Letters Concerning James Forrestal

The following two letters, and the motivation behind them, are self-explanatory.  Shortly after he should have received the first of the two letters, historian Douglas Brinkley was uprooted from home and work by Hurricane Katrina.  Katrina or no, enough time has now passed to indicate that he is not going to respond to the letter.  

For anyone who has not read my 3-part series, "Who Killed James Forrestal?" the letter to Brinkley might serve as a good summary of the problems with the story of Forrestal's "suicide," as told to us by the mainstream press and popular historians like Brinkley.  For those familiar with my Forrestal article, there is a little additional information.  I was able to locate at the Library of Congress the unpublished outline of a manuscript by Time magazine writer, John Osborne, that Townsend Hoopes and David Brinkley used to reinforce the official suicide story.  Parts that these authors leave out, the reader will see, may well do more to undermine the case for suicide than the referenced part does to support it.

David Roll, who co-authored a recent biography of Forrestal's successor, Louis Johnson, did respond to my letter, and requested that we meet for lunch.  Although the lunch meeting did not take place until several weeks had passed, Mr. Roll appeared to know no more about the case than he had shown when I talked to him at the Politics and Prose bookstore.  He simply used our brief time together to ask me a number of simple questions that are answered in great detail in "Who Killed James Forrestal?"  I tried to give some short, simple responses to his questions, but the best thing I could tell him was to go read what I had written and then ask questions.  He was not at all prepared to challenge anything I had written, and no progress was made toward getting at the truth at the meeting.  I was left wondering why he wanted to meet in the first place.

                                                       ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

August 18, 2005 

Professor Douglas Brinkley

Director

Theodore Roosevelt Center for American Civilization

Tulane University

New Orleans, LA 70118

 Dear Professor Brinkley: 

When Truth or Virtue an Affront endures,
Th’Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be yours.

                                                                                         -- Alexander Pope 

More than two months have now passed since that night at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC, when you asked me for my home telephone number and promised to call me to talk about the serious inconsistencies I have found between your account of the death of our first Defense Secretary, James Forrestal, and what I have discovered through the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Your account, you will recall, is in Chapter 32 of the book you co-wrote with the late Townsend Hoopes and published in 1992 entitled Driven Patriot, the Life and Times of James Forrestal.  What I have found is in the Navy's official report on the death, that of the review board convened by Rear Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of the National Naval Medical Center, which supervises the Bethesda Naval Hospital where Forrestal fell to his death from a 16th floor window in the wee hours of May 22, 1949.  The Willcutts Report had been kept secret for some 55 years, and it is now, unredacted and with almost all the exhibits, on the web site of the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University. 

Perhaps you need a brief reminder of the occasion for your asking for my telephone number.  You had given a talk on your new book, The Boys of Pointe du Hoc.  In the questions period following, I reminded you that I had called you more than a year before on C-Span and praised Driven Patriot generally, but had faulted you for your use of sources on the details surrounding Forrestal's death.  The best sources, I observed, would have been the Navy personnel on duty that night on the 16th floor of the hospital and, short of tracking down those among them who are still living and interviewing them, the best evidence as to what those people saw and heard would be found in the official report, that is, the Willcutts Report.  You neglected to tell the readers that there was any such thing as an official report and that it remained withheld from public scrutiny.  Further, the sources you used for the most important details, I said, were hard-to-trace third-hand sources.  In my examination of Forrestal's death, on the other hand, I told you that I had made two FOIA attempts to get the report and that I had been quite illegally ignored both times.  In your response on C-Span you did not dispute my characterization of your sources but said that you had tried to get the Willcutts Report yourself, and had failed as I had.  If there were to be a new edition, you said, you would correct your omission and would talk about the Willcutts Report.  In the meantime, you said, I should keep trying to get it. 

I did, and, wonder of wonders, on the third try I got it, no questions asked.   That was what I announced to you and the audience at Politics and Prose.  Your reaction was one of surprise at my success and you asked me what was in the report.  I said that it generally contradicted what you had written in your chapter and suggested that we might co-write an article to set the record straight.  At that, you asked me for my opinion as to what had happened.  My response was to hold up the transcription of the morbid poem by Sophocles that was characterized as Forrestal's suicide note and to observe that the handwriting was clearly not that of James Forrestal.  "What conclusion would you draw from that," I asked you and the audience. 

