The Pearl Harbor Betrayal and James Forrestal’s Death

As told by Walter Trohan

If there were a major, influential news organ in the United States today that espoused the old fashioned America-first, anti-interventionist, anti-globalist, antiwar, limited-government conservatism of Rep. Ron Paul, it would look a lot like Colonel Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune of the early to mid-20th century.  The closest thing we have to that now is on the Internet with web sites like and  And if that news organ had a prominent, enterprising White House correspondent with contacts all over official Washington who was not afraid to challenge the President or anyone else, he or she would be a lot like Walter Trohan.  Sarah McClendon was similar, but she had a very limited audience, and now she has died.  Helen Thomas is, too, but she was unlikely to challenge liberal presidents, and now she has been run off.  With both women now gone from the center of media power and with no sign of a Walter Trohan even on the horizon, the Washington press corps is left only with megaphones for the imperial presidency, whichever party is in power.

Trohan’s revealing 1975 valedictory is entitled Political Animals: Memoirs of a Sentimental Cynic.  Two of the most important events to occur on his watch were the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the mysterious premature death of the just-fired Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal.  In terms of his willingness to go against conventional wisdom and the ruling establishment, Trohan treats the two events strikingly differently.

Pearl Harbor

The following passage begins on page 167 and continues into page 168.  The year is 1941 and the person sharing secrets with Trohan is President Roosevelt’s press secretary:

Steve [Early] confided to me that we knew every move the Japanese were making.  This mental bell was to grow louder in tone in the months ahead.  Steve repeated we knew every move as fast as it was made.  Because of this knowledge, we had to return at once to Washington; war was imminent.

Even then I reasoned that we had to have a spy in the Japanese Government at the highest level, but I didn’t see how he could transmit his reports easily and quickly.  So I concluded that we had broken the Japanese diplomatic code.  This conclusion was one not requiring any great deductive powers.  Everyone knew, but few remembered, that we had broken the Japanese naval code during the naval disarmament conference in Washington in 1921.  All this was detailed in a book by the man who directed the breaking, Herbert O. Yardley, The Black Chamber, which I had read and remembered.  I read it again with greater interest because it seemed to support my hunch.  American intelligence was furious with Yardley for revealing the code-breaking coup, so much so that he was not invited to take any role in cryptology before or during the war.

It wasn’t long before my suspicions were confirmed.  Friends in the army and navy intelligence acknowledged that the code had been broken.  There was nothing I could do about it under censorship, but I did keep after it.  For four years I collected bits and pieces of the story, which resulted ultimately in a congressional investigation.  The Administration maneuvered the inquiry into a whitewash of Washington responsibility for Pearl Harbor.  However, they merely scotched the snake and didn’t kill it, so that Pearl Harbor is becoming to be recognized more and more as FDR’s road to war.

I was not to get public credit for the code-breaking story, because J. Loy Maloney, then managing editor of the Tribune, had let himself become involved in a censorship storm, which threatened indictment and even closing of the Tribune.  So when John T. Flynn, a great newspaperman and a true liberal in that he detested war, got a corner of the story and asked me about it, I turned over the full story to him and put him in touch with all the witnesses.  Flynn put the story into a pamphlet, The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor, which the Tribune printed after the war ended.  The pamphlet launched the congressional investigation.

I was awarded the Edward Scott Beck prize, established by our former managing editor, for a story I didn’t write.  I did play a role behind the scenes in plotting the strategy of anti-Administration forces in the investigation, so that I knew it all, including the tremendous pressure which was brought to bear to hide Washington responsibility.

The entire Pearl Harbor pamphlet is available online at  Anyone interested in knowing the facts about the Japanese attack, as opposed to the popular myth that the United States was struck by complete surprise while in the midst of peace negotiations, should read the entire thing.  For those lacking the time, here is the concluding summary: 

1.      By January l, 1941, Roosevelt had decided to go to war with Japan.

2.      But he had solemnly pledged the people he would not take their sons to foreign wars unless attacked. Hence he dared not attack and so decided to provoke the Japanese to do so.

3.      He kept all this a secret from the Army and Navy.

4.      He felt the moment to provoke the attack had come by November. He ended negotiations abruptly November 26 by handing the Japanese an ultimatum which he knew they dared not comply with.

5.      Immediately he knew his ruse would succeed, that the Japanese looked upon relations as ended and were preparing for the assault. He knew this from the intercepted messages.

