Who Killed James Forrestal?  Part 5

Press and historians close ranks, minds

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6

Spook Shrink Flubs Script

Lies about the Kennedy and Forrestal Deaths

Handwriting Tells Dark Tale?

“Forrestal Committed Suicide,” Claims Cold War Historian


They have told us over and over that the answer to our title question is a simple one; the killer of America's first secretary of defense on May 22, 1949, was James Forrestal, himself.  An abundance of evidence has recently been uncovered that indicates that they are wrong about that, but they're sticking to their story.

After being kept secret for more than 55 years, the official report on Forrestal's death was made public, first by me in September of 2004 and then by the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University some two months later with the following press release:

For immediate release: November 29, 2004

Contact: Daniel J. Linke, (609) 258-6345, mudd@princeton.edu 

Princeton obtains long-secret report on Forrestal's death

Willcutts Report details investigation around death of first secretary of defense 

PRINCETON, N.J. – The investigation into the death of the nation's first secretary of defense, James V. Forrestal, resulted in a lengthy report long kept from the public. Admiral M. D. Willcutts, the commanding officer of the National Naval Medical Center, convened the review board that looked into James Forrestal's death in 1949. Now, more than 55 years later, the Navy has released the report, which is available electronically through Princeton University's Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library Web site at: http://www.princeton.edu/~mudd/

The documents were procured by David Martin of Virginia via a Freedom of Information Act request in April 2004. Martin scanned the report and gave the files to the Mudd Library, which also included five photographs obtained through the request. 

The Willcutts Report, issued in July 1949, investigated the circumstances around Forrestal's death. Forrestal, a member of Princeton's class of 1915, was a Wall Street investment banker who, on the eve of World War II, became undersecretary of the Navy. He became secretary of the Navy in 1944 and, with the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, President Harry S. Truman appointed him the first secretary of defense. He resigned in March 1949 and entered the Bethesda Naval Medical Center suffering from exhaustion similar to battle fatigue, and soon after fell to his death from a window. 

The Willcutts Report supplements documents included in the James V. Forrestal Papers held at the Mudd Library, which include Forrestal's diaries. The report, along with a guide to the holdings of Forrestal's papers, may be viewed at the Mudd Library's Web site. For more information about this collection, contact the Mudd Library at (609) 258-6345 or mudd@princeton.edu.

The History News Network of George Mason University, picking up on the press release, then further spread the news of the belated availability of the investigation with its September-December, 2004, report.  

Then it was ignored.  It is as though the Warren Report on the death of President John Kennedy had been withheld from the public for more than half a century and then was made public, and the entire American press and history communities found the matter completely unworthy of their notice.  Furthermore, historians, journalists, and other authors have continued to write about Forrestal's death as if there were no public Willcutts Report, repeating important "facts" from now-discredited secondary sources.  

I have tried to stay alert to all such examples of the miswriting of this important chapter in America's history and to get the writers to set the record straight.  Examples can be found herehere, and here.  As you can see, I have been more successful in the former effort than in the latter.  To date, not one of the authors has corrected a single misstatement, and, to my knowledge, no historian or journalist has written about Forrestal's death in light of the important new information.  If any readers know of any post-2004 writings on Forrestal's death that have escaped my attention, I would appreciate their informing me.

Most recently, I discovered another instance of misreporting on events related to Forrestal's death, this one by a professor of history who specializes in the period surrounding World War II and teaches at the Naval War College.  His name is David E. Kaiser, and he wrote favorably of Drew Pearson's lies about Forrestal on his blog more than a year after the release of the Willcutts Report, routinely describing Forrestal's death as a "suicide" in the process.  Hoping that his intentions might not be all that bad and that he had simply been misguided, perhaps by his ideology or by lack of information, I wrote him as follows on December 13, 2007:

Dear Professor Kaiser,

I thought you would like to know that a couple of days ago I left a comment on your December 18, 2005 "History Unfolding" blog at
http://historyunfolding.blogspot.com/2005/12/they-were-giants-in-those-days.html.   The title of your article is "They were giants in those days," and you are referring primarily, and most appallingly as I see it, to the journalist, Drew Pearson.  Here is my comment:

Your admiration for the smear specialist, Drew Pearson, is, in my opinion, completely misplaced. Nowhere are you more off the mark than in the following quote:

"During early 1949 Pearson had been writing that James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, was mentally unstable, and eventually he reported correctly that Forrestal had tried to commit suicide."

Pearson did, indeed, write scurrilous things about Forrestal, including that he consciously cowered in his New York apartment while his wife was assaulted outside it, which was not true. It is also not true that Forrestal had attempted suicide. The day after Forrestal's death from a fall from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Pearson reported that Forrestal had made four previous suicide attempts. That claim, according to the doctors who treated Forrestal at Bethesda, was also false.

