Who Killed James Forrestal? Part 3

                                         Go to Part 1.  Go to Short Version. Go to Part 2.  Go to Part 4.  Go to Part 5.  Go to synopsis.

The Cover-up Continues 

On May 23, 1999, The Washington Post marked the 50th anniversary of James V. Forrestal.’s death with a lead cover article in its Style section.  The Fall of James Forrestal,” it was titled, with The Post’s typical inappropriately cutesy word-play, and the subtitle was as follows:  “When America’s first secretary of defense dove from a 16th-floor window at Bethesda Naval Hospital precisely half a century ago, he left a poem, a mystery, and 50 years to understand what he’d been trying to tell us.” 

Since there was no suicide note from such a literate man who wrote so much, and since a belt or cord was found tied suspiciously around his neck, the transcription of lines from the morbid poem by Sophocles, "Chorus from Ajax," said to have been found near Forrestal’s bed, loomed large.  All the newspapers at the time, in their May 23, 1949, stories, before there had been any sort of investigation, or even an autopsy, proclaimed Forrestal’s death a suicide, and they cited the poem to which the book, An Anthology of World Poetry, was said to have been opened.  In later editions they touted his purported transcription of the first 26 lines.  No one, it could be discerned from careful reading of the newspapers of the day, had actually seen Forrestal leave his room, and no one had seen him go out the unprotected window in the kitchen across the hall.  

Political scientist, Arnold A. Rogow, in a 1963 Forrestal biography, wrote that a hospital orderly had seen Forrestal transcribing the poem from the book shortly before the fall, but he gave no reference for his claim.  In the first installment of “Who Killed James Forrestal?” I speculated that Rogow was wrong, because none of the newspapers at the time had reported that anyone had seen Forrestal copying the poem, and they certainly would have done so if they could, so clear was it that they wanted us to believe that the death was a suicide.  

In Part 2, with the official investigation report, that of the review board convened by Admiral Morton Willcutts, finally in hand, I revealed that my original speculation had been correct.  The orderly who went on duty at midnight said that the room had been dark the whole time he had been on the job, suggesting that no reading or writing would have been possible before Forrestal’s disappearance from the room at about 1:45.  The orderly who had preceded him volunteered witnessing some reading of a book by Forrestal beginning around 8:00 pm, but he had nothing to say about what book it was, and he couldn’t say for sure if he had seen Forrestal writing or not. 

Also, in great contrast to the great hullabaloo that the press made over the poem and its transcription, the review board exhibited no interest in the subject at all.  None of the witnesses they called reported having found either the book of poems or the transcription.  In fact, they never even brought up the topic.  The only time either is even mentioned is in the following exchange between the board’s recorder and Forrestal’s lead psychiatrist, Captain George Raines: 

Q.  Captain Raines, I show you a clinical record, can you identify it?

A.  This is the nursing record of Mister Forrestal.  The only portion I don’t recognize is this poem copied on brown paper.  Is that the one he copied?  It looks like his handwriting.  This is the record of Mister Forrestal, the clinical record. 

The one-page transcription had been included as part of Exhibit 3, “Clinical record of the deceased,” just as I received it in response to my third Freedom of Information Act request.  The book of poems, which was described in great detail in the newspapers, down to the color of its binding, does not show up in the exhibits at all. 

But fifty years later, the newspapers were still playing up the transcribed poem angle for all it was worth.  Here is how the 1999 Post article, written by Alexander Wooley, begins: 

His hand moved across the paper, copying Greek poetry from a thick anthology.  Then, abruptly, mid-sentence, it stopped.  He slipped the paper inside the book and set it aside.  His room was on the 16th floor of the towering Bethesda Naval Hospital.  It was 2 a.m. Sunday, 50 years ago.  Exactly 50 years ago yesterday.  His name was James Vincent Forrestal….


For one who had lived in great wealth, his hospital room was simply furnished—a narrow bed, a straight-back chair, an Oriental carpet on the floor, a rotating fan on the wall by a closed window.  Closed and locked.  Three windows in the room, all securely locked.


He went across the corridor to a small lab-like kitchen, with locked filing drawers, white tile walls, stainless steel and glass cabinets.  There, above a radiator, an open window.  He pulled out a screen, stepped onto the sill, leaped into the void.


Later, after they found him broken, 13 floors below on a low roof, they searched his room for clues to his last moments.  There was the book, “An Anthology of World Poetry,” still open to an excerpt from Sophocles’ “Ajax,” (sic) still containing the paper on which he’d copied the poet’s words: 


“’Woe, woe!’ will be the cry—no quiet murmur like the tremulous wail Of the lone bird, the querulous nightingale,” he’d begun, stopping short, in mid-word, “Night—“he wrote.  Then jumped out a window. 

And this is how the 50th anniversary Post article, some 70 paragraphs later, ends: 

The date was now May 22, Sunday, the day of [Drew] Pearson’s weekly broadcast, which had become so agitating to Forrestal. 

Forrestal was reading the poetry anthology, and began to copy from “Chorus From Ajax” on Pages 277 and 278.  He stopped after the first syllable of the word “nightingale” and—apparently during the guard’s five-minute break—walked out of his room, across a hall, into the adjoining kitchen.  He took off the sash from his robe and tied one end to the radiator under the window, the other end around his neck, undid a screen and climbed out the window. 

According to the coroner’s report, Forrestal likely then jumped out the window and hung for some seconds suspended.  The report also notes scuff marks on the cement work underneath the window, indicating reflexive kicking, or possibly terrified second thoughts.  To no avail: The sash gave way and Forrestal fell 13 floors, landing on an asphalt-and-crushed stone surface of a third-floor passageway roof.  Death was instant. 

