James Forrestal’s “Breakdown”

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Chapter 32 of Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley’s widely acclaimed 1992 biography of America’s first Secretary of Defense, Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal, is entitled “Breakdown.”  It begins like this:

Forrestal was present at Louis Johnson’s swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon on the morning of March 28 [1949].  Shortly thereafter, in accordance with custom, he drove to the White House for a final good-bye to the President.  To his surprise, Truman had assembled the entire Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other government dignitaries, and there followed a second ceremony, this one honoring the retiring Secretary of Defense for “meritorious and distinguished service.”  The President, beaming and ebullient, added his personal congratulations in effusive terms, and the audience warmly applauded the honored man.  Forrestal was visibly flustered and so choked with emotion that he was totally unable to respond, but the audience did not appear to regard this as any cause for alarm, or even unexpected, given the inherently emotional nature of the occasion and the general recognition of Forrestal’s physical exhaustion. (p. 446)

Thus, they set the ominous tone for what is to be the beginning of Forrestal’s end.  A curious and astute reader of my recently published book, The Assassination of James Forrestal, has made a discovery on the Internet that calls this account of the White House proceedings into question.  Have a look at this news clip. It is very brief, but it appears to give the lie to the image that the authors have painted of an overwrought man overcome with exhaustion and choked with emotion.  He really looks perfectly normal to me and very much in control of himself.

That’s at the beginning of the proceedings, but it looks like he was hardly in a condition to be so overwhelmed by the accolades to follow that he would be unable to respond.  I had never noticed the contradiction before, but here is what Forrestal’s aide, Marx Leva, has to say about that ceremony in an interview he gave to the Truman Library in 1969.  It’s at the bottom of page 34 of my book and under the section, “Forrestal Protégé, Marx Leva” in this article.

Louis Johnson, who I had not met before he was sworn in, was to have been sworn in on March the 31st of 1949. Forrestal apparently just thought he couldn’t hold on any longer, I didn’t realize that until later, and asked that this ceremony be moved up to March the 28th. It was moved up to March 28th and while Forrestal was terribly tired, it was–he spoke briefly but well. The ceremony went off fine.

Leva might reinforce the “exhausted” claim—although Forrestal doesn’t look “terribly tired” to me—but he states that not only did Forrestal speak on the occasion, but he spoke well.  So, what is the source for the Hoopes and Brinkley claim that the fatigued, overwhelmed Forrestal just clammed up?  Their endnote tells us that it is the 1963 book by Arnold A. Rogow, James Forrestal: A Study of Personality, Politics and Policy.  Very much of what Hoopes and Brinkley have wrong about Forrestal’s demise, in fact, turns out to be traceable to the apparent Zionist partisan Rogow.  Since in my articles and in my book, I refer most often to the accounts of the better-known and more recent of the two books, the time has come to go right to the source of the error.

Rogow’s Version

Rogow is also the primary source for what Hoopes and Brinkley say transpired on the fateful next day, March 29, 1949.  A big ceremony was held on Capitol Hill honoring Forrestal, and they say that that time, not being taken by surprise, Forrestal was at no loss for words and handled everything quite well.  It was only after Forrestal supposedly rode back to the Pentagon with his arch-nemesis, Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington (an assertion that Symington denied), that things began to fall apart.  Here is Rogow’s account, with links added:

When they reached the Pentagon, Forrestal went to a small office that had been assigned to him for the purpose of dictating replies to the many persons who had written or wired him deploring his departure from public life.

A short time later, one of his aides entered the office and immediately became aware that Forrestal was sitting in an extremely rigid position.  He was still wearing his hat, the bowl was in front of him on the desk, and he was staring at the bare wall directly opposite.  Forrestal appeared not to know that someone had entered the room.  His assistant, disturbed by Forrestal’s manner and appearance, asked, “Is something the matter?”  Forrestal did not at first reply, but after the question was repeated he responded, “You are a loyal fellow.”  He was to repeat that statement several times during the next few hours.