Looking at Pearson's record, I tend to agree with what President Franklin Roosevelt wrote about him in a letter to General Patrick Hurley on August 30, 1943, "His ill-considered falsehoods have come to the point where he is doing much harm to his own Government and to other nations. It is a pity that anyone anywhere believes anything that he writes."

You might regard my words as a bit harsh, but, all things considered, I think that I have been quite forbearing.  You went on to say, after all, that Forrestal did commit suicide shortly after the purported attempt, and you wrote those words near the end of 2005.  Here's what I had to say about the author, James Carroll, on my web site: "Anyone who would write about Forrestal’s death in 2006 and ignore completely the evidence contained in the Willcutts Report would have to be very irresponsible, indeed."  See "James Carroll on James Forrestal."  The Willcutts Report is the long suppressed official investigation of Forrestal's death, made public with a press release by the Seeley Mudd Library of Princeton University in the late summer of 2004 [Sic. Writing from memory, I forgot that the library did not send out its press release until a couple of months after posting the report on its web site.].  One can readily see why the report had been kept secret. The information it contains thoroughly undermines the case for Forrestal's suicide.

Although you were writing at about the same time as Carroll, you are perhaps less at fault for getting your facts wrong.  You were writing only a short article whose subject was mainly Drew Pearson.  Carroll, in his book about the Pentagon, on the other hand, writes about Forrestal at considerable length. Your scholarly reputation is also a good deal higher than his, so I am proceeding upon the assumption that you have simply made an honest mistake.  Carroll, on the other hand, is well beyond such consideration.  I conclude in my article that Carroll is clearly a conscious spreader of lies: 

"As those of us who care about truth and justice in this country have discovered more about the alarming facts surrounding Forrestal’s death, the molders of public opinion are working overtime to see that what the American public thinks it knows about the death is, in fact, false.  The opinion molders have chosen the right man to spread the falsehoods."

With my following sentence, which concludes the essay, I might well have been writing about someone like you:

"How long will we have to wait for a recognized scholar, who is also honest, to take up the subject?"

When I was able to get through on C-Span to Forrestal biographer Douglas Brinkley and fault him for failing to mention that there was even such a thing as an official investigation of Forrestal's death, much less that it had been kept secret, he responded that he would consider correcting his omission if there were a paperback edition.  See "Letters Concerning James Forrestal."  That is the advantage of having a blog.  You don't have to wait for such an opportunity.


David Martin

Sadly, exactly one week later, Professor Kaiser revealed that he was not at all the sort of person I was looking for by responding peremptorily and dismissively--not to say insultingly--as follows:

Mr. Martin,

I appreciate your providing me with the link to the report on Forrestal’s death, of which I have now read quite a lot. I do not think, however, that there is much to be gained from our discussing the issue, since your interpretations are a bit too creative for me. Your email states that the report casts doubt on Forrestal’s suicide, but I can’t see that it did that in the slightest—the only doubt seemed to be about whether he purposely jumped out the window or was trying to hang himself. The doctors explain in great detail that he was depressed and very suicidal. The question of whether, and how many times, he might have actually attempted suicide before being hospitalized is left open; he claimed that he had, but the doctor who spoke at the greatest length doubted it. In any case that seems to have been a side issue for the inquiry. Pearson’s diary entries relied on conversations he had with other Hobe Sound residents. I don’t have the time to check every column he wrote on the subject. (The report does confirm something else—that there was no way that Forrestal could have read or heard about what Pearson had broadcast and written during his hospitalization.)

It’s a free country and a free internet. I don’t see any reason to alter what I wrote.

Sincerely yours,

David Kaiser

I then responded on the same day, immediately upon receiving the email:

Dear Professor Kaiser,

May I take it, then, that with regard to whether or not Forrestal committed suicide, you consider of no consequence the revelations that:
1. the handwriting of the transcribed poem, which, for the press, served as his suicide note, does not resemble Forrestal's at all
2. that broken glass was on his bed and on the carpet at the foot of the bed
3. that Forrestal's room was not photographed until many hours after he was found dead and that when it was it did not resemble the room that the nurse who first got a good look at the vacated room described. The photos show a bed with nothing but a bare mattress and pillow on them, whereas Nurse Turner testified that, as one might expect, "The bed clothes were turned back and towards the middle of the bed and I looked down and [the slippers] were right there as you get out of bed." No slippers or any other sign that the room had been occupied are evident in the photographs, either.
4. that the influential biographer, Arnold Rogow, apparently fabricated the story that the guard saw Forrestal transcribing the morbid poem when he last looked in on him, because the guard testified that when he last looked in the room Forrestal was apparently sleeping and the lights had been off and Forrestal apparently did no reading or writing during the guard's time of duty which began at midnight
5. that the influential newspapers reporting on the death apparently fabricated the story that the transcription ended in the middle of the word "nightingale" or, depending on which article in The Washington Post you read, the transcription included the lines, “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.”
6. that the findings of the Willcutts Report were not issued until several months had passed and then, the findings did not include the conclusion that Forrestal had committed suicide
7. that photographs of Forrestal's body were first withheld from the FOIAed material on the grounds that they might disturb Forrestal's surviving loved ones, and when told that there were no surviving loved ones the Navy changed its story and claimed that they were lost
8. that the book from which Forrestal supposedly copied the damning poem does not appear in official evidence nor is the supposed discoverer of either the book or the transcription ever officially identified
9. that the Willcutts Report was kept secret for 55 years, when its whole purpose was to clear the air and establish the facts publicly concerning the nature of Forrestal's death?