The coroner noted that the sash was still wound tightly around his neck.  The front of his skull was crushed, his abdomen slit, and his lower left leg severed.  The report notes that his watch was still running. 

                                                      Last Words 

Why would a man about to kill himself copy an ancient Greek poem, but not complete it?  Was there any connection between the words he copied and his last, desperate act?  [Biographers Townsend] Hoopes and [Douglas] Brinkley believe that more than mere chance might be at play.  They note that after the end of World War II, the National Security Council authorized the recruitment of members of former Ukrainian death squads, who had worked for the Nazis exterminating Jews and Red Army supporters, to work clandestinely within the Soviet Union assassinating communists.  The name of the group was Nachtigall, or Nightingale.  Ironically, while one wing of the CIA was secretly bringing Nightingale’s leaders to the United States to train them, another wing of the agency was in Europe working to bring them to trial in Nuremberg.  The secret program, which Forrestal almost undoubtedly helped bring about, failed, however.  The biographers postulate that Forrestal, in his unsedated state, may have felt a shock of guilt—or, given his reds-under-the-bed delusions, paranoia—that may have triggered suicide. 

But perhaps there is another, less strained connection between Sophocles’ verse and Forrestal’s tragic end.  Perhaps the key was in the verse that immediately followed the one containing the word “nightingale,” the verse Forrestal could not bring himself to copy: 

Oh! When the pride of Graecia’s noblest race

Wanders, as now, in darkness and disgrace,

When Reason’s day,

Sets rayless—joyless—quenched in cold decay,

Better to die, and sleep

The never-ending sleep, than linger on,

And dare to live, when the soul’s life is gone.

                                            The Cover-up Collapses 

The problem with all this, we now know, is that it is completely made up.  Someone else did the poem transcription.  Captain Raines, whose credibility was brought into question by many of his other statements, as we saw in Part 2, was simply wrong when he said that the handwriting on the poem written on brown paper looked like Forrestal’s.  It doesn’t look the least bit like Forrestal’s handwriting, as one can plainly see at http://www.dcdave.com/article4/041103.htm .

One hardly needs an expert to tell him that the person who transcribed the poem is not the same person who wrote the various letters there that are known to have been written by Forrestal.  The most obvious difference is that Forrestal writes his words and letters almost straight up and down, while the poem transcriber writes with a more conventional consistent lean to the right.  Forrestal, on the other hand, is more conventional in how he writes his small r’s, making either a single hump or an almost imperceptible double peak, while the transcriber has a very distinctive exaggerated first peak in almost every one he makes.  The transcriber is a very conventional “archer” in the manner in which he makes his small m’s and n’s.  Forrestal, on the other hand, is a typical "swagger," sagging down between peaks, as opposed to rounding over arches. 

What’s most amazing is the complete brazenness on display.  One can truly say that the transcription of “Chorus from Ajax” is not a forgery.  Not the slightest effort was made to mimic James Forrestal’s handwriting.  The perpetrators must have been completely confident that no attempt would be made by the Navy to authenticate the note, and, in fact, that no question would even be raised either by the press or by anyone with a public forum as to the authenticity of the handwriting in the transcription. 

Now that the cat is so thoroughly and obviously out of the bag, one can anticipate that there will be one last, desperate effort to put it back in.  It would not be at all surprising for someone to claim that what was sent to me in response to the Freedom of Information Act request was not the actual transcription written by Forrestal, but a facsimile, obviously written by someone else.  But it was right there in Exhibit 3 along with the nurse’s notes, just as it was when Dr. Raines examined it and volunteered to the Willcutts Review Board that it looked like Forrestal’s handwriting.  Just as Raines was the only person at Bethesda Naval Hospital to testify that Forrestal was suicidal at any time, he was also the only one there, or anywhere else, to say that the handwriting in the transcription looked like Forrestal’s.

                                                            Summing Up 

In the final analysis, there was a distinctly Soviet quality to the destruction of the popular and powerful American patriot, James Forrestal.  First, the press propagandists launch into a campaign to destroy his reputation.  This is accompanied by personal harassment and intimidation, which is treated as paranoia on Forrestal’s part when he complains.  Then he is confined to a mental ward, driving another nail into the coffin of his reputation and his influence.  Next, he is killed, and with the active complicity of the propagandists he is blamed for his own murder.  The supposed nature of his death serves further to mute his clarion call of warning against the dangerous path the country is embarking upon in the Middle East.  

Finally, history is re-written.  For The Post in 1999, Forrestal’s destruction is related primarily to the disputes in which he became embroiled over the reorganization of the armed services: 

In the well-received recent biography “Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal,” authors Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley argue that conflict with his own secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, a passionate advocate of the supremacy of air power, played a key role in his professional and personal decline. 

This conflict The Post elaborates upon at typically great length.  When it briefly mentions Forrestal’s opposition to Truman’s Palestine policy, it changes the subject so fast the reader could easily miss it.  This passage comes on the heels of a discussion of Forrestal’s objection to rapid military demobilization in the face of the growing threat from the Communists: 

In fact, Forrestal found himself standing against his president on other key issues—he opposed making the support of the new state of Israel a pillar of American foreign policy (at least in part because he was keenly aware of the Navy’s dependence on cheap Arab oil) and fiercely campaigned against Truman’s desire to curtail the Navy’s independence by unifying all branches of the military. 

That is The Post’s only mention of Israel in the entire article, although there was general recognition in the newspapers at the time of his death that Forrestal’s eclipse was heavily tied up with the prominent position he had taken in opposition to our sponsorship of Israel.  Working as hard as it is to convince its readers that Forrestal was not assassinated, it’s certainly not going to give them any help in figuring out what the motive might have been.

David Martin

November 20, 2004


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