Historians Support Forrestal
By Hugh Turley
New evidence has emerged that
America’s first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, was assassinated.
Pulitzer prize-winning American history professor, Martin Sherwin, told
the Hyattsville Life and Times, “I have always thought Forrestal committed
suicide, but this is not because I investigated the manner of his death.
You are doing that and I look forward to reading the results.”
Sherwin, a professor emeritus
at Tufts now teaching at George Mason University, co-wrote an acclaimed
biography of nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a Forrestal contemporary.
May 22 is the 60th
anniversary of Forrestal’s death. Historians
were invited to comment on the official investigation of his death for this
article. The investigation, known
as the Willcutts Report, was first made available to the public in 2004.
Keith W. Olson, professor
emeritus of history at the University of Maryland said, “If I had more time I
would read it and write an analysis. The
need for such a study is obvious.”
Initial reports said Forrestal
transcribed a morbid poem as his suicide note and then jumped out of a window at
the Bethesda Naval Hospital. The
Hyattsville Life and Times (Dec 2007) published the transcribed poem alongside a
letter written by Forrestal. The
writing appeared to have been that of different people.
The story that Forrestal copied
the poem from a book has been repeated for decades. In 1992, Forrestal biographers Townsend Hoopes and Douglas
Brinkley said a corpsman looked in on Forrestal at 1:45 a.m. and saw him “busy
copying onto several sheets of paper the brooding classical poem ‘The Chorus
That story is not supported by the corpsman’s testimony in the Willcutts Report:
Q. 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 sleeping.
Q. Where were you at that time?
A. I was in the room when I saw him.
The official report makes no mention of the book of poetry
or any witness who supposedly found the book and transcription.
The report offers new evidence
of a struggle in Forrestal’s room. Broken
glass was found on his bed and photographed on the floor of his room.
This could explain why the sash from his dressing gown was knotted around
Initial news reports contained
speculation that Forrestal used the sash in an attempt to hang himself out of
the16th-floor window from which he fell. None
of them even hinted at the much more plausible notion that the sash had been
wrapped around his neck to subdue him.
The Willcutts Review Board did
not comment on why the sash was around his neck.
It has been fashionable among
historians to say that Forrestal was paranoid.
The Distinguished Historian in Residence at American University Anna K.
Nelson, when asked to comment, said Forrestal, “was truly paranoid…I never
doubted that he committed suicide.” Nelson
admitted she “never heard about the [Willcutts] report.”
None of the doctors who treated Forrestal at Bethesda used the words
“paranoid” or “paranoia” to describe him in their testimony.
Captain Stephen Smith, second in command of the doctors, was impressed
with Forrestal's exceptional command of reality.
In fact, the Willcutts Report
did not conclude Forrestal committed suicide.
This article appeared originally in the May 2009 Hyattsville Life and Times of Hyattsville, Maryland.
David Martin, May 26, 2009