Skip to main content

Forrestal, James V.

Forrestal, James V. (1892–1949), investment banker, undersecretary of the navy (1940–44), secretary of the navy (1944–47), and the nation's first secretary of defense (1947–49).Forrestal was the youngest of three sons born to Irish immigrant parents in Beacon, New York. He attended Princeton University in the class of 1915, served as editor of the Daily Princetonian, and was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” and “The Man Nobody Knows.”

After a short stint as a naval aviator in World War I, he joined the Wall Street firm of William Read & Co. (later Dillon, Read) as a bond salesman. He was elected to the partnership in 1923, became one of the “golden boys” of investment banking during the Roaring Twenties, and was made president of the firm in 1940. He married Josephine Ogden, an editor of Vogue magazine, in 1926.

Called to Washington by President Franklin Roosevelt to help convert the U.S. economy to war production, Forrestal was named undersecretary of the navy (August 1940) with full authority in the area of procurement—for the design, construction, and delivery of ships to the fighting forces. Over the next three years he was the principal architect of the navy's vast World War II expansion from 1,099 to 50,759 vessels, and from 160,997 to 3,383,196 officers and men. The creation of that largest, most powerful fleet in the world was a precondition of victory.

Forrestal became secretary of the navy (in April 1944). He organized a comprehensive information effort to make the magnitude and complexity of the Pacific War—including the significance of particular naval battles and acts of heroism—more understandable to the American people. He toured the battlefronts in both the European and Pacific theaters, and went ashore at Iwo Jima on D‐Day+2, “exposing himself to the dangers of warfare as no other United States official of his rank did in World War II.” In August 1945, when the Japanese government expressed a readiness to surrender provided it did not “prejudice the prerogatives” of the emperor Hirohito, President Harry S. Truman's advisers were divided on the question whether this met the U.S. requirement for “unconditional surrender.” Forrestal convinced Truman to accept the Japanese condition, but to call it “unconditional surrender” and arrange to subordinate the emperor to the U.S. Supreme Allied Commander.

Forrestal was one of the first high officials to see in the Soviet Union an ideological, political, and military threat to U.S. security and to democratic societies everywhere. He played a large, influential role in government efforts to restore a shattered postwar world, confront the new Soviet challenge, and create or restructure those agencies (National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, cabinet secretariat) required to handle the new, unprecedented responsibilities of the Cold War in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He commissioned a Soviet expert, George F. Kennan, to write the paper that became the famous Mr. X article, setting forth the “containment” doctrine that formed the definitive guideline for U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

As navy secretary, Forrestal strongly resisted President Truman's postwar plan to integrate the army, navy, and air force under a single secretary of defense. Truman's plan became law, but Forrestal succeeded in obtaining amendments that severely limited the power and authority of the new secretary: he would be essentially a presiding chairman of the board, with only “general authority” to assign military roles and missions and develop a single budget for the armed forces. The secretaries of army, navy, and air force would continue to administer their own separate departments.

When Truman's first choice for the new post declined it ( Robert Patterson, the outgoing Secretary of War), the president turned to Forrestal, who fatefully accepted. Almost immediately he found that the secretary of defense lacked adequate authority and staff to control an organization riven by bitter rivalries that were aggravated by a combination of expanding military technologies and sharply limited postwar military budgets. At the same time, the armed forces were charged with protecting the nation in a disordered postwar world, marked by widespread physical destruction and a dangerous new challenge from Stalinist Russia. Belatedly aware that his earlier concept had been deeply flawed, Forrestal nevertheless struggled to manage an almost unworkable organization. In the process he drove himself to exhaustion, and began a tragic descent into paranoia and self‐destruction. Truman asked for his resignation in March 1949. Forrestal was hospitalized for “reactive depression”—essentially the condition of combat fatigue seen frequently during World War II. On 22 May, he committed suicide by jumping from a sixteenth‐floor window of the Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Bibliography

Arnold A. Rogow , James Forrestal: A Study of Personality, Politics, and Polity, 1963.
Townsend Hoopes and and Douglas Brinkley , Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal, 1992.

Townsend Hoopes

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Forrestal, James V.." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Forrestal, James V.." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/forrestal-james-v

"Forrestal, James V.." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/forrestal-james-v

James Vincent Forrestal

James Vincent Forrestal

James Vincent Forrestal (1892-1949) was the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense. He was instrumental in building America's Navy during World War II and contributed to the unification of the armed forces.

James Forrestal was born on Feb. 15, 1892, in Matteawan (now part of Beacon), N.Y. His father owned a successful construction and contracting business and had married Mary A. Toohey; James was the youngest of their three sons.