6.      He was certain the attack would be against British territory, at Singapore perhaps and perhaps on the Philippines or Guam. If on the Philippines or Guam he would have his desired attack. But if only British territory were attacked could he safely start shooting? He decided he could and committed himself to the British government. But he never revealed this to his naval chief.

7.      He did not order [General Walter] Short to change his alert and he did not order [Admiral Husband] Kimmel to take his fleet out of Pearl Harbor, out where it could defend itself, because he wanted to create the appearance of being completely at peace and surprised when the Japs started shooting. Hence he ordered Kimmel and Short not to do anything to cause alarm or suspicion. He was completely sure the Japanese would not strike at Pearl Harbor.

8.      Thus he completely miscalculated. He disregarded the advice of men who always held that Pearl Harbor would be first attacked. He disregarded the warning implicit in the hour chosen for attack and called to [Navy Secretary Frank] Knox's attention. He disregarded the advice of his chiefs that we were unprepared.

9.      When the attack came he was appalled and frightened. He dared not give the facts to the country. To save himself he maneuvered to lay the blame upon Kimmel and Short. To prevent them from proving their innocence he refused them a trial. When the case was investigated by two naval and army boards, he suppressed the reports. He threatened prosecution to any man who would tell the truth. (Shades of LBJ and the USS Liberty attack. – ed.)

Trohan resumes discussion of Pearl Harbor on page 182, continuing into page 183:

Probably the main reason taps continued on my home and office phones was that it was known that I was continuing an investigation of my own into Washington responsibility for Pearl Harbor.  I made it my business to know and question virtually everyone involved in the affair and thus learned of all the attempts to destroy records and change testimony.  This became something of an obsession with me, because I was certain that Washington had maneuvered the nation into a war that the people did not want.

I knew that Colonel R. S. Bratton attempted to hand over a vital intercept to a code message from Japan which indicated the United States was a target, probably at Pearl Harbor, to general George Catlett Marshall, army chief of staff.  Bratton had the message in a locked pouch.  He was stopped at Marshall’s office door by Colonel Walter Bedell Smith, who forced Bratton to open the pouch against all precedent for an “eyes only message.”  Smith said he would deliver it himself, after he read it.  I also knew Colonel Otis K. Sadtler, who also attempted to have something done to warn the army and navy commanders at Pearl Harbor, General Walter Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel.

Bratton and Sadtler were never promoted although they served throughout the war.  Bedell Smith became a lieutenant general and a millionaire industrialist after the war.  I won’t say he owed it all to the protection of Marshall, but the protection certainly didn’t injure his career.

I learned that Marshall had gone horseback riding, when he should have been warning Short and Kimmel.  I knew both commanders.  I also knew navy Captain Laurance F. Safford, who played a major role in breaking the Japanese code and who resisted great pressure to have him deny that the key Japanese message “East wind rain,” which spelled attack on the United States, had ever been received.

In the course of my investigation I found a call girl who was favored by Marshall.  I thought for a time that he might have been in her apartment the night before Pearl Harbor.  He claimed to have forgotten where he was that night.  He had been found sitting on a log with his head in his hands on a bridle path, when searchers brought him word of the attack.

The answer was before my eyes all the time in the files of the Washington Times Herald, but I didn’t know it.  Marshall was among guests at a gathering of alumnae [sic] of his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute.  For those interested, Marshall’s relations with the call girl were not very exciting; the playing of classical records in his apartment.

I talked to Marshall’s secretary and his sergeant.  Admiral Harold R. Stark, the chief of naval operations, had been shifted to London, but other naval people were available.  I knew that officers were being sent around the world in an attempt to induce many to change their stories.  There were times when I despaired of hope that the truth would become known.

At this point we need to reconsider our comparison of the Chicago Tribune and Walter Trohan to Ron Paul conservatives.  Here the country had a major newspaper and its chief Washington correspondent challenging the official story of the event that propelled the country into World War II.  They told us not long after it happened that FDR wanted the U.S. in World War II and Pearl Harbor was his way of accomplishing it. (Pro-Israel lobbyist, Patrick Clawson, then, is essentially correct about FDR’s motives in the former’s infamous recent speech.)  It is as though, today, there were at least one major news organ that, from the beginning, gave a voice to the 9/11 truth movement.  The closest we have come to that is the recent airing by PBS of a video by Architects and Engineers for 9-ll Truth, but it’s more than a decade late.

