James Carroll on James Forrestal

Throughout House of War, Carroll hammers home his heavy-handed theory that Forrestal's suicide is a metaphor for the Pentagon.       Dierdre Donahue, USA Today 


Since the fall 2004 publication on its web site by the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University of the long-suppressed official U.S. Naval Medical Center inquiry on the death of America’s first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, the general public has had the opportunity to know far more about the details of that death than it did before.  Prior to that time, the best available information was to be found in three books, the 1963 James Forrestal, a Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy, by Arnold Rogow; The Death of James Forrestal by “Cornell Simpson,”* published in 1966; and Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal by Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, published in 1992. 

Forrestal died from a fall in the early morning of May 22, 1949, from a window on the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he had been kept involuntarily for some sort of “breakdown” for seven weeks.  Remarkably, not one of the books has any direct report from anyone who was on that 16th floor during the immediate time period around the fatal fall.  Rogow tells us that the Navy corpsman guarding Forrestal looked in on him at 1:45 A.M., five minutes before he went out a window with a bathrobe belt tied around his neck, and saw him writing something from a book (presumably transcribing a morbid poem by Sophocles).  Hoopes and Brinkley repeat that account.  Rogow does not tell us how he knows that, because he has no reference.  It turns out that Rogow apparently fabricated the story.  From the official inquiry (popularly called the Willcutts Report, after Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of the National Naval Medical Center, who convened the review board) we learn that the corpsman on duty, Robert Wayne Harrison, did, indeed, look in the room at 1:45 and it was dark and Forrestal was apparently sleeping.  He said that Forrestal had done no reading or writing since he, Harrison, had come on duty at midnight, and the room had been dark the whole time. 

Hoopes and Brinkley’s additional sources for what transpired after midnight on the 16th floor are as bad or worse than Rogow’s.  They interviewed a doctor who worked some years later for the lead psychiatrist, Captain George Raines, in charge of Forrestal’s care.  Captain Raines had told him, he said, that Forrestal “’pulled rank’ and ordered the nervous young corpsman to go on some errand that was designed to remove him from the premises.”  We learn from Harrison’s testimony to the Willcutts panel that that is completely false as well.  Harrison was not present because the guard had been routinely relaxed for quite some time before that night, and he was simply down the hall making entries in the hospital log book.  

Hoopes and Brinkley’s key witness is the guard who had left for the night some two hours before the fall.  He had remained on the hospital premises, and when he heard the ruckus being made over Forrestal’s fall, because he had noticed Forrestal’s unusual restlessness, he just knew "instantly, instinctively” that Forrestal had committed suicide.  That corpsman’s name is Edward Prise, and virtually nothing of this is to be found in his official testimony.  He did notice that Forrestal had paced the floor a lot when he was on duty, but he told the panel that he made little of it. 

Simpson is on somewhat firmer ground than the other authors because he relies almost completely upon contemporary newspaper accounts of what took place.  But even they falsely reported that the corpsman responsible for Forrestal had gone on duty at 9 P.M., and Simpson repeats that as fact.  He is alone among the authors in claiming that Forrestal was probably murdered, but his best source is an anonymous Navy warrant officer who told Forrestal’s friend, Monsignor Maurice Sheehy, several hours after the event that Forrestal did not kill himself. 

Because they did not have the Willcutts Report, none of the authors report the broken glass that was seen on Forrestal’s bed by the first person to get a good look at his vacated room.  They also cannot report that the “crime scene” photographs of the room also pick up broken glass on the carpet at the foot of his bed but otherwise show a room that has no evidence of recent human habitation.  The nurse who saw the broken glass on the bed described bed clothes as “half turned back.”  The photographs, taken in broad daylight many hours after Forrestal’s fall, show a bed with only a bare mattress and pillow on it. 

Simpson is the only author to note that the transcription of the morbid poem was not authenticated by anyone.  Only with the release of the exhibits accompanying the Willcutts Report are we able to see the actual transcription.  Authentication is seen to be hardly necessary.  The handwriting of the transcription bears not the slightest resemblance to Forrestal’s. 

James Carroll Weighs In

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.  Enter the journalist, best-selling author, and excommunicated Catholic priest, James Carroll.  His new book, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, is the first book published since the release of the Willcutts Report that deals with the details of Forrestal’s death at any length.  His sources are exclusively the three superseded and largely discredited books.  Worse than that, he gives great prominence to the story clearly invented by prominent leftist columnist Drew Pearson that in the throes of his breakdown Forrestal, hearing sirens late at night, had run out of his house exclaiming, “The Russians are coming.” Carroll knows that that is not true, indicating in an endnote that Pearson had made a number of unverifiable and scandalous charges against Forrestal that call his credibility into question.  Nevertheless, the anecdote is just too good for his malign purposes for Carroll to let go of it.  A central thesis of his book is that the Cold War was a product of the paranoia centered in the Pentagon and that we never had anything to fear from the Communist menace.  That the loudest voice warning of the Communist threat—which would soon manifest itself in North Korea’s attempt to take over the entire country by force of arms—should be that of an insane man driven to suicide by his paranoia fits his thesis too well for him to concern himself too much with mere truth.  Do I exaggerate?  Here he is promoting his book on WAMU’s Diane Rehm show.  WAMU is a National Public Radio affiliate in Washington, DC.