Surely, with respect to Drew Pearson's credibility, you don't believe, as you imply, that it is immaterial that Pearson wrote that Forrestal had made four suicide attempts, the last of which such attempts had occurred right there at Bethesda Naval Hospital, when those claims are contradicted by the Bethesda doctors and Pearson has no details or named sources for his claims?

I must say that I am amazed that it is I, in contrast to Pearson, that you regard as the "creative" one when it comes to interpreting the evidence surrounding Forrestal's death. What I have done is to analyze the evidence carefully, with a skeptical eye. Doing so, I certainly do not conclude as you do (see
Part 2), that, "The doctors explain in great detail that he was depressed and very suicidal." Only Captain Raines, whose credibility is called into question by many other things he said, claimed that he was suicidal, and the second in command of the doctors, Captain Stephen Smith, appears to contradict him. That he does contradict him, even apparently with respect to the "depressed" diagnosis, is reinforced by the unpublished manuscript of the Time magazine writer, John Osborne, as I mention in my previously-referenced letter to Douglas Brinkley. Furthermore, there seems to be virtual unanimity among those who saw Forrestal near to the time of his death that he seemed to be quite normal by that time. That was the reason given for relaxing the guard and allowing access to belts, razor blades, etc., after all.

Finally, I am puzzled by your assertion, for what it is worth, "that there is no way that Forrestal could have read or heard about what Pearson had broadcast and written during his hospitalization." Could he not have heard about it from any number of visitors, particularly his wife, or from letters? This is from testimony by Captain Raines that I quote in Part 2:

"From the very first Mister Forrestal’s mail and other communications were handed to him unopened. He was allowed to see all of them on the theory no one can live in a vacuum and might just as well be exposed to whatever came along; that is the method of dealing with it; it would depend on how well he was or how sick he was. It was as simple as that. Actually he dealt quite well with almost everything."

In sum, based upon how you have handled the evidence up to now, it's possible that you may not actually see any reason to alter anything that you have written, but I surely do. As at least your figure of speech would have it, though, it's a free country.

David Martin, Ph.D.

Three weeks have now gone by and it has become pretty clear that Professor Kaiser has headed for the tall grass and will not be further heard from, content, apparently, in the belief that power effectively trumps truth.  

With the floor now all to myself, may I note a further error in Kaiser's admittedly incomplete reading of the Willcutts Report. With respect to the question of what caused Forrestal's death, he says, "...the only doubt seemed to be about whether he purposely jumped out the window or was trying to hang himself."

In fact, the question was never addressed in those terms.  How could it have been?  Surely no one suggested that Forrestal went to the trouble to tie a bathrobe belt tightly around his neck before jumping, freestyle and untethered, out the 16th floor window.  What purpose, then, could the neck belt have possibly served?  

One must wonder if this is the sort of critical thinking that Professor Kaiser is teaching America's leading Naval officers to apply to important historical events.  What must he tell them, for instance, about the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty?

In our exchanges I also failed to mention one of the worst of Drew Pearson's slanders of Forrestal.   Here is the account from pp. 455-456 of Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal, by Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley:

Pearson had, in fact, decided to fire his heaviest ammunition in a radio broadcast on April 9 [1949]. He charged that Forrestal, awakened by the sound of a fire siren (on the night of April 1 at Hobe Sound), had rushed out of his cottage screaming, "The Russians are attacking." He defined Forrestal's condition as "temporary insanity." In subsequent newspaper columns he asserted that Forrestal made three suicide attempts while in Florida--by drug overdose, by hanging, and by slashing his wrists. According to a later statement by [Navy psychiatrist Captain George] Raines, all of these assertions were lies.

Since Raines was the one doctor at Bethesda Naval Hospital who maintained in his testimony to the Willcutts Review Board that Forrestal was suicidal and would therefore be more likely to embrace any story that buttressed his case, his debunking of Pearson's unsupported claims carries particular weight.

So much for Professor Kaiser's journalistic "giant."

                                                                        An Educational Episode

For instructive reasons if nothing else, a 1988 Supreme Court Decision should be overturned, argued Richard Just, deputy editor of the New Republic, in the op-ed section of the January 12, 2008, Washington Post.  The decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, apparently gave high school principals the right to censor school newspapers.  The perniciousness of the decision is far reaching, claimed Just:

Indeed, it wasn't only student journalists who were hurt by Hazelwood; it also was their readers, particularly students who might have limited exposure to newspapers or magazines at home.  By showing them how an investigative story or a lively opinion section can add to their understanding of the school they attend, an ambitious, uncensored student newspaper teaches principles that are essential to a free society: the importance of skepticism, criticism and empiricism; the necessity of checks on authority; the centrality of open debate to democratic culture.