When Forrestal left the Pentagon for his home in Georgetown, he was bewildered to find that he no longer enjoyed the use of an official government limousine.  He appeared to be dazed by that knowledge, and his aide, who was now greatly alarmed by his behavior, arranged for the two of them to be driven to Forrestal’s Georgetown house by Dr. Vannevar Bush’s chauffeur.  Finding no one at home when they arrived, and sensing that Forrestal should not be left alone, the aide got in touch with Ferdinand Eberstadt, a New York investment banker and one of Forrestal’s closest personal friends.  The aide suggested that Eberstadt persuade Forrestal to fly to Hobe Sound, Florida, where his wife, Robert Lovett,and other friends were vacationing at the time.  Eberstadt was to follow this advice, but first he proceeded to the house to make his own judgment of his friend’s physical and mental condition.

He was shocked to discover that Forrestal was extremely agitated and depressed.  In the privacy of his house Forrestal confessed to Eberstadt that he was a complete failure and that he was considering suicide.  He also expressed the conviction that a number of individuals—Communists, Jews, and certain persons in the White House—had formed a conspiracy to “get” him, and had finally succeeded.  He insisted that some of “them” were probably in his house at that very moment, and he proceeded to search closets and other areas of the house where they might be hiding.

Shocked by his behavior, Eberstadt telephoned Secretary Johnson to report that Forrestal was a very sick man in need of immediate medical attention.  Johnson agreed that Forrestal undoubtedly would be helped by a long rest in Hobe Sound, where Robert Lovett and some of Forrestal’s other close friends maintained residences.  An Air Force Constellation was made immediately ready for the trip to Florida, and on March 29, in the early evening of the same day that Forrestal had been honored by the House Armed Services Committee, the Air Force plane with Forrestal aboard put down at a small field near Hobe Sound.

The Forrestal party was met by Mrs. Forrestal, Lovett, and a small circle of friends.  Lovett recalls that Forrestal, when he debarked from the plane, was so changed in appearance that it was not at all easy to recognize him.  In addition to looking haggard and much older than his years (he was fifty-seven), Forrestal’s always thin mouth was so tightly drawn that neither the upper nor the lower teeth could be seen.  His eyes, which appeared sunken in an ashen face, searched suspiciously among the small group of friends that had gathered to meet him.  At one point, when it seemed that he would fall off the ladder from the plane (there was no landing ramp available), Lovett reached up to catch him.  In an effort to be jocular, Lovett said, “Jim, I hope you’ve brought your golf clubs, because the weather here has been perfect for golf.”

Forrestal’s only reply was, “Bob, they’re after me.” (pp. 4-5)

Mind you, this description of Forrestal coming down from the airplane in Florida is of an occurrence only the next day after the White House ceremony that we can see by clicking on the link in the third paragraph above.  Could the man really have deteriorated so much in such a short time?  Actually, virtually everything that Rogow has said in the passage is questionable, but up to now, I had only pointed out two problems with it.  He has no source for any of it.  Particularly, I have noted, he does not tell you how he knows what Forrestal said to Eberstadt about his suicidal state of mind in that fourth paragraph.  He has no direct reference to Eberstadt for anything in his book.  One gets the impression that he must have interviewed him, but he never says so.  For some reason, though, he is obviously confident that Eberstadt will not contradict him, although Eberstadt would not die until 1969.

The other problem I have noted is that Rogow is very careful not to identify that other, even more important, character in the “breakdown” episode, the top aide Marx Leva.  Was he worried that if a reader were to seek out Leva that Leva might not corroborate what he had said?  One might think that he needn’t to have worried, because, in his Truman Library oral history interview, Leva, upon first blush, appears to reinforce Rogow’s story.  Because he is a first-hand witness, I use Leva’s account in both my article and my book, and I use it uncritically.  Now, because of something else that my correspondent has discovered, I now believe that that was a mistake.  The fact that the two accounts are generally consistent could just as well mean that they are telling the same lie as that they are telling the truth.

What Marx Leva Said

First, consider the fact that Rogow’s book had been out for six years by the time that Leva was interviewed.  Its purpose was obviously to reinforce the suicide story.  Leva had to have been quite familiar with what Rogow wrote, particularly with respect to his own part in the affair.  He had to have known that he couldn’t contradict Rogow, because that would run the risk of undermining the entire suicide story.  But now, motivated by my new discovery, I have re-examined the two accounts and have found that he apparently inadvertently did contradict Rogow on some very important points, and that neither story holds up very well under careful scrutiny.