On page 186 Trohan tells us of the complicity of the Republican opposition in making certain that the truth would not be known “prematurely.”  It is the election year of 1944:

The Republicans named Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Senator John W. Bricker of Ohio.  Dewey had joined the interventionist eastern establishment.  [Ohio Senator Robert] Taft was not a contestant, having agreed to step aside in order to let Bricker make his pitch for the party nomination.  Bricker lost to Dewey.

The major issues were the conduct of the war and the plans for peace.  Dewey had most of the facts on the Washington responsibility for Pearl Harbor and was prevailed upon by Roosevelt not to use them.  I was one of a small knot of speech-writer consultants—not the only one by any means—so I knew.  I couldn’t blame Dewey because the war was on and the first thing to do was win it, not question its beginnings.

But what are an opposition candidate’s and a journalist’s responsibilities in a free society when the “war” is an interminable one on an abstract noun like our “war on terror”?  And by cozying up to the leadership of one of the major parties did not Trohan and his newspaper begin the slide down the slippery slope that pretty soon led them to be, like all the others, just another mouthpiece for the ruling powers that be?

The Democrats were unexpectedly still in power in 1949 when James Forrestal went out that window at Bethesda Naval Hospital, but it looks like Trohan and the Chicago Tribune were already too far gone down the slope by that time to do anything but parrot the approved line.

James Forrestal

At the bottom of page 250, Trohan has just finished a weak defense of Senator Joe McCarthy and the senator’s attempt to cleanse the Truman administration of Communist infiltrators.  McCarthy was the first of the “tarnished warriors” to which he refers:

Another tarnished warrior of the period was James V. Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, who was my good friend and one of the finest and most dedicated servants I have ever known.  Jim came from lower New York State, where his brother won an appointment as postmaster under Farley when he met with difficulty in the Depression.

Forrestal entered and graduated from Princeton, where he was a boxer, as a broken nose attested, and a good one.  It is my sincere belief that this sport proved to be his undoing, because a boxer must rely on himself rather than on his teammates.  He undertook a Wall Street career, becoming head of Dillon, Reed [sic] & Co.  From this company he entered government service, first in the Treasury, later as Secretary of Navy and finally was named as the first head of the newly organized and not really united Defense Department.

In the Defense Department Jim was convinced that the United States, especially the U.S. Navy, could not operate without Mideast oil.  He did not anger the Arabs, which some persons, including a scoundrel in the press, insisted made him anti-Israeli, which he was not.  Few men were more misrepresented or vilified in some quarters than this hard-working official.  Also his life was domestically and religiously complicated.

He had me to functions in the Pentagon when lesser men feared to do so.  Also he invited me to breakfast at his Georgetown home, which I refused to join, because I am willing to discuss business or listen to speeches at lunch or dinner, but will not permit anything to intrude on my quiet tea and toast, the only meal that almost always belonged to Carol and myself.

Forrestal left the Cabinet in 1949 partly because he did not wish to embarrass Truman, who had recognized Israel and brought his influence on other nations to recognize the new state.  He talked of returning to his church, but leaped out of his suite from the tower of Bethesda Naval Hospital, not long after he left the Cabinet, leaving behind him a book in which he had underlined a number of passages of gloomy poetry.

It is hard to say that Forrestal’s call for caution in the Middle East was unwise.  While the Jews are entitled to a homeland, the creation of the state by Britain and the United States has raised many problems in seeking to solve but one.  It is not unlikely that the seeds of World War III may spring from the tensions that have followed the best of intentions.

The first thing one notices is that Trohan, even though he doesn’t use the word “suicide”, repeats—although rather poorly—the accepted story completely uncritically in spite of the fact that he counted Forrestal as a “good friend” and supported his political positions.  The contrast with his reaction to the official story of the Pearl Harbor attack could hardly be sharper. 

The second thing that strikes us is how extraordinarily cavalier and sloppy Trohan is with the facts of Forrestal’s professional life and of his death.  On page 292 he writes of his own resistance to being made an editor because he thought his gregariousness and inquisitive nature made him best suited to be a reporter.  In this instance, his supposed “inquisitive nature” seems to have deserted him completely.  One gets the impression that he was afraid that should he have inquired into the actual facts of Forrestal’s death he would have learned more than it was safe to know

Let’s start with the next to last paragraph and work forward.  He says that Forrestal underlined passages of gloomy poetry.  No one else has ever said that, to my knowledge.  The earliest report was that a book was found open at the page where a gloomy poem was found.  That was followed closely by a report that he had copied lines from the poem on a sheet of paper.  The second report remains the story told us by the press and the historians, although we have since discovered that the transcription was obviously not written by Forrestal and no one was identified in the official investigation as its discoverer.