Interviewer Susan Page:  You talk about the apostolic succession.  What does that mean?

Carroll:  I'm a Catholic.  The apostolic succession is a phrase that refers to handing on of the power of the Church from St. Peter forward through the bishops.  I use the analogy with the handing on of powers of nuclear assumptions and strategic air war and the entire dynamic toward war that's generated in the Pentagon, a succession that begins with James Forrestal who was the first Secretary of Defense.  Forrestal was a man who embraced a paranoid notion of Soviet threats. He put in place... He was the single most important architect, I argue, with early American Cold War mentality.  He was the sponsor of George Kennan's important "long telegram" and "Mr. X" article.  He embraced a kind of quasi-religious notion of the threat from Soviet communism.  He saw the world in radical good and evil terms.  He was, in that sense, a Manichean.  Every threat loomed so large in his imagination that he argued we had to be doubly, triply quadrupally prepared to meet it.  It was under Forrestal that this terrible mindset really took hold in the Pentagon and in America.  He had protégés.  His first protégé was George Kennan.  The equal to Kennan in those years was a young man named Paul Nitze who had come down to Washington with Forrestal from Wall Street.  Nitze and Kennan became competing protégés.  When Kennan, seeing what happened to Forrestal, was appalled and frightened by it, Forrestal's political paranoia had a personal aspect and he wound up committing suicide having been reported only a few days before he was institutionalized and found in the streets in his pajamas screaming, "The Russians are coming!  The Russians are coming!"  It seems like something out of a film but it happened.  Or is reported to have happened.  That's the defining moment at the beginning of a particularly paranoid mindset in American.  It was carried forward by a succession of figures…

Is it possible to imagine a more dishonest human being than James Carroll?  With his sentence fragment, “Or is reported to have happened,” he shows that he knows that this story is not true, as he must know almost everything he passed on about Forrestal’s “suicide” from those books is not true.**  Here in the year 2006 almost all serious research begins with a search of the Internet, and anyone researching Forrestal’s death could hardly have failed to discover the report of the Willcutts Review Board. 

But consider how he begins his answer of the interviewer’s question. “I’m a Catholic,” he says.  Here’s what C. Joseph Doyle had to say about that in the March 2000 issue of the Catholic World Report:

After abandoning his orders and his vocation, Carroll would marry outside the Church before he was laicized; he mentions in his autobiography that he thus incurred the penalty of excommunication—a fact which has not deterred him from regularly identifying himself as a member of the Catholic Church.

Carroll would claim he left the priesthood because of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming traditional Catholic opposition to artificial birth control, saying the Pope was “in the grip of a savage Catholic neurosis about sex.” Yet Humanae Vitae was issued in 1968, a year before Carroll was ordained. An April 1997 Boston Globe article on Carroll offered a different explanation for his decision to leave the priesthood, saying that he was unwilling to give up social activism—although he was deeply involved in social activism throughout his brief priestly career. Whatever actually motivated him to leave the priesthood, the decision evidently brought upward social mobility, in the form of a home on Boston’s exclusive Beacon Hill, a summer cottage on Cape Cod, positions at the Boston Globe and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and an education for his children at the elite, historically Protestant Milton Academy. 

That a liar like Carroll should exhibit an affinity for the malicious utterances of a liar like Drew Pearson is only natural, one must suppose.  In their testimony before the Willcutts review board, Forrestal’s doctors are unanimous that he had never attempted suicide before his fatal fall, but shortly after that fall, Pearson wrote that Forrestal had made four previous suicide attempts, the latest of which had occurred right there at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

The Encounter

As luck would have it, Carroll, while in Washington on his book promotion tour, spoke at the Politics and Prose bookstore on the night of May 25. This came only a couple of days after his interview on the local Diane Rehm Show.  He didn’t come down quite as hard on Forrestal in his talk as he did in his interview or he does in his book, but he did allude to him as one of his “villains.”  He also gave me a good lead-in to my comments and question by his response to the questioner ahead of me, which had to do with nuclear proliferation.  Carroll expressed his dismay at the build-up of nuclear weapons in the world and, predictably, laid the full blame on a procession of Pentagon warmongers. 

I began by saying that as an opponent of the use of nuclear weapons, he was way off base to make James Forrestal a bad guy in his book.  If Forrestal had been listened to when he was Secretary of the Navy, I said, we would never have committed the greatest war crime in human history, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because a negotiated surrender would have already taken place.  Furthermore, there would have been no Korean War, because the surrender would have taken place before the Russians entered the war against the Japanese and they wouldn’t have had the chance to grab half of Korea.  That was Forrestal’s primary interest in hastening the surrender of the Japanese, who knew that they were thoroughly defeated by the end of 1944.

