Post Reporter Continues Forrestal Cover-up

They're still at it.  American writers of history are still writing falsehoods about the death of the first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, falsehoods that have been verified as such since the fall of 2004 when the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University put the long-suppressed official investigation of Forrestal's death on its web site.  First it was Keith McFarland and David Roll in their 2005 biography of Forrestal's successor entitled Louis Johnson and the Arming of America (See the second of my "Letters to Historians.").  Then it was the almost unspeakable Boston Globe columnist, James Carroll, who made Forrestal his primary villain in his bizarre 2006 history, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American PowerThis time it's Washington Post Pentagon correspondent, Steve Vogel, with his just-published The Pentagon: A History.

Since Forrestal was the first secretary of defense to preside over the Pentagon, Vogel had to write about him, and writing about him meant also writing about his untimely demise.  It also meant, predictably enough, that he would write the same tired old now-provable lies.  Vogel had a book presentation at a bookstore near me last week, and I used the occasion in the question and answer period to point out his inaccuracies.  Noting that in his presentation he had talked of tracking down a couple of people who worked on the Pentagon and interviewing them, I suggested that in the process of correcting his errors he might perform a real service by tracking down possible surviving witnesses on the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital the night that Forrestal went out the window, particularly Hospital Apprentice Robert Wayne Harrison.  Come to think of it, I should have suggested that he also interview biographer Arnold Rogow, who is still alive, and ask him his source for the story that Harrison had seen Forrestal copying something from a book shortly before the fatal fall. *

Vogel demonstrated not the slightest interest and demonstrated an almost Bill Murray sort of boredom at having his inaccuracies about Forrestal's last hours pointed out to him and the gathered audience.  "That was not what the book was mainly about," was how he dismissed the whole matter.

To make sure that he understood the full gravity of his falsehoods about Forrestal's death, I was moved to write the letter below as a follow-up:

Dear Mr. Vogel,

Since you managed to brush me off rather effectively at your book presentation at the Bailey's Crossroads Borders last Wednesday night (June 13), I would like to take this opportunity to state, in detail, what is not true in your account of the death of our first Defense Secretary, James Forrestal. Here is what you wrote in your recently published book, The Pentagon: A History:

On the night of May 21, Forrestal stayed up late reading. A Navy corpsman stationed outside his room looked in on Forrestal around 1:45 A.M. and found him writing on sheets of hospital paper, copying a poem from a red leatherbound anthology of world poetry. About 3 A.M., while the corpsman was on an errand--possibly sent by Forrestal himself--the former defense secretary left his room and slipped across the corridor to a kitchen. Forrestal removed the unsecured screen from the window and tied one end of his bathrobe sash around a radiator below the window and the other end around his neck. He climbed out the window and was perhaps suspended for a few moments before the sash slipped off the radiator. The soaring granite tower conceived by Franklin Roosevelt and built by John McShain nearly a decade earlier proved to be more than an adequate platform for Forrestal to end his life. His broken body was discovered on the roof of a third floor passageway connecting to another wing of the hospital.

On the bedside table in Forrestal's room, his book was found open to the poem he had been copying, "The Chorus from Ajax" by Sophocles. It included these lines:

When Reason's day

Sets rayless--joyless--quenched in cold decay,

Better to die, and sleep

The never-waking sleep, than linger on

And dare to live, when the soul's life is gone. (page 350)

Your account is almost completely consistent with the very first news accounts of Forrestal's death, even down to the quoting of the lines of poetry that were not part of the hand-written transcription that was said to have been found in Forrestal's room along with the book. However, none of the newspapers reported that Forrestal's Navy guard, hospital apprentice Robert Wayne Harrison, actually saw him copying the poem. That was reported for the first time by the author Arnold Rogow, whom you give as one of your two sources, in his 1963 book, James Forrestal, A Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy. Your other source, Driven Patriot, the Life and Times of James Forrestal, by Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, also says that the guard witnessed Forrestal copying the poem, but their source is Rogow. Rogow, however, has no source, and he could not have a source, because we now know that what he wrote is simply not true. I should think that it would bother you that you have repeated Rogow's fabrication. (You also must have more sources than the two you supplied, because neither of them quotes the lines of the poem that you do.)

