Lies about the Kennedy and Forrestal Deaths

From the University of Virginia's Miller Center

When they're peddling the official line, America's establishment historians apparently have no problem at all with extremely shoddy scholarship.  Although they will doubtless correct the clear factual errors about the John F. Kennedy assassination after I point them out here, if their treatment of the death of Secretary of Defense James Forrestal is any indication, they will keep their popular propaganda intact.  

Here is what the prestigious Miller Center of the University of Virginia has been saying for some time about the death of President John F. Kennedy at its Online Reference Resource on the American President:

On November 22, 1963, the President and the First Lady journeyed to Dallas on a campaign trip. Accompanying the Kennedys in the motorcade through the city were Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie. As it moved through Dealey Plaza, the presidential limousine was fired upon. Governor Connally was wounded; President Kennedy who was hit twice, was killed. Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he died soon thereafter.

The shots had been fired from a nearby warehouse and some hours after the assassination, police arrested warehouse employee Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald was a mysterious former Marine who had defected to the Soviet Union, had recently been in Cuba—he had championed Cuban causes—and then returned to the United States. Two days after the arrest, while being transferred to another jail, the suspect was himself slain by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner. Ruby was tried and convicted of murder in Oswald's death. He died of cancer in January 1967, while awaiting a retrial in prison.

The dramatic course of events led many to wonder whether a conspiracy was afoot. A commission to investigate the assassination, established by President Lyndon B. Johnson and headed by Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren, determined that Oswald had acted alone. In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that there were at least three shots fired, not two as the Warren Commission had claimed, though it drew no other firm conclusions. It did affirm, though, that Oswald had fired all three shots, two of which hit Kennedy. A plethora of conspiracy theories about Kennedy's assassination have proved, nevertheless, an enduring phenomenon.

Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with such an important event as the Kennedy assassination knows that the Warren Commission concluded that three, not two, shots were fired in Dealey Plaza that day.  The Miller Center also more closely resembles a Jay Leno interviewee than a Jeopardy contestant with its statement that Oswald had "recently been in Cuba."  There is nothing in the historical record to suggest that that is true.  

Perhaps more important than its blatant errors is how the Miller Center misleads its readers about the conclusions of the House Select Committee on Assassinations.  The committee might not have drawn any other firm conclusions than that Oswald fired three shots, but they did conclude that it was highly likely that there was a conspiracy and that at least one more shot was fired by someone else. The Center's impressive array of scholars and experts could hardly have sounded so dismissive of all those "conspiracy theories" had they been honest enough to tell us that even this House committee, proclaiming the government's last word on the subject, thought that a conspiracy was probably behind Kennedy's killing.   

The Stubborn Forrestal Lies

Speaking of the government's last word and honest revelations, the failings of the Miller Center's scholars and experts on the Kennedy death pale in comparison to their ongoing cover-up with respect to the violent death of America's first secretary of defense, James Forrestal.  Here is what they currently have to say on that subject:

Forrestal became the nation's first secretary of defense, serving President Harry S. Truman in that capacity from 1947 until he resigned in 1949. Shortly after his resignation, Forrestal was hospitalized because of severe depression. On May 22, 1949, he committed suicide when he allegedly climbed out of a window to hang himself and fell to his death from the sixteenth floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.

Climbing out a sixteenth floor window for the purpose of hanging oneself certainly must count as one of the most bizarre ways of committing suicide ever, so the sages at the Miller Center felt it necessary to hedge themselves in a bit by describing this scenario as a mere allegation.  One might think, then, that that would make the suicide claim an allegation as well, but one would reckon without the aforementioned determined adherence of this clutch of scholars and experts to popular propaganda.  The only alternative suicide scenario we are left with, after all, is that Forrestal went to the trouble to tie a bathrobe belt around his neck for no reason at all before taking his long plunge.

No, "suicide" it is, and suicide it will remain on the Miller Center's web site, in spite of the fact that the last official word from the government—the result of its official inquiry into the death—is only that Forrestal died from injuries caused by the fall.  The report offered no conclusion as to what caused the fall.  The Miller Center's excuse for stubbornly clinging to their suicide conclusion, in spite of the availability of the official investigation report since 2004—a report that thoroughly undermines that conclusion—remains, in effect, that "established historians" still cling to it. None of those worthies, you see, has yet seen fit to weigh in on Forrestal's death in light of the latest revelations.  This is a particularly disingenuous rationalization for the Miller Center to make, though, when it houses a veritable stable of such types.