Leva makes an even bigger deal than Rogow does of the fact that Forrestal appears to be befuddled that suddenly he is not provided with transportation home.  Why shouldn’t he have been?  It’s pretty clear that, as he had become accustomed, a government car and driver took him to work that morning.  They were still providing him an office.  How did they think he was supposed to get home?  If it actually happened, whose error was this?  I believe that I would have been a bit confused and annoyed by this turn of events myself, and I would hope that my aide would not take it as a sign that I was cracking up.  So, for the government to provide the now former Secretary of Defense with a short ride across the Key Bridge to Georgetown is now a big deal, but getting an airplane to fly him to Florida on the spur of the moment is a snap?  But I am getting ahead of myself.

There are at least three inconsistencies in the two stories that appear to be important.  Rogow has Forrestal coming home to an empty house and the aide realizing that this just won’t do, considering Forrestal’s suddenly alarming mental state.  But the aide, Leva, tells us that Forrestal has a butler who is there.  Wouldn’t this really make a huge difference?  Wouldn’t a butler, whose job it is to cater to his boss’s every whim, be the absolutely ideal person to have by the man’s side in such a situation?  The fact that a butler was there all along makes that Rogow story—which is tellingly missing from Leva’s account—of Forrestal running around the house looking for the folks who are snooping on him sound all the more preposterous.

According to Rogow, it was the aide’s idea to have Forrestal trundled off to Florida so that he won’t be left alone in his miserable state.  But Leva, knowing that Forrestal was not alone, tells us that it was Eberstadt’s idea.  As Rogow tells it, after Leva broached the subject, Eberstadt called the new Defense Secretary, Louis Johnson, who approved, and a big Air Force constellation materialized for the transporting job just like that.  Johnson is out of the loop in Leva’s account.  His story is so confusing, in fact, that it bears repeating here:

I knew Mrs. Forrestal wasn’t in town, and I told the driver to make sure that the butler knows that he’s there, etc. And then I phoned, as it happened, Mr. Eberstadt who was testifying on the 1949 amendments to the unification act before the Senate Armed Services Committee. And I said, “I don’t like what I see. Can I meet you?”

He said, “Yes, I’ll meet you at the house.”

So, I met him at the house and the butler said he had gone upstairs. I don’t know, anyway–I’m sort of short-circuiting this. That wasn’t exactly what happened. We first phoned the house, Eber and I got together, the butler said, “He won’t speak to anybody.”

Eber said to the butler, “You tell James (Eber and others of the Princeton group called him James), you tell James he can get away with that with a lot of people but not with me.” And so he came to the phone and apparently babbled a lot of stuff about the Russians–apparently it was just like that. I don’t know. The only further thing I knew is that I did drive to the house, I waited while Eber had the butler pack his clothes. Eber came out once and said, “Can you get a plane to take him to Florida?”

And I said, “Certainly.”

And I phoned and we got a Marine plane, I think, I don’t know.

It’s really not clear what conversations took place by phone and which were in person, and it’s not clear how Leva would know what Eberstadt said to the butler on the phone.  Notice, as well, that Leva says that he drove to Forrestal’s house later, not in the same car with Forrestal, as Rogow has it.  But the really important thing here is that apparent impromptu decision to ship Forrestal off to Florida.  Now it’s supposedly Eberstadt’s bright idea, who hits the Pentagon guy, Leva, with it, who just makes a telephone call and, just like that, gets a Marine, not Air Force, airplane for the job…he thinks maybe.

Excuse me, but something like this would have taken quite a bit of doing, and I really do think that Leva would have remembered quite clearly how he managed to pull it off.

Why Take Off for Florida?