To be sure, those journalistic ideals are essential to the workings of a truly free society.  However, for the student newspaper to impart an understanding of the actual country in which we live and of the journalism and history writing practiced therein, if the coverage of James Forrestal's death is any indication, the Hazelwood regime will do just fine.

David Martin, January 13, 2008

Addendum 1: Christopher Sharrett

In early February of 2008 I discovered another article that said that James Forrestal committed suicide.  Since the article, by tenured professor of communications at Seton Hall University, Christopher Sharrett, boldly challenged the official line in the John F. Kennedy assassination, the prospects seemed bright that we might have found someone who would actually be excited over my Forrestal discoveries and would publicly embrace my conclusion that Forrestal was assassinated.  On February 3 I sent the following email to his Seton Hall address:

Dear Professor Sharrett,

I just ran across your 1999 article on the Net in which you characterize the John Kennedy
assassination as a Coup d'Etat.  You are quite right, of course.  I drew the same conclusion in a poem called "Barren Summit" on the 40th anniversary of the killing.  It was a coup that involved the active participation of our press, as you can see here, and other important opinion molders.  See "Chomsky, the Fraud" and "Martin Lies about Kennedy Assassination" for samples of the latter. As Gregory Treverton has written, "Propaganda is the bread and butter of covert action."

Unfortunately, and I hope inadvertently, you have perpetuated some of that pernicious propaganda with one statement that you make in the article, and I quote:

"The national security state's lapdogs in the press, including Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, ridiculed Forrestal, terming him a 'liar and a coward.' Forrestal suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually committed suicide."

The first sentence is true; the second sentence is false. Writing as you were in 1999, you certainly had a good excuse for making such a mistake.  At that time, the only thing written that seriously questioned the conventional wisdom of suicide in James Forrestal's case was a very obscure book published by the John Birch Society, The Death of James Forrestal, by someone taking the nom de plume of "Cornell Simpson."

Fortunately, with the ready availability of the Internet, you can easily set the record straight and sever the connection between your professional reputation and a gigantic historical lie.  To be sure, there has been a degree of stubbornness in which other residents of the groves of academe have clung to the lie, as I document in Part 5 of "Who Killed James Forrestal?"

Your article on the Kennedy assassination suggests to me that you might be different.  I hope that I am right.

David Martin

My email was greeted with silence from Professor Sharrett, so I wrote him on February 14 as follows:

Dear Professor Sharrett,

Almost two weeks have now gone by, and I have had no response to my email to you notifying you of the serious historical error you have in your article of the Kennedy assassination, and I have had no response.  Perhaps I should ask you what, if anything, you plan to do to correct the error.  I await your response.

David Martin

The chance that Professor Sharrett will take up the cause of justice for James Forrestal now appears remote.  It is not only his failure to respond to my emails that leads me to that conclusion.  Perhaps he never received them for some reason.  The full paragraph in which the quote about Forrestal's "suicide" appears is telling:

Cold War propaganda gave legitimacy to the national security state, although debate raged on within state and private power against the backdrop of the sleepy fifties. Many felt that the creation of the "garrison state" would bring about an enormous deficit and weaken us in relation to our Western capitalist rivals. Kennedy was not the first victim of the fierce internecine battles that began almost immediately with the creation of the national security state. Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal became a victim in 1949 of what was referred to as "the revolt of the admirals." As each sector of the military fought over their share of public revenues, with the Joint Chiefs "at each other's throat" in a climate of unbridled avarice, Forrestal attempted at least to inject a note of civility as the military sensed its unprecedented authority. Forrestal was eventually "ground down by the bickering and backstabbing in the Pentagon." He was "under constant attack from the admirals and generals he supposedly commanded." The national security state's lapdogs in the press, including Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, ridiculed Forrestal, terming him a "liar and a coward." Forrestal suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually committed suicide.

If Forrestal was under fire from the press, led by Winchell and Pearson, it was not because of his earnest efforts to bring order to the Pentagon, but because of his principled position against the creation of the state of Israel.  Winchell was a cold warrior, but Pearson was not; he came a lot closer to being pro-Communist.  The big thing that the two had in common was that they were strong Zionist partisans.  

Although he goes a step further than either of them when it comes to pursuit of the truth in the JFK assassination, Sharrett's "national security state" boilerplate and his studied avoidance of the outsized role of the Zionists in Forrestal's demise suggest that he is in the same faux leftist league as the aforementioned Noam Chomsky and the notorious James Carroll.