Missionary Work at Mr. Jefferson's University

Ignorance of the 2004 revelations about Forrestal's death might be, although it should not be, an excuse for many within the history community to perpetuate the myth that Forrestal killed himself.  That is an excuse that the historians at the Miller Center can't use.  I have seen to that.  I sent the letter below three weeks ago, on April 8, 2008, to Professor Brian Balogh, associate professor of history at Virginia who also co-directs the Miller Center Fellowships in Public Affairs, with open copies to his fellow scholars and experts there.  As you can see, it is the last of a number of exchanges with various Miller Center leaders.  I have had no response to this last, most encompassing letter, so it is time to make it public:

Dear Professor Balogh,

As you can see from the exchanges below, the Miller Center continues to display on its web site what I consider to be a historical falsehood, and a very important one at that, because that falsehood reflects the consensus view of "established historians." I am writing to you and your colleagues at the Miller Center in an attempt to change that view.

The question at issue is the cause of the death of the first secretary of defense, James Forrestal. The consensus view at this point is that Forrestal committed suicide. The main problem with that view is that it is based upon much weaker evidence than has been available to the general public since the autumn of 2004, when the transcript of the official Navy inquiry into the death—called the Willcutts report, after Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, head of the National Naval Medical Center, who convened the review board—was put on the web site of the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University. Even though I believe that I have demonstrated quite convincingly at and further at that the Willcutts report thoroughly undermines the suicide thesis, your Michael Greco is quite right in suggesting that no established historian has yet written anything that raises doubts about the suicide thesis based upon this report.

The real problem, as I point out to Mr. Greco, is that no regular historian (my Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina is in economics, with a concentration in economic history) has written anything at all about Forrestal's death in light of this powerful new evidence, although they have written things that are based upon the old, weak and superseded evidence. One might wonder why that is the case. I have tried to do all that I can to make sure that it is not because of ignorance of the new information. That was my reason for writing the Miller Center in the first place, and it is why I am writing you today.

Here is a brief summary of my efforts to enlighten historians and other purveyors of historical information up to now.

The main surviving biographer of Forrestal is Douglas Brinkley. My letter to him and my account of our personal encounters is at Historian Keith McFarland is the co-author, along with the lawyer David Roll, of a recent biography of Forrestal's successor, Louis Johnson. They have statements about Forrestal's death that are contradicted by the new evidence. You can find my letter to these co-authors along with an account of our personal encounters at the same web address.

Historian David Kaiser has ill-informed statements about Forrestal's nemesis, Drew Pearson, on his personal website, along with what I believe to be the false statement that Forrestal committed suicide. U.S. Senate Historian Donald A. Ritchie is better about Pearson, but he is equally wrong about Forrestal's death. My exchanges with both of these men are at as is my letter to communications professor, Christopher Sharrett, who has written on his web site that Forrestal committed suicide.

Additionally, a number of non-historians have written about Forrestal's death since 2004, apparently ignoring the Willcutts report. Two wrote erroneously about Forrestal's death in histories of the Pentagon, Boston Globe columnist, James Carroll, and Washington Post reporter, Steve Vogel. My exchange with Carroll is at and with Vogel is at Another non-historian who has written about Forrestal's death in conflict with the now known evidence—and even with the bad old evidence—is political psychiatrist-psychologist, Jerrold Post. My letter to him is at

As I did in my initial letter to Professor Brinkley, I am now calling upon you to help me end this blackout of important history. As I note at, the History News Network of George Mason University has done its part by announcing in 2004 that the Willcutts report had been made public after 55 years of suppression. One would expect that by now someone in the history community would have performed the public service of at least telling us in a publication what he thinks the Willcutts report says, and what he takes its significance to be.