Young Forrestal studied at St. Joachim's Parochial School and graduated from Matteawan High School. He began work as a cub reporter on the Matteawan Journal. When he became city editor for the Poughkeepsie News Press, he realized that he needed a college education to advance his career. He went to Dartmouth in 1911, the next year transferring to Princeton. As a senior he was on the student council and editor of the Daily Princetonian; his class voted him the "man most likely to succeed." However, about 6 weeks before graduation Forrestal left Princeton and never received a bachelor's degree. One of the reasons was that he had flunked an English course and did not make up the credits.

Forrestal worked briefly as a salesman. Then, as a reporter with the New York World, he came into contact with Wall Street society. In 1916 he joined the investment banking house of William Read and Company (soon Dillon, Read and Company). Except for service in the Navy during World War I, he remained with the company until 1940. Beginning as a bond salesman, Forrestal rapidly rose to partnership in the firm; in 1938 he became its president. As a result of several spectacular transactions, he was considered the "boy wonder" of Wall Street.

Secretary of the Navy

In 1940 at the peak of his career Forrestal accepted appointment as a $10,000-a-year administrative assistant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After 6 weeks in this position he was designated the first undersecretary of the Navy, a post newly created by Congress. During the next 4 years he transformed his post into a nerve center, coordinating the Navy Department's whole procurement and production war effort. His success in expanding the Navy was so great that by the end of World War II the American Navy was stronger than all other navies in the world combined.

On the death of Navy Secretary Frank Knox in April 1944, Roosevelt made Forrestal secretary. In this office for 4 years, he strongly opposed measures designed to make Germany and Japan completely impotent and strenuously objected to sharing atomic information. On the other hand, he supported America's continued effort to sustain the Chinese Nationalists against the Chinese Communists and urged the United States to retain formerly Japanese-held bases in the Pacific. He was an advocate of aid to free peoples and of containment of Soviet influence long before these policies were promulgated in the Truman Doctrine of 1947.

Secretary of Defense

Believing that the oil-producing states in the Middle East were of strategic importance to the United States, Forrestal opposed actions favorable to the creation of the state of Israel in 1947 and 1948. He was also enmeshed in the postwar dispute over unification of the armed services. The Army favored unification, but the Navy feared it. A battle ensued both in Congress and within the government. Forrestal supported greater unity but not complete integration. As a result of President Harry Truman's mediation, the National Security Act, adopted on July 26, 1947, effected among other things the reorganization that created a single Department of Defense, with the secretary of defense given Cabinet rank. Truman's appointment of Forrestal as the first secretary of defense in July 1948 was unanimously acclaimed by the nation's press.

Forrestal gave an impression of toughness and strength. His tight mouth, piercing eyes, and the way he carried himself made him seem more robust than he actually was. In the last months of his life he was mentally disturbed. In March 1949 he resigned as defense secretary, and shortly afterward he was placed under psychiatric care at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. On May 22, 1949, he committed suicide.

Further Reading

An indispensable book on Forrestal is The Forrestal Diaries (1951), edited by Walter Millis with the collaboration of E. S. Duffield (1951). Arnold A. Rogow, James Forrestal: A Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy (1963), attempts to probe Forrestal's life psychoanalytically. For details on Forrestal's role in the reorganization of the Navy Department and expansion of the Navy during World War II see Robert H. Connery, The Navy and the Industrial Mobilization in World War II (1951), and Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Robert Howe Connery, Forrestal and the Navy (1962). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"James Vincent Forrestal." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"James Vincent Forrestal." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/james-vincent-forrestal

"James Vincent Forrestal." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/james-vincent-forrestal

Forrestal, James Vincent

James Vincent Forrestal (fôr´Ĭstôl´, fŏr´–), 1892–1949, U.S. secretary of the navy (1944–47) and secretary of defense (1947–49), b. Beacon, N.Y. He was a naval aviator in World War I and later began (1923) a career as an investment banker. He was appointed administrative assistant to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (June, 1940), under secretary of the navy (Aug., 1940), and secretary of the navy (1944) as successor to Frank Knox. With the reorganization of the War and the Navy departments, he became the first secretary of defense (see Defense, United States Department of). Illness forced his resignation, and he later committed suicide.

See study by C. Simpson (1967); biography by T. Hoopes and D. Brinkley (1992).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Forrestal, James Vincent." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Forrestal, James Vincent." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/forrestal-james-vincent

"Forrestal, James Vincent." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/forrestal-james-vincent