A recent blurb from Sharrett's employer is also revealing.  "Sharrett frequently works with media," it says, "and has been interviewed by such widely known national news media as The History Channel, USA Today, Dallas Morning News and FOXNews.com."  

These organizations are not exactly known for their pursuit of the truth in the Kennedy assassination or in any other major scandal, for that matter.  When these propagandists publicly consult Professor Sharrett, they must know that the expertise that he brings to bear is not in unvarnished truth-seeking.

David Martin

February 23, 2008 


Addendum 2:  Donald A. Ritchie

On April 2, I sent the following email to U.S. Senate Historian, Donald A. Ritchie:

Dear Dr. Ritchie,

I am writing concerning your 2005 book, Reporting from Washington, The History of the Washington Press Corps.  I want you to know that virtually everything that you have written about the demise and death of Secretary of Defense James Forrestal on pp. 139-140 is either a bit off the mark or simply wrong.  First, with respect to the press campaign against him, by mentioning only the controversy concerning the global Communist threat and discussing only the scurrilous attacks of leftist columnist Drew Pearson, you leave the impression that the attacks on Forrestal were all on account of his hard line anti-Communism.  In doing so, you have performed an almost Soviet-like air-brushing of the history of the time.  The main Forrestal biographers, Arnold Rogow and Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley are in agreement, as were the newspapers in the wake of his death, that if Forrestal was a "lightning rod" for press attacks, as you call him, it was because of his strong stand against the creation of the state of Israel.  You reinforce the false impression that you have left by not mentioning that fellow strong anti-Communist, columnist Walter Winchell, was almost as scurrilous and unrelenting in his attacks on Forrestal as was Pearson.  What Pearson and Winchell had in common was their pro-Zionism.

Second, although you are duly critical of Pearson, you are not critical enough.  You mention his unfounded report while Forrestal was hospitalized that Forrestal had attempted suicide.  You fail to mention that in the wake of Forrestal's death from a fall from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Pearson made the utterly outrageous and also thoroughly unsupported charge that Forrestal had made four previous suicide attempts, cementing in the public mind the notion that Forrestal's death had, indeed, been a suicide.  Such obvious fabrications could only have been to mold public opinion in that direction.  That anyone should feel the need to shape national sentiment in that way must arouse suspicion in any critical mind as to whether Forrestal's death was actually a suicide.  Your failure to mention this most absurd claim by Pearson amounts to a historical air-brushing similar to the failure to mention Forrestal's anti-Zionism.

Serious as they are, these omissions are not as serious as your flat statement that, "James Forrestal jumped from a sixteenth floor window at the Bethesda Naval Hospital."  Your book was published in 2005.  In late 2004, the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University sent out a press release announcing that the long-suppressed official Navy investigation of Forrestal's death had been posted on its web site at
http://www.princeton.edu/~mudd/.  In the last week of December 2004, the History News Network of George Mason University announced the availability of the report at http://hnn.us/articles/8613.html.

Proceeding upon the reasonable assumption that for such a vital document to have been kept secret it must have been done for some ulterior reason, I have examined the report quite critically and have come to the conclusion that it completely undermines the popular belief that Forrestal committed suicide by jumping from that window.  My analysis of the report can be found at
http://dcdave.com/article4/040922.html and further at http://www.dcdave.com/article4/041120a.html.   Since the press has completely ignored the announcements made by the Mudd Library and by the History News Network, it is quite possible that you were unaware of the public availability of this report.  Any further statement that you might make concerning James Forrestal's death can't be on account of such a lack of knowledge, though.

You might even tell me that you disagree with my interpretation of the evidence.  If you should do so, I would prefer that you do it publicly and say exactly why, so that I might respond.  Alternatively, you might send me any disagreements that you might have, which I promise you I would publicize.  As the old saying goes, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."  I think you will have to agree that the mysterious death of the American leader most opposed from the outset to the course of action that has led us into our current foreign policy mess needs a good airing.

David Martin

The next day, on April 3, I received this polite, bland, basically unsatisfactory response, in which Dr. Ritchie exhibited an almost aggressive lack of interest in my discoveries concerning the violent death of America's first secretary of defense:

Dear Mr. Martin,

I appreciate your comments about Reporting from Washington but the book is about journalists rather the [sic] public officials they covered.  I think my conclusions about Drew Pearson’s influence and reputation as a columnist stand regardless of the differing interpretations of the individuals and events he featured in his columns.


Donald A. Ritchie

David Martin, April 3, 2008

Addendum 3: Nuclear Files Peace Foundation

In mid-April I discovered the following erroneous statement at the end of a short biography of James Forrestal by the NUCLEARFiles.org, Project of the Nuclear Files Peace Foundation:

James Forrestal committed suicide in May 1949. His death remains shrouded in controversy due to his leadership on military issues and his involvement in covert operations, which he reflected upon in his secret diary.