At best, I would welcome the offer to co-author a journal article on the subject with any of you. Although I have exhibited a willingness to delve into subjects that seem to frighten off most "established historians," if you would examine my work carefully, I think you will agree that I am a careful scholar. The suggestion that I might engage in rumor-mongering or the propounding of "unsubstantiated theories" is, frankly, insulting. Rather, the standard to which I try to adhere is the one set by Italian patriot, Gaetano Salvemini. That simple philosophy is given in the penultimate paragraph of Dorothy Gallagher's 1988 book, All the Right Enemies, The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca, and I quote here from page 273:

“Salvemini returned to Italy after the war, as Tresca had hoped to do. There he denounced both the United States and the Soviet Union for cooperating in policies that, he said, were designed to keep Italians ‘obedient’ to the many ‘stupidities’ of their past. People complained that Salvemini did not understand Italy any longer, that he had been too long in exile, that he expected too much. To these criticisms he replied, ‘My only rule is to behave so that I won't have to spit at myself when I shave in the morning.’”

It is a precept that I would recommend to the American history community.

David Martin

I had sent the following letter on March 24 to former Virginia governor Gerald Baliles, Director of the Miller Center:

Dear Governor Baliles,

On March 3, 2008, I sent the following letter to Ms. Sheila Blackford, Managing Editor of the Miller Center's Online Reference Resource:

I would like to report a serious historical error on a page of your American President Online Reference Resource. At you state, "[James] Forrestal became the nation's first secretary of defense, serving President Harry S. Truman in that capacity from 1947 until he resigned in 1949 following a nervous breakdown. Forrestal committed suicide on May 22, 1949, jumping out of a window at the Bethesda (MD) Naval Hospital." 

Forrestal resigned because he was asked to resign by President Truman. He had not suffered a nervous breakdown. None of the doctors who treated him at Bethesda Naval Hospital described his condition as a nervous breakdown. What is more important, though, recently uncovered evidence greatly undermines the theory that Forrestal voluntarily jumped out of the window at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Even without the recent evidence, the last official word from the government on Forrestal's death, the conclusion of the review board convened by Admiral Morton Willcutts, released more than four months after the death, was simply that Forrestal had died from his fall, without speculating about what had caused his fall. The report did not conclude, in other words, that he had committed suicide. It certainly didn't say, as you do, that he simply jumped out of the window, because an explanation would have to have been given for the bathrobe belt that was tied tightly around his neck.

The full Willcutts Report was withheld from the public until I obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2004. If you will go to my most recent article on the subject at and follow the links I think that you will have to agree that the evidence is overwhelming that Forrestal did not commit suicide. Any source that you might have used for the statement on your page that he did so would have to be based on what was publicly known prior to the fall of 2004. No one has publicly concluded that Forrestal committed suicide who has taken into account the Willcutts Report revelations, and I dare say that no one at the Miller Center or at the University of Virginia would be able to do so.

I look forward to a public correction of this important error.

David Martin

On March 10, I received this reply:

Dear Mr. Martin,

Thank you for writing to American President: An Online Reference Resource.

I appreciate your information about James Forrestal. I sent your email along to the Consulting Editor for the American President essays on the Harry Truman administration, and he would like to leave the essay as it is for now.

Sheila Blackford

I'm sure that you will agree that as a final response, this one is wholly unacceptable. I immediately thanked Ms. Blackford for passing the information along to the consulting editor, but I also asked her who that person might be so that I might ask him how he, that is to say, how the Miller Center defends placing on its web site what is a clear falsehood. That characterization certainly fits the statement that Forrestal resigned because he had suffered a nervous breakdown. You can search the historical record all you want, and that includes everything written before the release of the vital official investigation in 2004, and you will find no support for that statement. Forrestal resigned because he was asked to resign by President Harry Truman. President Truman had a number of reasons for asking for Forrestal's resignation, but Forrestal's presumed "nervous breakdown" was not among them. The long-suppressed official investigation report also thoroughly undermines the notion that Forrestal voluntarily jumped out of a window.

Ms. Blackford has not furnished me the name of the putative decision maker in this matter, and as we go into the second week, it looks as though she will not do so. As a proud Virginian whose great grandfather, a native of Halifax County, fought with Lee's army, I am not at all proud of the fact that my former governor, a man for whom I once voted, presides over an American history organization that prints verifiable historical falsehoods on the Internet, will not retract those falsehoods when they are pointed out, and will not defend its actions.

