaucratic anonymity to a high place in the policy-making elite, indeed as the leading guru on U.S.-Soviet relations. As Kennan acknowledged in his memoirs, “My reputation was made. My voice now carried.” Forrestal had become his patron, a fact that was to have a significant bearing on the writing and publication a year later of the famous “X” article, the public statement which crystallized U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union into a one-word description—“containment.” (pp. 272-273)
Among his many publications related to the Cold War, the Davidson emeritus professor—and here I must name him—Ralph B. Levering, has written what appears to be a short textbook on the Cold War. (The sticker on the spine of the copy I purchased says, “Textbooks from Your Bookstore.”). The title is The Cold War: A Post-Cold War History. The link is to the 2016 3rd edition. I have the 2005 2nd edition. The first edition was published in 1994. *
The first thing we notice in his book is his dedication, and here I quote it in its entirety:
To John Lewis Gaddis and Arthur S. Link:
Exemplary historians, mentors, and friends
Well, small Cold War world! I have written about both of these men with regard to what they have had to say about James Forrestal’s death, and, as you will see, I am unlikely to be dedicating any books to either of them. Most recently, I mentioned Professor Link near the beginning of my November 2020 “Open Letter to Davidson College President Carol Quillen on Corruption.” Here is an excerpt:
I think the class that I enjoyed most at Davidson was 20th Century United States history, taught by the dean of the faculty, Frontis W. Johnston. He was a very entertaining lecturer, and he assigned a quite readable and what I thought to be a thorough textbook, American Epoch: A History of the United States since the 1890’s, by Princeton University Professor Arthur S. Link (The Virginia native, Link, was teaching history at Northwestern at the time of the first edition of the book was published in 1955. His son, Arthur, Jr., a freshman at Davidson when I was a senior, was a fraternity brother of the sophomore, Vincent W. Foster, Jr., of Hope, Arkansas. We shall have more to say about that later.).
As entertaining and edifying as Dean Johnston’s class might have been, I have since found through my own efforts that much of it was corrupted by out-and-out falsehood. As an outstanding example, on page 631 of the eighth (1962) edition, the one we used, we encounter the following passage, “As the first Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal, soon discovered, it was easier to erect the façade of a new defense structure than to compel genuine unification of the forces.”
At that point there is a footnote that reads, “Forrestal broke under the strain, resigned on March 1, 1949, and committed suicide soon afterward in a moment of depression.” Link provides no reference for his assertion.
The main question I have about that statement is how much of it Link knew to be false.
In December of 2011, I devoted an entire article to Gaddis entitled, “’Forrestal Committed Suicide,’ Claims Cold War Historian.” It has the subtitle, “Claim Based on His Own Ignorance, He Also Claims.” The episode described in the article, in which I confronted Gaddis at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC, is also described in Chapter 15 of the second edition of my book, The Assassination of James Forrestal. The claimed ignorance is with regard to the official report, the so-called Willcutts Report, on Forrestal’s death, which I shook free from the Navy with a FOIA request and first wrote extensively about in 2004. My addendum to my Gaddis article sums up my assessment of the man:
I have now had a chance to look at Gaddis’s new book and have found there some more information that sheds additional light on his answer to my question. Included in his bibliography, as one would expect, is the 2009 book by Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. In Part 6 of my series, “Who Killed James Forrestal,” I show that Thompson writes at some length, though in a very dishonest way, about the findings of the Willcutts Report, the one about which Gaddis claims ignorance. There are therefore three possibilities with respect to Gaddis’s claim of ignorance of that report, (1) Gaddis has read the book but forgot about that section, (2) he included the book in his bibliography without having read all of it, or (3) he was not telling the truth when he said that he had never heard of the Willcutts Report. Neither possibility gives one much confidence in Gaddis as a historian.
So much for America’s “Dean of Cold War Historians,” as The New York Times has hailed him, according to Wikipedia. So, what about the lesser light Levering? How, I wondered, does he treat Forrestal in his Cold War textbook?
Hold on to your hats, folks. He doesn’t. That’s right. The “godfather of containment,” as fashioned in 1992 by such establishment stalwarts as former Under Secretary of the Air Force and Yale Skull and Bones man Townsend Hoopes and current paid contributor to CNN Douglas Brinkley, has been completely airbrushed out of the Cold War picture by historian Ralph B. Levering. It’s absolutely Soviet-like.
How does he manage to do it? What about George Kennan? Kennan is there, although Levering never bothers to tell us the man’s first name in the text. You have to go to the index to find it (an oversight I see he corrected in the third edition where Kennan’s full name made it into one of the chapter headings in the table of contents). Here, on page 28 of the second edition, is Kennan’s entry upon the Cold War scene:
The final highlight of this period of intense activism in U.S. foreign relations was the appearance, in the July issue of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, of an article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” and written by “X” (soon identified as Kennan). In an administration short on experienced and knowledgeable students of Soviet behavior, the articulate, scholarly Kennan emerged as the leading U.S. government expert on Russia. Called home from Russia in 1946 and installed by May 1947 as head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, Kennan provided theoretical underpinnings for American policy in the early postwar period.