I don't recall your exact answer to that.  I think that it was something along the lines of, "I'd have to see it."  My main recollection is that at that point you moved on to the next questioner. 

At the end of the evening, after you had signed a number of books and I had talked to some members of the audience about my important discoveries, I gave you a chance to see for yourself, presenting you with a copy of the poem transcription and some known samples of Forrestal's handwriting, all of which look very much like one another and nothing like the transcription.  You demonstrated considerable interest, with several other attendees looking on, and at that point requested my home telephone number for what you said would definitely be follow-up in the none-to-distant future. 

I realize that with the large new responsibilities that you have assumed, directing the new Theodore Roosevelt Center at Tulane University, promoting your book, working on a new book, and preparing for classes, your time has been limited.  At the same time, I should think that you would want to do everything possible, as soon as possible, to set the historical record straight, now that we know that a number of things that you wrote in your influential book about Forrestal's death are inconsistent with the facts, as they are now known. 

Your misrepresentation of the poem transcription as Forrestal's work--like everyone else who has written on the subject--may be the most glaring inconsistency, but there are a number of others that you should be aware of.  They center on the words and actions of the two Navy corpsmen who, in sequence, were responsible for observing Forrestal on the 16th floor, Edward William Prise, who was on duty until 11:45 pm, and Robert Wayne Harrison, who was on duty thereafter. 

 

Hoopes and Brinkley (H & B):

Prise had observed that Forrestal, though more energetic than usual, was also more restless, and this worried him. He tried to alert the young doctor who had night duty and slept in a room next to Forrestal’s. But the doctor was accustomed to restless patients and not readily open to advice on the subject from an enlisted corpsman.

 

Willcutts Report (WR):

 

Q.  These occurrences that you have just related in regard to Mister Forrestal's behavior on that night, did you consider them sufficiently unusual to report them to the doctor?

A.  No, sir, I reported his walking the room to Doctor Deen and I put it in the chart and then Doctor Deen asked me how come the door was locked back there and I told him I thought I better lock it being as he raised the blind.

 

Q.  Did you attach any particular significance to this type of behavior?

        A.  No, sir, I didn't at the time.

 

H & B:

 

Midnight arrived and with it the substitute corpsman, but Prise nevertheless lingered on for perhaps half an hour, held by some nameless, instinctive anxiety. But he could not stay forever. Regulations, custom, and his own ingrained discipline forbade it...

 

The corpsman Prise had returned to his barracks room, but could not sleep. After tossing restlessly for an hour, he got dressed and was walking across the hospital yard for a cup of coffee at the canteen when he was suddenly aware of a great commotion all around him. Instantly, instinctively, he knew what had happened. Racing to the hospital lobby, he arrived just as the young doctor whom he had tried unsuccessfully to warn emerged from an elevator. The doctor’s face was a mask of anguish and agony. As Prise watched, he grasped the left sleeve of his white jacket with his right hand and, in a moment of blind madness, tore it from his arm.

 

WR:

 

Q.  Other than the conversation you have given with Mister Forrestal did he say anything else to you on that night?

A.  No, sir, he asked me if I thought it was stuffy in the room and he asked that several times since I have been on watch; he liked fresh air.  When I was on night watch, twelve to eight in the morning he always got a blanket out for us to wrap around us because he had the windows wide open.

 

Neither the recorder nor the members of the board desired further to examine the witness.

 

The board informed the witness that he was privileged to make any further statement covering anything relating to the subject matter of the investigation which he thought should be a matter of record in connection therewith, which had not been fully brought out by the previous questioning.

 

The witness made the following statement: 

 

He started reading a book at about twenty hundred and whenever the corpsman would come in the room he would turn the bed lamp off and sit down in the chair and so far as the writing I don't know.  It appeared that he was but I couldn't say for sure.

Neither the recorder nor the members of the board desired further to examine this witness.

 

The witness said he had nothing further to state.

 

The witness was duly warned and withdrew. 

In short, the fevered sense of dread is utterly missing from the testimony of corpsman Prise to the Willcutts review board.  He sounds hardly alarmed at anything that had transpired. 