But why would he have acquiesced so easily in such a hare-brained idea in the first place?  Travel is usually a bit stressful to a person in a generally settled emotional state.  Forrestal is at home with the apparently perfect person to have at his side in such a situation, his old familiar butler.  If you care about him and you think he needs some more attention, you bring it to him, you don’t disrupt his settled routine even more, especially when you’re going to have to take some extraordinary measures to accomplish it.  It’s really difficult for me to believe that this idea would have bubbled up into the mind of either man in this situation.

Oh, but his wife was down there at Hobe Sound at Lovett’s estate, you say.  Yes, and that should tell you something.  She was out of town and not at his side when he was receiving all those accolades, his big send-off, at the White House and on Capitol Hill.  It was an open secret that Forrestal’s marriage was just about the worst part of his life.  Hoopes and Brinkley even speculate that that was one of the reasons that he spent so much time at work.  He didn’t want to be in his wife’s company.  She had a well-known drinking problem, which was likely the result of even more serious emotional problems.  Forcibly throwing Forrestal back into her company at the end of a long airplane flight sounds to me like just about the last thing in the world that would have seemed like a good idea to either Eberstadt or Leva.

Indeed, in their account, Hoopes and Brinkley tell us that Forrestal, hardly surprisingly, did not want to go, but that finally he “was overborne by Eberstadt’s insistence” that he do it.  As Hoopes and Brinkley tell it, everything was Eberstadt’s doing, down to arranging the airplane flight through Johnson, and they drop Leva completely from the scene.  They also confirm that there was a butler present, except that they call him the “Filipino houseboy.” They even tell us his name, and as with butlers, he seems not to need a last name.  The authors identify him only as “Remy.”

According to everyone’s account, once they reach Hobe Sound, the wife, Josephine Ogden Forrestal, is virtually out of the picture.  She was among the folks who greeted him as he descended from the airplane, and she played a role in the decision to have him committed to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, we are told, but apart from that, you wouldn’t even know that she was there.  It was his numerous “friends,” including even Eberstadt, who flew down shortly afterward, who hovered around him, making sure that the “despondent” and apparently deranged Forrestal didn’t kill himself.

Planned Betrayal?

As it happens, my correspondent, the one who just finished reading my Forrestal book, is a subscriber to newspaperarchive.com.  She has found there what appears to be a wire service story from Tuesday morning, March 29, 1949, in the Jacksonville Daily Journal of Jacksonville, Illinois.  The dateline is March 28, and the heading is, “President Gives James Forrestal Service Medal.” The short article on the newspaper’s front page describes the “surprise ceremony” at the White House at which President Harry S. Truman pinned the Distinguished Service Medal on Forrestal’s chest.  The concluding four paragraphs are as follows:

When the President pinned the medal on him, Forrestal remarked that it was “beyond me” how he merited it.

“You deserve it, Jim,” the President told him.

The ceremony was witnessed by members of the cabinet and the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force

Forrestal is flying tomorrow to Hobe Sound, Fla., for a long rest.

Whoa!  Stop the presses!  The trip to Florida the next day for the perfectly healthy and composed guy that you see in the newsreel clip was already planned.  It was therefore not arranged extemporaneously in response to anything that transpired the next day.  No wonder Marx Leva seems so strangely hazy about the details and no wonder there are conflicts in the accounts. The whole story seems to have been made up, and when people are lying, it’s hard for them to keep their stories straight.

It’s difficult to say how much each of the players knew about what was happening, but it looks now like the trap was set in advance there in Florida.  The wife, Josephine, is unlikely to have known what was going on; she was likely maneuvered into going there because they felt that her approval was necessary to get Forrestal committed to the Bethesda Naval Hospital for psychiatric treatment.  It could hardly be more obvious now that this “suicidal” man was railroaded to that 16th floor of the hospital for the purpose of throwing him out a window when the time was ripe.  Every bit of Forrestal’s foreboding was entirely justified.  As I speculate in the book, Forrestal is, indeed, likely to have been behaving somewhat peculiarly on March 29th and in the days afterward, but the most likely reason for that is that he had been drugged.  An indicator of that fact is that, upon admission to the hospital, it was noted that the pupils of his eyes were contracted.  A possible cause of that is a barbiturate of some sort in the blood, but no blood test was reported.

