Letter to a Court Historian about ForrestalŐs Death
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H.L. Mencken aptly called them Ňthe timorous eunuchs who posture as American historians.Ó That was in 1920, but little has changed. It might be a freshly minted Ph.D. from TCU, teaching at a backwater university in Texas like Matthew A. McNiece, or the man often described as the foremost historian of the Cold War, Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis, but the fake authoritativeness and the real pusillanimity are at least as evident today as they were in MenckenŐs day. That is certainly the case when it comes to their writing about the very important subject of the violent death of the U.S. governmentŐs leading opponent of the creation of the state of Israel, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal.
Now comes a man who has achieved a station in the profession that, but for his inability to write coherent English, young McNiece might aspire to, University of California at Merced professor emeritus Gregg Herken. You know that Herken has made it with the ruling establishment when you see that his new book on the movers and shakers who lived in the Georgetown district of Washington, DC, during the Cold War era got reviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, the Weekly Standard, and numerous other publications. That he has the stamp of approval as a certified court historian is further evidenced by the fact that for 15 years he was chairman of the Department of Space History at the Smithsonian InstitutionŐs National Air and Space Museum.
What strikes one in listening to his presentation about his book at WashingtonŐs Politics and Prose bookstore is his apparent lack of any sense of outrage over the very cozy relationship that existed (and still exists, we must presume) between prominent putative journalists and people at the very highest levels of AmericaŐs intelligence community, that is to say, our secret government. People so completely in bed with the most sinister people in the government can hardly be proper watchdogs upon them.
One might say the same thing about professional historians. The government kept its own inquiry into ForrestalŐs death secret for over 55 years and this fact seems not to have troubled our professional history community in the slightest. They continued with the snap suicide conclusion reached by the local coroner, the head of Bethesda Naval Hospital, and the news media, even when the summary results of the inquiry, released nearly a half year late, reached no conclusion as to what caused ForrestalŐs fall from a 16th floor window. Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, in their often-cited biography, Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal, managed to leave out the information that there had ever even been such an inquiry, much less that it had been kept secret. And when this writer was able to pry it loose through use of the Freedom of Information Act in 2004, our neutered arbiters of historical truth unanimously dummied up about it and have kept their silence right up to the present day.
Herken is comfortably in that mainstream, ignoring completely everything that we have learned since the initial reporting on the May 22, 1949, fall in his brief mention of ForrestalŐs death. His offense is worse than most, because we know he knows better. One of his references, as I note in the March 28 email that I was moved to write to him (below), is to the article in which I reveal the phoniness of the transcription of the morbid poem that was sold to the public as a sort of suicide note:
Dear Professor Herken,
I was impressed by the scholarship that you demonstrated in your letter to The New York Review of Books, reinforcing with new evidence your already persuasive argument that Robert Oppenheimer was an active member of the Communist Party of the United States. I was especially disappointed, then, to see how completely your scholarly skills seemed to have deserted you when you wrote about the death of our first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, in your most recent book, The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington:
Dismissed from his Pentagon post by Truman in March for his intransigence in the defense budget debate, Forrestal suffered a nervous breakdown weeks later and was confined to a secure wing of the navy's hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. During the early morning hours of May 22, 1949, after a restless night spent copying lines from the chorus of Sophocles's play Ajax, Forrestal fell to his death from the window of his room on the hospital's sixteenth floor.
He would be the first senior-ranking American casualty of the Cold War. (pp. 94-95)
Taking your small inaccuracies first, Forrestal did not fall from "the window of his room." There were at least three windows in his room, but Forrestal, according to the official record, did not go out any of them. He went out the window of the kitchen across the hall from his room.
No diagnosis of "nervous breakdown" was made by any of the doctors examining Forrestal at Bethesda Naval Hospital. You can search the transcript of the official "investigation" of Forrestal's death and find that the word "nervous" appears only once, in the endorsing letter of Dr. James Strecker in which he states his own qualifications on the subject of nervous disorders.
