By Hugh Turley
As Americans are
killed and wounded daily in the Middle East the public might well revisit the
May 22, 1949, death of James V. Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense of the
that U.S. oil supplies could be endangered, relations with Middle East nations
could be strained, and a possible military entanglement in the region could
result from U.S. support for the partitioning of Palestine and sponsorship of
Israel in 1948.
In the opinion of
biographers Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley (Driven Patriot, the Life
and Times of James Forrestal, 1992), Forrestal’s position on the Middle
East was motivated by his concern for basic national interests.
He thought it was wrong for his Irish immigrant father’s emotional ties
to the Old Country to color his politics, and he viewed many Middle East
partisans in the United States similarly.
reports on Forrestal’s death said it was a “suicide” caused by depression.
As evidence that he was depressed, they said Forrestal was copying a
morbid poem, "Chorus from Ajax" by Sophocles, just before he
plunged from the 16th floor window of the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
died in 1949 the official report on his death, known as the Willcutts Report
after Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of the National Naval Medical
Center, was not available to the public until 2004.
Life and Times found the handwritten poem in the Willcutts Report at the Seeley
G. Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University. In the testimony, the poem is mentioned only once:
“Is that the [poem] he copied? It
looks like [Forrestal’s] handwriting,” Captain George N. Raines said.
For comparison, the
Hyattsville Life & Times obtained samples of James V. Forrestal’s
handwriting from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.
transcription and Forrestal
note as shown in original hard copy of this article. ed.) Noting
the obvious differences in the writing style, the documents were forwarded to
Professor Karen Miller Russell of the University of Georgia College of
Journalism. Professor Russell has researched and written about the media
“Allow readers to
determine the truth for themselves” [with respect to the transcription’s
authenticity], Professor Russell
The origin of the
story that Forrestal copied the poem is remarkable because there were
contradictory accounts in the Washington Post on May 23, 1949.
One story reported the poem was in his handwriting and stopped in the
middle of the word ‘nightingale,’ in the second stanza.
Another story, in the same edition, reported he wrote in a firm and
legible handwriting lines that did not come until much later, near the end of
The official copy
of the poem from the Princeton Library ends 11 lines before the line with the
word “nightingale” so initial newspaper accounts appear to be false.
Fifty years later,
the Washington Post was still publicizing the poem as indicative of
Forrestal’s suicidal emotional condition.
A front-page article in the Sunday Style Section on May 23, 1999,
featured photos of the Naval Hospital, the 16th floor window, and a book open to
the poem. The article began by
describing how Forrestal’s hand moved across the paper copying Greek poetry
from a thick anthology.
Report, the government’s last official word on the matter, concluded:
“… The late
James V. Forrestal died about 1:50 A.M. on Sunday, May 22, 1949, at the National
Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, as a result of injuries, multiple
extreme, received incident to a fall from a high point in the tower, Building
1.” It did not say what caused
the fall and it did not call the death a suicide.
John Spalding of
Littlestown, Pa., 87, was a Navy enlisted man and Forrestal’s personal driver.
When Forrestal died, Spalding
was called down to Admiral Monroe Kelly’s office, “He had a big map and he
said where do you want to go for duty…You are going to leave tonight,”
Spalding told the Hyattsville Life &
Spalding decided to
go to Guantanamo, Cuba, but before he left, Admiral Kelly and his aide Lt.
Hooper made him sign a paper saying that he would never talk about anything
regarding Secretary Forrestal.
Spalding said that,
in his presence, Forrestal never appeared depressed, paranoid, or in any way
This article first appeared in the December 2008 Hyattsville Life and Times. It is reprinted here with their permission.
January 30, 2009