Next we have the observations of the man who relieved corpsman Prise, corpsman Harrison, whom neither you nor a previous Forrestal biographer, Arnold Rogow, identify by name. 

H & B:

 

At one-forty-five on Sunday morning, May 22, the new corpsman looked in on Forrestal, who was busy copying onto several sheets of paper the brooding classical poem “The Chorus from Ajax” by Sophocles, in which Ajax, forlorn and far from home, contemplates suicide. (As translated by William Mackworth Praed in Mark Van Doren’s Anthology of World Poetry.) The book was bound in red leather and decorated with gold.

 

WR:

 

Q.  At what time did you last see Mister Forrestal?

        A.  It was one forty-five, sir. 

Q. Where was he then?

A. He was in his bed, apparently sleeping.

 

Q.  Where were you at that time?

A.  I was in the room when I saw him.

 

H & B:

 

In most accounts of what happened next, it is said that the inexperienced corpsman “went on a brief errand.” However, Dr. Robert Nenno, the young psychiatrist who later worked for Dr. Raines, quotes Raines as telling him that Forrestal “pulled rank” and ordered the nervous young corpsman to go on some errand that was designed to remove him from the premises.

 

WR:

 

(Following immediately after the Q & A above)

Q.  Did you leave the room at that time?

A.  Yes, sir, I did.

Q.  Where did you go?

A.  I went out to the nurse's desk to write in the chart, Mister Forrestal's chart.  

Dr. George Raines, the head psychiatrist in charge of Forrestal's care, was, as you know, in Montreal at a conference at the time of Forrestal's death.  Some other exchanges with Harrison are also pertinent to what you and Townsend Hoopes have written: 

Q.  Were the lights on in Mister Forrestal's room when you took over the watch - the overhead lights?

A.  No, sir, not the overhead lights; just the night light.

 

Q.  Did Mister Forrestal appear cheerful or depressed in the time that you observed him?

A.  He appeared neither, sir.

 

Q.  Did Mister Forrestal do any reading?

A.  Not while I was on watch, sir. 

You might also be interested to know that the thick, elaborately bound Anthology of World Poetry never makes a single appearance in the Willcutts Report.  It is not among the exhibits and no witness is produced who saw it in Forrestal's vacated room.  The nurse who got the first good look at the room reported broken glass on the bed, with the bed clothes half turned back and the forensic photographer captured broken glass on the carpet at the foot of the bed, but the nurse said nothing about a book--or a transcription, for that matter--and it shows up in none of the photographer's pictures of the room. 

The transcription, itself, is included among the exhibits, but no one is identified who might have discovered it.  It is mentioned only once, in this exchange with Captain 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. 

We have seen previously that Dr. Raines was probably misleading in his explanation for the corpsman leaving Forrestal's room.  Now he volunteers that the copied poem appears to be done in Forrestal's handwriting, when, in fact, the handwriting looks nothing like Forrestal's (See enclosures.).  You and other commentators have also made much of the "fact" that the transcription cuts off in the middle of the word "nightingale."  The one included in the exhibits sent to me, however, ends 11 lines before the line with the word "nightingale" in it is reached.  I wrote the Navy's Judge Advocate General's office, the people who supplied me with the Willcutts Report, and asked them if they were sure that they had sent me the entire transcription, noting that all published accounts had said that more of the poem was copied.  I received no reply. 

In addition to the handwriting enclosures, I have enclosed some of the forensic photographs of Forrestal's room.  The proper time to take them would have been between 2 and 3 am, while everything was as Forrestal had left it.  You will notice from the angle of the light entering the room that the photographs were taken some 8 hours or more later, and that all bedclothes have been stripped from the bed.  The elapsed time has clearly been used for tampering with the "crime scene. 

In announcements that I have seen about your new Theodore Roosevelt Center, you say that one of the things you'd like to do would be to organize symposia around important topics in American history.  Might I suggest that this would be a very good way to get a lot of important facts cleared up with respect to Forrestal's death?  It could also be an opportunity for the public to get insights into how professional historians and biographers go about their work. 