Using the organization's "contact" box, I duly informed them that it is true that controversy still swirls around Forrestal's death, but not at all for the reasons they give.  Then I explained to them that the main reason is that strong evidence contained in the official report on his death, released only in 2004 and now available at the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University, suggests that Forrestal was assassinated.

On April 23, 2008, I received the following encouraging response:

Mr. Martin, 

Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. Below is the response we received from the Assistant Project Archivist at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. We will make the appropriate changes to our website. 


Nickolas Roth

Washington, DC Director

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

In regard to both Forrestal’s resignation and his untimely death, some distinctions can be made between the bare facts and speculation. It is known that President Truman requested Forrestal’s resignation on March 1, 1949, and it was received and accepted the next day (see the acceptance letter here: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=13397). The reasons for Truman’s request are numerous; however the most common factors considered are Forrestal’s unpopular stances on key issues such as Palestine and inconsistencies in his personal behavior. Therefore physical illness was not a cause per se; however those who believe Forrestal committed suicide often point to his sometimes erratic behavior in his final months in office as precipitating his resignation/death. The veracity of this claim is debatable, as it is known that Forrestal had attempted to resign earlier in the administration but was convinced by Truman to remain at his post. 

Forrestal’s death is a similarly nuanced issue. The official report into the death of James V. Forrestal to which Mr. Martin refers can be found at the following address: http://www.princeton.edu/~mudd/finding_aids/willcutts/index. Mr. Martin is correct in his assertion that the report, released in 2004 (it was Mr. Martin himself who filed the Freedom of Information Act request) states only that Forrestal died as a result of a fall, and that he exhibited behavior symptomatic of depression in the time immediately prior to his death. It stops short however of concluding that Forrestal committed suicide, since the physical evidence that remained was somewhat inconclusive. Though clearly it remains a highly speculated issue among historians, the official investigation simply describes the cause of death as “injuries received incident to a fall.” 

I hope that this information has cleared a few things up. Attached, please find a bibliography of works which contain further information on Forrestal’s tenure as Secretary of the Navy as well as his death which may prove useful to you, and if there is any way in which we can be of further assistance please don’t hesitate to let us know.

I was not entirely satisfied with what the Assistant Project Archivist had to say, so I responded on the same day with the following letter:

Dear Mr. Roth,

Thank you for your response and to your responsiveness to my letter about James Forrestal. I look forward to the due changes that you will make.

I would appreciate it if you could tell me the name of the Assistant Project Archivist who wrote you, though. I believe that he is flatly wrong to state that Forrestal "exhibited behavior symptomatic of depression in the time immediately prior to his death." I believe that there is unanimity of opinion among those who saw Forrestal in the days prior to his death that he seemed normal by that time. These include the head of the National Naval Medical Center, himself, Admiral Morton Willcutts, who ate dinner with Forrestal on the Friday before Forrestal's fall a couple of hours after midnight Saturday. "On Saturday, Rear Admiral Morton Willcutts, the commanding officer at Bethesda, watched him consume a large steak lunch and found him ebullient, meticulously shaven, and eager to greet a few scheduled visitors, among them [son] Peter," as reported by biographers Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley. These visitors with positive reports also include Forrestal's successor, Louis Johnson, President Harry Truman, and Forrestal's brother, Henry. The New York Times reported the day after Forrestal's death, "[Bethesda Naval Hospital commanding officer] Admiral Stone said that Mr. Forrestal had improved to the point where he was being allowed to shave himself and that belts were permissible on his dressing gown and pajamas." Forrestal's generally good condition was one of the reasons given by lead doctor Captain George Raines for leaving for a conference in Canada.

David Martin

A couple of hours later in rereading my response, I noticed something that needed clearing up, so I sent a follow-up email:

Dear Mr. Roth,

May I add a small clarification to my previous response. I had failed to notice that the archivist was simply characterizing one of the conclusions of the Willcutts review board when he or she said that Forrestal "exhibited behavior symptomatic of depression in the time immediately prior to his death." Point 3 of the five brief points was "that the behavior of the deceased during the period of the stay in the hospital preceding his death was indicative of a mental depression."

In using the word "immediately," the archivist has not correctly characterized this particular conclusion, and it was with that point that I took issue.

I do believe that if you read the testimony of the second ranked doctor, Capt. Stephen Smith, very carefully you will detect, admittedly between the lines, disagreement with the depression conclusion. My suspicions to that effect were later probably borne out when I found the unpublished outline of a Forrestal biography by John Osborne in the Library of Congress. Osborne reported that the second doctor in charge of Forrestal disagreed with both the diagnosis and treatment, though he does not elaborate. Neither does he name the doctor, but the second in command was Captain Smith.

Note also that in my email I said that Admiral Willcutts had dinner with Forrestal and the Hoopes and Brinkley quote says lunch. My defense for that apparent misstatement is that I am from the rural South, and our three meals, at least when I was growing up, were called breakfast, dinner, and supper. It was the middle meal of the day that Forrestal and Willcutts shared, though the preponderance of evidence is that the joint meal was, indeed, on Friday as I say, not Saturday as Hoopes and Brinkley have it. The important thing here anyway is the very positive report by Willcutts on Forrestal's apparent mental state.