It is also unwarranted to state flatly that Truman sacked Forrestal because of his "intransigence in the defense budget debate." There are any number of reasons why Truman replaced Forrestal with Louis Johnson, but by giving that sole reason you do manage to make your insupportable conclusion that Forrestal was a "casualty of the Cold War" sound somewhat plausible. Arnold Rogow's carefully hedged-in conclusion is much more supportable, which is why I lead off with it in "New Forrestal Document Exposes Cover-up."
However history may ultimately judge his opposition to the establishment of Israel, by 1949 it was clear that Forrestal was, in a sense, one of the casualties of the diplomatic warfare that had led to the creation of the Jewish state.
All these inaccuracies are relatively slight, though, compared to your statement about Forrestal's restless night spent copying those lines from Sophocles. You should have told your readers, as all the other promoters of the suicide thesis have, that the poem in question reflects a bleak and despairing state of mind. More importantly, though, you should have shared with readers the evidence that most of those other writers did not have, that is, that the handwriting of the transcription doesn't resemble Forrestal's in the least and that the corpsman on duty looking over Forrestal said that in those last two hours of Forrestal's life when the corpsman was on duty the lights were off in his room and he did no reading or writing, and that no book was entered into evidence during the official investigation.
You then proceed to compound your error in the endnote that accompanies the quoted passage:
Internet conspiracy theorists have suggested that Forrestal was actually murdered by Soviet spies, or possibly by Mossad agents, because of his opposition to creation of the state of Israel. While some of Forrestal's "paranoia" turns out to have been justified—he was right in believing that the U.S. government had been penetrated by Russian spies—his personal papers at Princeton leave little doubt that he was deeply depressed for some time prior to his death.
Since the Mossad would not exist until a half year after Forrestal's death, not even those people you tar with the meaningless pejorative "Internet conspiracy theorists" have ever, to my knowledge, suggested that that organization had anything to do with Forrestal's death. That pro-Israel and pro-Communist partisans within the Truman government were, however, behind Forrestal's death has been suggested—by me in particular. You have referenced my work so you must know that I name the powerful White House aide David Niles as the most likely culprit in the plot to murder Forrestal. He was identified in the Venona intercepts as a person cooperating with Communist agents and he was eventually dismissed by Truman for passing important military secrets to Israel.
Because you specifically cite Part 3 of my ŇWho Killed James Forrestal?Ó—by web address though not by name—you know as well that I am on the firmest of ground when I say that the Sophocles transcription was not in Forrestal's handwriting. That is the article, after all, in which I revealed the dissimilarity between the handwriting in the transcription and several Forrestal handwriting samples: http://www.dcdave.com/article4/041103.htm.
Surely you must agree that nothing that might be found among Forrestal's personal papers that is suggestive of his suicide can compare in significance to the evidence that I have presented in this short email that is suggestive of his murder. The lead doctor at Bethesda, Captain George Raines, after all, said that he was suicidally depressed (although his second in command, Captain Stephen Smith, seems to have disagreed rather vigorously), but that evidence of suicide hardly compares to the physical evidence of murder: the ginned-up "suicidal transcription,Ó and broken glass on the bed and the laundered crime scene that I discuss in Part 2 of "Who Killed James Forrestal?"
I would very much like to hear what you might have to say in defense of what you have written about Forrestal's death in light of the facts that I have presented. Should I hear nothing I shall take it as a concession that what you have written is, as it seems to me on its face, indefensible.
March 28, 2015
Ten days have now passed and, predictably, I have had no response from Professor Herken. No doubt he has concluded that a person with a mainstream approval rating like his need not be bothered by anything so trivial as the truth. Nobody who might threaten his aerie, in his judgment, has said anything about his errors concerning ForrestalŐs death, after all, so he neednŐt be bothered.
As Mencken would have anticipated, he is in good company. Douglas Brinkley has brushed me off more than once as have the entire stable of historians at the University of VirginiaŐs Miller Center and a host of others. Frankly, I donŐt know how they live with themselves, or at least how they can refrain from spitting at what they see in the mirror when they shave in the morning.
April 7, 2015