Knowing from experience that moderator Barbara Meade was poised to cut me off by demanding that I ask a question or sit down, I then asked this: “On the matter of Forrestal’s death, why would you rely exclusively on three books, one of which was published by the John Birch Society over a pseudonym and none of which has any direct evidence from anyone who was on Forrestal’s floor of the hospital around about the time he went out the window?  Why would you do that when the long-secret official report on his death, which does have the testimony of the witnesses, has been on the web site of the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University since the fall of 2004?”

At that point Carroll, not challenging my initial statement in support of Forrestal’s peace role with respect to Japan, offered to give some background to my question.  I interjected with the background that Forrestal had been committed to the Bethesda Naval Hospital for some sort of breakdown and had been kept there involuntarily for seven weeks before going out a 16th floor window in the wee hours of May 22, 1949.

The background he had in mind, responded Carroll, was that the fatal fall of a prominent Czech anti-Communist leader not too long before Forrestal’s fall was thought by many people to be an assassination, so this could easily lead people to be suspicious of Forrestal’s death.   “But does the report say anything different from what is in the books?” he asked  (He gave the impression that he was hearing about the Willcutts Report for the very first time and asked me to come up and tell him more after the questions and book signing were over.).

“Indeed it does,” I responded.  “For one thing it has among its exhibits the handwritten transcription of a morbid poem that served as Forrestal’s ‘suicide note,’ and it was clearly written in a hand other than Forrestal’s. You and the books also say that Forrestal was paranoid, but none of the Bethesda doctors who testified ever described him as paranoid, or even used the words “paranoid” or “paranoia.”

“So if he was killed, who do you think killed him?” asked Carroll.

“You want me to solve the crime?” I asked, knowing that there would be no opportunity to build any kind of a case in that venue.

At that point, Carroll addressed himself to the audience, saying that the general view of everyone who has studied the matter is that Forrestal committed suicide, and that was his own opinion as well.  As for the doctors not saying that Forrestal was paranoid, it was because military doctors were loath to suggest that the Secretary of Defense might have been mentally ill while on the job.

“That’s a lie,” I could not restrain myself from saying, knowing, as Carroll also surely knows, that virtually the whole case for Forrestal’s mental illness was publicly put forward by Captain Raines in the wake of the death, and that it was upon Raines’s statements that Arnold Rogow and everyone who followed him had painted the picture of Forrestal as a very sick and suicidal man.

Before I could explain my charge, the moderator, Meade, jumped in and said, “Let’s give some of these other people a chance to ask a question,” and that was the end of our exchange.

I did approach Mr. Carroll just as he was signing his last book and quickly presented him with another question, "Did you know that there was an official Navy report on Forrestal’s death?"  

Now, with the audience gone and few people near to hear him, his manner turned brusque.  “I’ll have to go check with my sources,” he responded.  “I’ll look at what you have written,” he continued, and then he looked away, indicating that he was through with me for the night and indicating as well that, though he may look at what I have written—and probably already has—he would reserve the right to ignore it.

The Lesson

If you search the Internet for “James Carroll” and “Forrestal” together, you will find a great number of review articles about Carroll’s new book.  The reviews are decidedly mixed, although you certainly won’t find a one of them faulting Carroll, as I have, for his indefensibly shoddy scholarship on Forrestal’s death. The most salient fact about the reviews is that the book is being given a lot of attention.  In the quantity of publicity it is receiving, both good and bad, it is very much like Arnold Rogow’s book.  As I note in the first installment of “Who Killed James Forrestal?” Rogow’s book was, up until Carroll’s came out, the most heavily publicized of the books that deal with Forrestal’s death and, at the same time, had the most distorted and deceptive treatment of the subject.  Both dubious distinctions probably now belong to Carroll’s House of War. 

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. 

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

David Martin
June 9, 2006

 *As I note in “Who Killed James Forrestal, Part 4,” “Cornell Simpson” is the pen name that the conservative writer for the John Birch Society, Medford Evans, apparently used only for the writing of The Death of James Forrestal.  (April 22, 2011 update:  Now the conclusion that “Cornell Simpson” was actually Medford Evans has been called into question by Evans, the younger.  Stay tuned.)

**Update of December 18, 2012.  It turns out that Carroll is even more dishonest than I thought he was.  In researching “Oliver Stone on James Forrestal” I took another look at his endnote on “The Russians are coming” episode reported by Pearson.  His basic source is page 739 of David McCullough’s Truman, but the full McCullough quote is, Drew Pearson reported that Forrestal was ‘out of his mind’ and claimed incorrectly that in Florida Forrestal had rushed out into the street screaming, “The Russians are coming.” (Emphasis added)


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