That’s how you do it, folks. George Kennan just came out of nowhere as the anonymous author of that influential article in the prestigious journal, when, in fact, anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the era has heard about the famous “long telegram” that the young State Department official had sent from the U.S. embassy in Moscow to State Department headquarters in Washington. All it takes is a lack of context and generous use of the passive voice and, presto, James Forrestal is gone. Levering doesn’t need to mention Forrestal’s suspicious death when he can pretend in his book that the man never even existed.
Leftist to the Core
Speaking of lack of context, we can get an idea of the man’s strong leftist orientation from his treatment of the subject of the high-level Soviet agent within the Roosevelt-Truman administrations, Alger Hiss:
For better or worse, accusations by leaders of the opposition party that the administration in office was losing the Cold War were a recurring feature of American political rhetoric from 1949 through 1980. What was different in this highly dangerous phase of the Cold War was that, in addition, Senator Joseph McCarthy (Rep., Wis.) and others were charging that high U.S. officials were traitors to their country, that at least some of the major foreign policy developments of the late 1940s resulted from disloyalty to America.
This reckless attack, which others started well before McCarthy discovered the publicity to be gained from it, was given credence by the arrest and conviction of several people on charges of spying on the U.S. atomic energy program, and especially by the charge in 1948 that Alger Hiss, an official in the State Department under Roosevelt, had been a Soviet spy during the 1930s—a charge that documents released from Soviet archives in the 1990s proved to be accurate. The charges and countercharges relating to the Hiss case made headlines throughout 1949, and on January 21, 1950, Hiss was convicted of perjury in connection with testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. On February 9, McCarthy made the first of his sensational, never-substantiated charges that there were large numbers of communists in the State Department. (pp. 37-38)
What a slick job of cauterizing the Hiss wound that is! So, Hiss was just this ordinary State Department guy who happened to have spied for the Soviet Union during the 1930s but had, one would think, given it up at some point. Nothing to see here. Move along. You’d never guess that FDR, who had been informed through his security aide, Adolf Berle, who had been informed by Communist Party defector, Whittaker Chambers, in 1939 that Alger and his State Department brother, Donald, along with a several other key people in the administration were Soviet agents, did absolutely nothing about it. Even worse, he even asked for Alger Hiss specifically to accompany him to the vital Yalta Conference. At that conference Roosevelt made a number of vital concessions to Stalin that could have resulted, among other things, in the eventual takeover of China by the Communists as well as the concession of more than half of Korea to Soviet control, and Stalin’s agent, Hiss, is likely to have played a key role in how things turned out. See “Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government.”
Whittaker Chambers gets the Forrestal black-out treatment by Levering, as does White House aide, Lauchlin Currie and high-level Treasury official, Harry Dexter White, among others fingered by Chambers in 1939.
Levering’s phraseology, time and again, marks him as little more than a spokesman for the Democratic Party, hardly different from what one might hear on CNN or MSNBC or much of the rest of the mainstream press these days.
Seeing political gain, responsible Republican leaders refused to criticize McCarthy and the others who were trafficking in innuendo and fear, and the president’s sharp criticisms of McCarthy tended to be dismissed as self-serving. The anti-communist hysteria and the denunciation of the nation’s leaders placed Truman in a no-win situation: no matter how strongly he opposed Stalin, Mao, Ho, and the other “communist devils,” he could never do enough to satisfy his critics.
The vocal right-wing critics of the administration were especially vehement in their denunciations of [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson, whose resignation or firing was demanded repeatedly after the communist victory in China and again after the outbreak of the Korean War. (p. 38)
Conservatives are always “right-wing” in the Levering vocabulary. He would never use the “left-wing” modifier, even for such a blatant communist sympathizer as Henry Wallace. Rather, he treats Wallace as something of an oracle. For Levering, the demonizers of the communists are always extremist Republicans, of course. I wonder what he would have to say about the young Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, and his speech entitled “The Communist Conquest of China” that he delivered in the town of Salem on January 30, 1949.
Concerning the beginning of the Korean War, to his credit, Levering shows himself to be something less than a complete shill for the Democrats:
Although Stalin had spies in Washington who had access to secret U.S. documents suggesting that America would not defend South Korea, he did not need spies to know that the U.S. had withdrawn its forces from South Korea in mid-1949 and placed the nation outside its defense perimeter early in 1950. In retrospect, both of these moves look like first-class blunders, especially considering that 33,000 Americans and an estimated 2 million Koreans and Chinese died in the conflict. (pp. 39-40)
Levering had, a couple of pages before, mentioned the notorious speech that Secretary of State Dean Acheson had made at the National Press Club in Washington on January 12, 1950, in which he excluded not just South Korea but Taiwan as well from America’s “defense perimeter” in the Far East.