I would be particularly interested to hear about your use of the undated, unpublished outline of a manuscript by John Osborne to describe the goings on before and after midnight on the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital on the night of Forrestal's death.  As you know, in the contemporary newspaper accounts and in previous books about Forrestal, there was only one naval corpsman with primary responsibility for Forrestal on duty through all of those key hours.  The newspapers and the author Cornell Simpson say that this person's shift began at 9:00 pm.  For the author Arnold Rogow, the corpsman who earlier reported that Forrestal had declined his sleeping pill and the corpsman on duty when Forrestal went out the window were the same person, consistent with Simpson and the newspaper accounts.  Osborne says, on the other hand, that there were three shifts for Forrestal's primary attendant, and he concentrates on the account of the one whose shift, he says, ended at midnight. 

I would very much like to know how you came across this Osborne material and why you chose to believe that he was correct and the other accounts were not with respect to the guard shifts.    As it happens, Osborne was right about that, as verified by the Willcutts Report.  He even has the corpsman's name spelled correctly, Edward Prise, while the Willcutts Report spells it Price incorrectly throughout.  Osborne is also consistent with the Review Board testimony of Captain Stephen Smith, read somewhat between the lines, when he reports that the doctor "second in rank and authority to the psychiatrist in charge of the case believed throughout its course that Forrestal was wrongly diagnosed and treated.  But he also thought that Forrestal was recovering despite the treatment…"  This is quite a revelation, by the way, though it went unreported in your book. 

On the other hand, Osborne says that he has interviewed "every person known to have been with Forrestal after his collapse and now alive and available..." and the only person he cites to lend credence to the suicide thesis is the corpsman Prise, whose evidence is based on nothing more than his worries, noted above, over Forrestal's restlessness, and his presumed clairvoyance:  "In his barracks room, two hours after he left Forrestal, Prise cannot go to sleep.  He dresses; he is walking across the hospital yard to a canteen for a cup of coffee when he becomes aware of commotion all about him.  Instantly, he knows." 

This, I trust that you recognize, is really no evidence at all.  Perhaps Osborne, his editor, or his potential publisher recognized it as well, which might explain why his work was never published.  One must also wonder what all those witnesses who were actually on duty at the time of Forrestal's death had to say to Mr. Osborne and why he chose to cite none of them, and why he had nothing to say about the celebrated poem transcription. 

Would you not agree that it is much better to live in a country whose history is based upon openness and truth rather than on secrecy and lies?  I look forward to hearing what plans you might have to correct the historical record, now that so much more evidence is available than when you and Townsend Hoopes wrote your Forrestal biography. 

Sincerely, 

David Martin

 

November 1, 2005

 

Mr. David Roll

Steptoe & Johnson

1330 Connecticut Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20036 

Dear Mr. Roll, 

As you will recall, during the question and answer period following your October 18 Eisenhower Institute presentation on your new book, Louis Johnson and the Arming of America, co-written with Keith McFarland, I noted that new research had shown that an observation of yours on page 153 is entirely incorrect.  The passage, which follows, was written to support the popular conclusion, which your book endorses, that Johnson’s predecessor as Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, had committed suicide: 

    But everyone knew [Forrestal] was deeply disturbed.  Moments before his

    death, he was copying Sophocles’ poem “The Chorus from Ajax,” in which

    Ajax, forlorn and “worn by the waste of time, contemplates suicide.”

With respect to the first sentence, I noted that those who worked most closely with Forrestal certainly did not “know” that he was “deeply disturbed.”  Most notable among them was his top assistant, Marx Leva.  This comes from the oral history interview of Leva by Stephen Hess found on the web site of the Truman Library:

      HESS: What do you recall about the unfortunate mental breakdown that overtook Mr. Forrestal?  

      LEVA: Well, I may have been in the position of not being able to see the forest for the trees because I was seeing him six, eight, ten, twelve times a day and both in and out of the office. A lot of his friends have said since his death, "Oh, we saw it coming," and, "We knew this and we knew that." The only thing that I knew was that he was terribly tired, terribly overworked, spending frequently literally sixteen hours and eighteen hours a day trying to administer an impossible mechanism, worrying about the fact that a lot of it was of his own creation. I knew that he was tired, I begged him to take time off. I'm sure that others begged him to take time off.  http://www.trumanlibrary.org/oralhist/leva.htm

In your defense, you said that you had relied completely upon Driven Patriot, the Life and Times of James Forrestal, by Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley for information concerning Forrestal’s death.  However, Leva’s observations are reinforced by this quote from page 426 of their book: 

Given the extent and pace of his decline, it is astonishing that colleagues at the Pentagon, including members of his inner staff, failed to recognize it. In retrospect they attribute their failure to Forrestal’s formidable self-control, his brusque, impersonal method of dealing with staff, and the simple fact that they saw him too frequently to note much change in his condition or demeanor. 