Mr. Rogow probably thought that his lie would never be discovered because at the time of his writing the report of the official investigation of Forrestal's death had remained secret for over a decade, and would remain secret for more than four more decades until I was able to obtain a copy through the Freedom of Information Act in the spring of 2004. I provided a copy to the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University, which houses Forrestal's papers, and they put the entire document on their web site in the fall of 2004, where it has been ever since.  They also sent out a press release announcing that they had put up this important document that had not seen daylight for 55 years.

Unfortunately--though not surprisingly--this important news was not reported by any mainstream press organs. Its significance was recognized, however, by the History News Network of George Mason University, which did announce the availability, at long last, of the official report on Forrestal's death and by the web site, Secrecy News. Since you cover the Pentagon for the Washington Post, I would say that there is a very high likelihood that the Princeton press release passed across your desk.

Here is the exchange between members of the panel of the review board convened by Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of the National Naval Medical Center, and Hospital Apprentice Robert Wayne Harrison, who came on duty at 11:45 on the night of May 21, 1949:

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.

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.

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 do any reading?

A. Not while I was on watch, sir.

So much for your assertion that the hospital attendant saw Forrestal transcribing a poem from a book shortly before he went out the window (That would be 2 A.M., not 3 A.M. as you mistakenly have it.). So much, as well, for your speculation that the attendant might have been sent on an errand by Forrestal.

Why is this important? Those who want to convince us that Forrestal took his own life would have us believe that he was so suddenly moved by the rationale for suicide in the poem that he rushed out and killed himself--though he was not in such a rush as to just jump out the 16th floor window, but, curiously, in the little time he had before the attendant would return, went to the trouble to hang himself out of the window by a belt that might not have been long enough for the job.

But don't we have the book open to the page and the transcription of the poem? Maybe he copied the poem earlier in the evening and the suicide was just a delayed reaction, you might argue.

First, there's a problem with the book. In the Willcuts review board's investigation, the book never enters into evidence. Since it is absent entirely, no one is identified who might have found it. One can look at the "crime scene" photographs taken of Forrestal's room, and there's no book, either on the table beside his bed, as you have it, or on the nearby radiator, as some other accounts have it. There is, however, broken glass on the carpet at the foot of Forrestal's bed, and the nurse who first saw Forrestal's fully-lighted empty room testified that she saw broken glass on the bed. These apparent signs of a struggle are hard facts that have been reported only on my web site, as opposed to the gossamer about Forrestal copying a morbid poem that you in the mainstream press have woven.

Gossamer? But we have the transcription in Forrestal's very own handwriting, I can hear you protest.

There's a big problem with the transcription, though. It was never examined by anyone for handwriting authenticity, and if you have a look at it, along with a number of examples of Forrestal's writing obtained from the Truman Library you can see why it was not authenticated. It's clearly not authentic. It wouldn't be right to call it a forgery, because no effort was made even to attempt to copy Forrestal's distinctive writing style.

So where does that leave you as an author who has written something about a matter of great importance that is patently untrue--that you should have known was untrue? Fortunately, you're not just an author, but a reporter for one of the world's most powerful newspapers, and the Forrestal story is on your beat. It's not too late for you to set the record straight.

I'm sure you will understand why I am not at all optimistic, however, that your employer will permit you to redeem yourself, whatever your personal inclination might be. What is far more likely, I'm sure you will agree, is that they will continue in this as in other important matters with what author Rodric Braithwaite, in describing Soviet movies of the late Stalin era, calls "their breathtaking disdain for historical truth, [making] them feel almost greasy to the touch."


David Martin


*As it turns out, it's a good thing that I didn't ask him to interview Arnold Rogow.  I was wrong to think that Rogow was still alive.  A reader was intrigued by my suggestion and went looking for him, only to find out that he had died in early 2006.  I had missed the obituary.

David Martin

June 17, 2007




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