On a deeper level, what had given rise to the war was the decision to separate Korea into two parts in the first place:
The U.S.-Soviet decision to divide Korea temporarily at the 38th parallel at the end of World War II was purely arbitrary, and both the North Koreans and the South Koreans, under Syngman Rhee, wanted to unite the country. Indeed, their troops had skirmished repeatedly during the late 1940s in the area near the 38th parallel. (p. 39) **
But why should the Soviets have had any say in the matter? They didn’t fight and defeat the Japanese overlords of Korea. We did. The situation really had virtually nothing in common with Germany and its division. Throughout World War II, up to almost the very end, the Soviets had an agreement with the Japanese that neither country would attack the other, freeing the Japanese to devote all their military resources to fighting the Americans. By the time of Yalta Conference, held in February of 1945, it was evident that the Japanese were thoroughly defeated and trying to surrender, but at that conference FDR (remember Hiss) virtually begged Stalin to join us in fighting them, which would allow them to pick up part of the spoils of victory, of course.
Why hadn’t the Japanese surrendered? FDR’s “unconditional surrender” demand was the big sticking point. We dragged out the war in the Pacific needlessly through most of 1945, to the great benefit of the communists. It’s all explained in my 2011 article, “Forrestal Ignored: China Lost to Reds, Korean War Fought.”
And there we have that man again whom Professor Levering deemed insufficiently important even to merit mention in his Cold War book.
Other Scholars Even Worse
But this is the writing of one rather minor American historian, one might say, and brush it off as insignificant. Consider first, though, that the book is a part of what is called “The American History Series,” under the editorship of John Hope Franklin, of Duke University and Abraham S. Eisenstadt of Brooklyn College. In their forward they write, “The aim of this series is to offer our readers a survey of what today’s historians are saying about the central themes and aspects of the American past.”
I can tell you that when it comes to his treatment of James Forrestal, Ralph B. Levering is all too representative. One may gather that in spades by reading my book on Forrestal’s assassination, but you can get a good taste of it in my article, “Lies about the Kennedy and Forrestal Deaths from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.”
The real proof of the pudding, though, comes from two recent history books covering the same period. The first is by a professor at Harvard University, the Norway-born Bancroft Prize -winning Odd Arne Westad. His 2017 book, The Cold War: A World History is 720 pages long—compared to Levering’s book’s mere 212—and not in one of them does he see fit to mention James V. Forrestal. He does talk about George Kennan’s “long telegram,” but check out this introduction of the subject: “Churchill’s warning was echoed by a young and talented US diplomat, George F. Kennan, who had served in Moscow during the war. Kennan’s Long Telegram, as it became known, sent from Moscow on 22 February 1946 to the State Department, became an influential, widely distributed document in the Administration.”
Notice the passive voice. There was his chance to give Forrestal his due, and he passed it up. Actually, Westad is actually worse in almost every way concerning the topics I have mentioned than is Levering. While Levering does a quick blow-by on Alger Hiss and his guilt on the question of communist influence in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, Hiss gets the same treatment as Forrestal and is completely missing from Westad’sbook. He doesn’t even mention Acheson’s infamous National Press Club speech virtually inviting Kim Il Sung to attack the South. He only refers vaguely to “mixed signals from Washington about US plans to defend South Korea.” (p. 169).
Some flavor of Westad’s treatment of the question of communist infiltration of the FDR-Truman administrations we see in this passage from page 120:
The series of hearings and investigations, which accusations such as McCarthy’s gave rise to, destroyed people’s lives and careers. Even for those who were cleared, such as the famous central Asia scholar Owen Lattimore, some of the accusations stuck and made it difficult to find employment. It was, as Lattimore said in his book title from 1950, Ordeal by Slander.
Oh, poor simple scholar Lattimore! For an antidote to Westad’s poison, see my 2011 article, “Truman Administration Adviser Counseled Surrender of Korea to the Reds.” Lattimore is the adviser to whom I refer.
For many of the lesser known who were targeted—workers, actors, teachers, lawyers—it was a Kafkaesque world, where their words were twisted and used against them during public hearings by people who had no knowledge of the victims or their activities.
Oh, poor communist and communist-sympathizing victims! For an antidote to that leftist poison, I refer you to my 2013 essay, “Elia Kazan, American Hero.”
The second book is the 2015 These United States: A Nation in the Making: 1890 to the Present, by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore of Yale and Thomas J. Sugrue of NYU. Both Forrestal and Hiss are missing, as is the subject of communist infiltration of the government and society. George Kennan is there, but he is treated as a curious ideologue who somehow needed no patron higher up in the government to become suddenly influential.
That’s what we’re up against, folks. The American history community is a mendacious leftist monolith, and there is no better indicator of it than in their treatment—of his deeds and of his death—of the great anti-communist American patriot, James V. Forrestal.
*The one reviewer of the hardcover version of the second edition on Amazon is unfairly unkind, I think.
**At this point, the Davidson professor Levering might have noted the Davidson connection to Korea’s division. Davidson graduate and future Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, and Charles Bonesteel, officers in the American occupying force, picked the 38th parallel as the arbitrary dividing line. For what it is worth, General Bonesteel was the commanding officer of the Eighth Army in Korea when I was stationed there as a lieutenant in 1967-68.