The obvious fact that the press knew in advance that Forrestal would be going to Hobe Sound the next day is akin to TV reporter Jane Standley of the BBC knowing minutes in advance on September 11, 2001, that Building 7 of the World Trade Center would collapse, and it thoroughly undermines everything that Arnold Rogow, Marx Leva, Townsend Hoopes, and Douglas Brinkley have told us about what took place after Forrestal was honored on Capitol Hill on March 29, 1949.  When might Forrestal have imbibed the mind-altering drug?  Since it is clear now that Leva is not telling the truth about the decision to send Forrestal down to Hobe Sound, there is no reason to take Leva’s word over Symington’s on how Forrestal got back to the Pentagon.  In fact, it now looks very much like Leva—or his handlers—made the story up that he chose to ride back with a man he had good reason to detest to conceal what really transpired when Forrestal more plausibly went back to the Pentagon the same way he had gone up to Capitol Hill, in a vehicle with Leva.  Chances are they did not go directly back but detoured to a prearranged place for drinks.

The new Hobe Sound revelation also ends some of the puzzlement we expressed on pp. 20-21 of the book:

We must wonder…why none of Forrestal’s closest professional associates are known to have visited or attempted to visit him [at the Bethesda Naval Hospital]. One would think that men like Ferdinand Eberstadt, Robert Lovett, and Marx Leva, who…were at his side during his days of decline would have exhibited continuing personal concern for his well-being by periodic visits to the hospital.

Leva takes a weak and defensive stab at an explanation in his Truman Library interview:

By the way, psychiatry. He was never permitted to see the people he should have seen. I’m not sure he should have seen me, I would have reminded him of too much, but friends of his, people who loved him; Senator Leverett Saltonstall, just to mention one name, not really a political ally but just someone who really loved him; Kate Foley his secretary.

The great vice of military medicine is that you see who they want you to see. Louis Johnson came out to see him and he saw him and that was the last person that he should have seen you know. Captain Raines couldn’t say no to Louis Johnson, but that’s the last thing that should have been done.

Apparently, the hospital authorities did prevent Monsignor Maurice Sheehy and a couple of other people from visiting Forrestal and would have prevented his older brother, Henry, from visiting as well if Henry hadn’t threatened to go public about their denial, but there is no record that either Leva, Eberstadt, or Lovett even made an attempt.

Transferring the blame to the psychiatry profession and “military medicine,” Leva is obviously trying to make excuses for his own apparent callousness.  From the Nurse’s Notes accompanying the testimony to the Willcutts Review Board, we learn that the first person that Forrestal requested to see was Admiral Clifford Swanson, the Surgeon General of the Navy, telling the staff that it was over a matter of vital importance to the Navy.  Admiral Swanson would end up visiting Forrestal in the hospital 14 times.  Forrestal’s powerful anti-Zionist ally, recently resigned Secretary of State and Chief of Staff of the Army throughout World War II, General George C. Marshall, visited him on May 14.  A General Patterson and an Admiral Pugh also visited him, as did a few other people who hardly fit the description that Leva has painted of “permitted” visitors.

Remy, the butler, visited on May 18 accompanied by Forrestal’s son, likely the younger son, Peter.  Although Hoopes and Brinkley, referring to Forrestal’s wife, write, “Jo’s visits were not frequent,” she visited him at the hospital 26 times that we know of (Eleven pages of the Nurse’s Notes are missing from what the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Office supplied us in response to our Freedom of Information Act request.).  Peter Forrestal, a Princeton student at the time, visited almost as frequently, and we know that the older son Michael, who was working at the time in Paris for roving ambassador for the Marshall Plan, Averell Harriman, visited at least once because, instead of just “son,” “oldest son,” is recorded as a visitor at one point.

You can read between the lines of Leva’s statement that it was entirely his choice not to visit Forrestal at Bethesda, and it’s really inexcusable.  As we note in the book, Eberstadt’s son, Frederick, has since expressed amazement bordering on dismay that his father did not visit Forrestal in the hospital, either.  With our new revelation about the pre-planned trip to Hobe Sound, an explanation comes to mind.  James Forrestal didn’t just have one Judas Iscariot in his company, he had several of them.

David Martin

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