Though Hoopes and Brinkley do not support your claim concerning what everyone knew about Forrestal, they are clearly the source for the account of Forrestal transcribing a specific morbid poem “moments before his death.”  They are proved to be wrong on this point, however, by recently uncovered evidence.  Their sole source for the claim that Forrestal was actually seen copying the poem shortly before he plunged from a 16th floor window was Arnold Rogow, in his book, James Forrestal, a Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy.  Rogow, though, has no source at all, and it is no wonder, because it is now clear that he made the story up.  The naval corpsman who was in charge of Forrestal’s security and who was the witness, according to Rogow, of the transcribing incident, testified that Forrestal did no reading while he was on duty and that the last time he looked in, Forrestal was apparently sleeping in the darkened room.  That is precisely the time, 1:45 a.m., that Rogow says that the corpsman saw Forrestal busy copying the poem.  

The following passage comes from testimony of Apprentice Robert Wayne Harrison, who came on duty at 11:45 p.m. the night of Forrestal’s death.  It has only been available since its release through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2004: 

Q.  At what time did you last see Mister Forrestal?

A.  It was one forty-five, sir.

 

Q. Where was he then?

A. He was in his bed, apparently sleeping.

 

Q.  Where were you at that time?

A.  I was in the room when I saw him. 

And this comes a little later in Apprentice Harrison’s testimony: 

Q.  Did Mister Forrestal appear cheerful or depressed in the time that you observed him?

A.  He appeared neither, sir.

 

Q.  Did Mister Forrestal do any reading?

A.  Not while I was on watch, sir.

 

It goes without saying that if he did no reading, he did no copying from any books.  So much for the statement as to what Forrestal was doing “moments before his death.” 

Actually, what we now know amounts to far more than a mere quibble over the timing of Forrestal’s actions.  On October 18, 2005, I gave you a copy of the handwritten transcription that appears among the exhibits accompanying the official investigation, along with a couple of samples of Forrestal’s handwriting that I obtained separately from the Truman Library.  These can be found at http://www.dcdave.com/article4/041103.htm.  From a mere glance one can easily see that the lines of the poem were copied by someone other than Forrestal. 

Nevertheless, with this evidence in hand, at a presentation at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC, on October 29 you made the statement that internecine squabbling within the newly-created Defense Department contributed to Forrestal’s demise and ultimate “suicide.”  Afterward, you will recall, I told you that you could not possibly still be maintaining that Forrestal committed suicide if you had examined the evidence that I had given you more than a week before.  You replied that you had not yet looked at the evidence. 

I’m sure that your clients would expect you to be a good deal better prepared to defend them than you were to defend what you have written in your book and repeated in your book-promoting presentation.  At the very least, I should think you would have exhibited just a little bit of natural, human curiosity.  Perhaps it is that old saying about feline curiosity that has prevented you from wanting to know the truth, even when you are on record with a demonstrably untrue statement. 

Fortunately, your co-author, Keith McFarland, whom you seem to have protected from the evidence I gave you, participated with you in that Politics and Prose presentation.  He told me that he was “open-minded” and that he has told his students in the past that history-writing is an ongoing process and that we should always be prepared to revise our views as we learn more.  Let us hope that he is as good as his word in this case and that you and he will soon take steps to correct your error.  

Might I remind you that James Forrestal was the leading government official warning against pursuit of the foreign policy that has us in our current mess in the Middle East?  I realize that, to many, that is ample reason why the news that he did not commit suicide, but was actually assassinated, should be suppressed.  But to anyone interested in truth and justice and concerned about the fate of this country and the world, it is even greater reason why this unpleasant news should be spread widely and quickly.  Anyone who, at this late date, has perpetuated the false story of Forrestal’s suicide has a special obligation to set the record straight. 

Sincerely,           

David Martin

cc:  Mr. Keith McFarland

 

 

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