David Martin

Almost two months have now passed.  Mr. Roth has not responded to my request for the name of the Assistant Project Archivist at Princeton, and his organization has not made the promised correction of its discredited statement about James Forrestal's death.  Mr. Roth initially apparently did not realize that he had just touched the third rail of twentieth century U.S. history.  

David Martin, June 15, 2008

Addendum 4: Loren Ghiglione

Loren Ghiglione is the Richard Schwarzlose Professor of Media Ethics at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and author of a new book about a network reporter of the mid-20th century.  That makes him something of a journalists' journalist and historian, to boot.  One would hardly expect him to get out of step with his cohorts in both professions when it comes to the big lie about James Forrestal's death, and he does not disappoint.  If he bothered to do even ten minutes of research on the Internet before he touched on the subject in his book, it is nowhere in evidence either in the book or in his short exchanges with me.  First, here is what I wrote him on February 10, 2009:

Dear Professor Ghiglione,

In case you didn't know it, the myth that the first U.S. secretary of defense, James Forrestal, committed suicide has been completely destroyed. Since the release in 2004 of the 1949 report by Admiral M. D. Willcutts on Forrestal's death, we know that the Navy corpsman who last looked in on Forrestal in his 16th floor Bethesda Naval Hospital room saw him apparently sleeping, not transcribing a passage from a book as reported by biographer Arnold Rogow and repeated by others. We also know that the bathrobe sash found tied around Forrestal's neck, and said to have been initially tied by Forrestal to a radiator below an open 16th floor window, was not broken. We know that broken glass was found on Forrestal's hospital bed and on the carpet at the foot of the bed. We know that Forrestal's room was thoroughly "laundered," with all the bedding removed from the bed before official photographs were taken several hours after he disappeared from the room. Most significant of all, we know that the poem transcription, which served as a suicide note for many, was written in a hand that doesn't resemble Forrestal's in the least.

Yet, you wrote as late as 2008 in your book, CBS's Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism,  these lines:  "In 1949 the former secretary of defense, suffering at Bethesda Naval Hospital from 'a severe psychosis,' wrote a suicide note that included lines from Sophocles about the warrior Ajax, 'worn by the waste of time.' Forrestal tied one end of his dressing-gown sash to a radiator just below a sixteenth-floor window and the other end around his neck. He climbed out the window and jumped or hanged himself until the sash broke and he fell to his death."

In an interview by your publisher at
http://cup.columbia.edu/static/ghiglione-interview you say that you worked hard in your book to be accurate in your reporting. Was your misreporting on the known facts about Forrestal's death a result of your not working quite hard enough in this instance, or was it a case of your succumbing, as you put it at the beginning of your interview, to "...the pressures on...journalists, now and then, to censor and self-censor—to avoid controversy and speak less than the truth to power"?

Whatever the reason for your unfortunate public perpetuation of this extremely important historical lie, I would like to ask what you, as a professor of media ethics, plan to do to make amends and to set the record straight.

David Martin

He responded most amiably and encouragingly on the next day, February 11:

       Thanks for your e-mail.  I'm traveling through the end of this week, but when I return to campus I
       certainly will revisit the topic of Forrestal's death and read what you and others have contributed 
       on the subject.  I'm willing to acknowledge an error if I've made one.  

       Again, thanks.  

The end of the week passed, and then three more weeks went by, and I heard nothing from him.  Was this professor of media ethics not telling the truth in his last sentence, or was he remaining silent because he had examined the evidence and somehow had managed to convince himself that he had made no error?  To satisfy my curiosity, I emailed him again on March 8:

Dear Professor Ghiglione,

Almost a month has now passed since your prompt and gracious response to my email of February 10. Perhaps in the delay caused by your travel, the matter might have slipped your mind. If so, you may regard this email to be a reminder.

Alternatively, might I consider your silence to mean that you do not believe that what you have written about James Forrestal's death is in error, and therefore feel no obligation to acknowledge it? If that is the case, I would appreciate it if you would explain your reasoning.