Before that, Trohan says Forrestal “leaped out of his suite from the tower of Bethesda Naval Hospital…”  He actually went out of the window of a kitchen across the hall from his room.  Furthermore, the accepted story is not that he leaped but that he had attempted to hang himself out the window because a bathrobe belt was found tied around his neck. 

The first sentence of the paragraph states, “Forrestal left the Cabinet in 1949 partly because he did not wish to embarrass Truman…”  No, he might have been talking about leaving, but he was forced to resign by President Truman.

The statement at the beginning that “Forrestal entered and graduated from Princeton” is wrong on two points.  He first entered Dartmouth and transferred to Princeton.  He did not graduate from Princeton, having left one course short of a degree. 

Trohan’s summary of Forrestal’s career in the government is also wrong.  He never worked at the U.S. Treasury.  He worked briefly as a White House assistant and then was made Undersecretary of the Navy.  From that post he rose to Secretary of the Navy when the incumbent, Frank Knox, died.

Trohan is also wrong to say that Forrestal was not anti-Israel.  He was strongly opposed to the creation of an ethnic-supremacist state in Palestine controlled by immigrants who were mainly from Europe, which certainly made him anti-Israel.  What he was not was anti-Semitic, which is what his detractors then and now like to call him.  There were a great number of Jews who agreed with Forrestal’s position on Israel at the time, and many do to this day.

Nowhere in Trohan’s discussion of Forrestal’s death do we learn that there was an official investigation and that the results of the investigation were withheld for some six months.  Neither do we learn that in the brief conclusions released at that time suicide is not even mentioned.  The official Navy review board concluded only that he died from his fall; they do not say what caused the fall.  Not having even told us of its existence, Trohan, of course, also fails to tell us that the report was still secret at the time he wrote his book, some 26 years after the fact.  We may assume that Forrestal’s “good friend” Trohan, like all the other members of our great “free” press, kept silent about it when the slender conclusions were released but the report proper was kept secret.

What are we to make of this truly sorry performance?  We have suggested that the contrast with his reporting on Pearl Harbor was a matter of timing in Trohan’s life, that he had begun his slide into the moral cesspool of Washington in 1944 when he collaborated with the Republicans, and by 1949, when his friend Forrestal was clearly assassinated he had reached bottom. 

But other evidence suggests that there are deeper reasons for the difference in treatment.  When it comes to these two important events, Trohan is but a reflection of the opinion molding community in general.  After all, journalist Robert B. Stinnett’s 1999 book, Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, received a considerable amount of publicity (although the case can be made that it is a fake opposition book), even getting a mildly favorable review in The New York Times.  If we Google “Pearl Harbor conspiracy” we see that a great deal has been written that challenges the official story, including a number of books.  Googling the unusual name of “Colonel Otis K. Sadtler,” mentioned by Trohan, produces a particularly strong work by Harry Elmer Barnes.   When it comes to James Forrestal’s assassination, on the other hand, the only book that challenges the obviously phony suicide story is one published by the John Birch Society in 1966, The Death of James Forrestal.  The anonymous author used the pseudonym, “Cornell Simpson,” and the book has been completely ignored by the mainstream press and by historians.  Otherwise, there is only my work, which began in 2002, and some Internet writing inspired by my work by Hugh Turley and the anonymous “Mark Hunter.”

The murder of the leading American opponent of the creation of the state of Israel clearly remains very nearly the most sensitive topic in American 20th Century history, right up there with the vicious Israeli assault on the USS Liberty.  Walter Trohan was smart enough and well-enough informed and connected in Washington to know at the time what had happened to Forrestal.  He certainly knew by the time he wrote his book, but he wanted to get his book published, preferably by a major publisher.  He was successful.  His publisher was Doubleday and Company.  One might even interpret the numerous gratuitous errors he threw into the Forrestal section as a signal to friends and insiders that he knew he was writing poppycock.  The editors wouldn’t notice because he had done nothing to rock the boat.

David Martin

October 4, 2012


Home Page    Column    Column 5 Archive    Contact