David Martin 

This time, his response was as prompt as his first one.  He wrote on the next day:

Dear David,
After I got back to campus, I did go online for a preliminary scan of some of your materials.  I'm convinced I need to get to Princeton or another place where what you obtained is available to researchers.  Now I just need to find the time for travel, which is extremely difficult while meeting my teaching obligations during the school year.   I'm hoping for a late April trip, when I plan to head to the East Coast to see my children...but I can't promise the April trip at this point.  Certainly in June, when classes finally end (we're on the quarter system).  I'll report straightforwardly on what I find.  As I said earlier, I'm willing to acknowledge an error if I've made one.  But Forrestal's death, suicide or not, will remain in my book because Hollenbeck was asked about the responsibility of columnists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson for Forrestal's suicide.  Hollenbeck believed Forrestal had killed himself.  The CBS correspondent said publicly, "I don't think Forrestal was hounded to death by the columnists.  Winchell, Pearson...can dish it out, and if you're a tough enough character you can take it."  This comment foreshadows the published attacks on Hollenbeck by NY Journal-American columnist Jack O'Brian, which some folks thought contributed to Hollenbeck taking his own life.  Best, Loren

The next day, on March 11, I responded:

Hi Loren,

Thank you for your response.  You may save yourself a trip to Princeton.  You will see in the third paragraph of
Part 2  of "Who Killed James Forrestal?" that there is a hyperlink to the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library's copy of the report of the review board appointed by Admiral Willcutts.  It's quite a chore to pick through it all without a great deal of prior knowledge, so I have done most of the work for you in Part 2.  When I wrote Part 2, I had not yet obtained the Forrestal handwriting samples that administer the coup de grace to the suicide theory, which you can find in Part 3.

I agree that there is very good reason for you to discuss Forrestal's death in the context that you have given.  Even as perspicacious an observer as the British journalist Douglas Reed, depending upon the extremely deceptive reports of the press, which I document, believed that Forrestal had committed suicide.  What is wrong, and what had been shown to be wrong long before your wrote and published it, is your declarative statement that Forrestal did commit suicide, along with all that thoroughly discredited baloney as to how and why he did it.


At that, one may conclude that our exchanges have come to an end, because on March 12, with this curt response, Professor Ghiglione chose to ignore what I had written:

      Thanks, Dave.  Best, Loren

Alas, I fear that that is his best.  Need we say more about the current state of U.S. journalism?

David Martin

March 21, 2009


Addendum 5:  M. Stanton Evans, through his surrogate, Mark LaRochelle


This exchange began with an email that I received from Mark LaRochelle, research assistant to conservative writer M. Stanton Evans on April 21, 2011, in which LaRochelle questioned my naming Evans’ father, Medford Evans, as the author of a book on James Forrestal’s death using the pen name, “Cornell Simpson.”  The immediate upshot of that email was the article, “News from the Mail Bag.”


After completing the article, I sent the following short email to LaRochelle on May 15, 2011:


After reading the 1967 review of Cornell Simpson's book by Medford Evans, I gather that he would have been the prominent writer that I am still waiting for as described in this poem.  In the case of his son, did the apple fall that far from the tree, or could it be that my take on the Simpson book in the first installment of the essay is essentially accurate, that it's all misdirection? 


p.s.  I hope you haven’t gotten in any trouble for emailing me.


LaRochelle responded in less than an hour:


Stan Evans tells me that despite minor inaccuracies he, like his father, finds the Simpson book substantially accurate as to fact, including some obscure points known to very few at the time. Also like his father, Mr. Evans said he believes that it is entirely possible that Forrestal was liquidated by the NKVD. He said his father never sympathized with those who theorized that Forrestal was targeted by Likud, secret Israeli defense forces or other Israeli or Jewish conspiracy. He added that on this particular point, he agrees with his father completely. No, I didn't get in any trouble; I had Mr. Evans' permission to communicate his views to you.


My response to that, again on the same day, was:


But why is the murder—the most recent evidence for which far outdoes Simpson's—still being covered up?  Is it the Communists?  Why don't even the good anti-Communists speak up?  You wouldn't have me believe that M. Stanton Evans is really a secret Communist, would you?


The Evans surrogate then demonstrated early the next morning that he had had enough of this line of questioning by choosing to respond only to the flippant final question:


No, M. Stanton Evans is not a secret Communist.


It’s a good thing we got that burning question settled. 


Just to make sure that there was no remaining misunderstanding, in response to an email from Mark Hunter of Ariwatch, LaRochelle sent this further clarification:

I owe *M.* Stanton Evans (not "Stanton Evans," his nephew) an apology if I gave the impression that he "agree[s] that Forrestal *was* murdered." I did not mean to suggest or imply that.

What I meant to convey was that Mr. Evans informed me that he thought it *entirely possible* that Forrestal was liquidated by the NKVD. There is a difference between *possible *and *true*. Mr. Evans is extremely precise in his use of language; if he meant that he agreed that Forrestal was murdered, he would have said so. All he conveyed to me is that (1) he wouldn't put it past the NKVD to have liquidated Forrestal and (2) because "suiciding" people by throwing them out of windows was standard procedure for the NKVD, he didn't rule out the possibility that the NKVD liquidated Forrestal.

M. Stanton Evans, in addition to being an author, is also a journalist for Human Events.  When it comes to a closed mind, he is one with his U. S. colleagues.  With his precise use of language he has certainly conveyed where his sympathies lie.  They are not with anyone who might be suspicious of anything that the Zionists or the Israelis might do, no matter how suspicious their behavior might be.

David Martin

May 17, 2011






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