Sad to say, I am put in mind of what author Roderic Braithwaite said in describing Soviet movies of the late Stalin era, "...their breathtaking disdain for historical truth, [makes] them feel almost greasy to the touch." I never thought I would see something coming out of Thomas Jefferson's university that gives me the same feeling. If you have any regard at all for truth and justice and the reputation of a great state and university, you will do something about it.

David Martin
Sic semper tyrannis

On March 29, 2008, I received this response from Michael Greco of the Miller Center:

Dear Mr. Martin,

Based on your email, we have read the Willcutts report and revised some of the text on James Forrestal on American President: An Online Reference Resource. As you mentioned, the report does not use the term “nervous breakdown” but instead mentions repeatedly that Forrestal suffered from severe depression. We also changed the wording about Forrestal jumping out of a window because sources indicate that he fell out the window while allegedly trying to hang himself.

But as far as whether or not Forrestal committed suicide, I think you have misunderstood the role of American President. The web site is an educational site for general users. As such, we see our responsibility as providing our users with a mainstream interpretation of history. We do not publish groundbreaking new scholarship or challenge the historical consensus that is derived from secondary sources written by established academics. If you can point us to secondary sources written by established historians that discuss the Willcutts report and cast doubt on whether Forrestal committed suicide, we would be very interested in reading them. However, until historians have analyzed and weighed the report against other historical materials and written about their findings, we will not introduce unsubstantiated theories and rumors into American President.

To help us achieve our mission at American President, we enlist Consulting Editors who review our materials and add their own interpretations to various degrees. Each Consulting Editor is listed on the home page for each President. The Consulting Editor for Harry S. Truman and his administration, right on the Truman home page, is Alonzo Hamby, who is a distinguished professor of history at Ohio State University and author of Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. He has approved the changes to the Forrestal essay.

We appreciate how strongly you feel about this subject and your determination to have the Willcutts report incorporated into the historical record. Nevertheless, American President seeks to represent the consensus of academic historians.


Michael D. Greco
Assistant Director for Library and Information Services
Miller Center of Public Affairs
University of Virginia
434.924.4016 <> <>

I responded to Mr. Greco on the same day as follows, and nothing further has transpired:

Dear Mr. Greco,

Thank you for your response to my letters to Ms. Blackford and to Governor Baliles, and I apologize for my poor research skills in not finding the name of the Truman biographer, Alonzo Hamby (of Ohio U. not Ohio State), as your consulting editor for the page in dispute. I agree that the page as it now reads, with no mention of the cause of James Forrestal's resignation and with the conclusion that Forrestal committed suicide, is consistent with the consensus of "established academics" in the field of American history. By making the changes that you have up to now, based upon my complaint, I believe that you have tacitly acknowledged that what you had up before was incorrect by your own standards. This belated response is also much better than the initial one, that is, that you would make no changes, with no reason given.

Contrary to your speculation about my understanding of the role of American President—as opposed to the role of the history community of the University of Virginia, with whom I should expect you at least rub shoulders—I have never labored under the illusion that you would write anything that went against prevailing historical sentiment. With respect to James Forrestal's death, however, my intent was to educate you to the fact that that sentiment is apparently based entirely upon what was known prior to the release of the best evidence in the case (not "unsubstantiated theories and rumors"), which is the long-suppressed official investigation of Forrestal's death. Just as you have asked me to alert you to anything written by "established historians" that discusses the Willcutts report and casts doubt on the suicide conclusion, I dare say that you will not be able to point me to any historian who has had anything to say about it at all since it was made available to the public in the fall of 2004. I think you would have to agree that that fact alone does not reflect particularly well upon our established historians.

And thus it has always been with this group with regard to the Willcutts report. As a prime example, in their comprehensive 1992 Forrestal biography, Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, the main source for Hamby in his Truman biography on Forrestal's death, neglect to tell the readers that there was such a thing as the Willcutts report, much less that it was kept secret. Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, not one American historian since 1949 has made any public complaint or has voiced the slightest suspicion over the fact that this official investigation was kept secret, that is, that by definition a cover-up has taken place. With that sorry record before us and with the resounding silence with which the 2004 release of the Willcutts report by the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton Universtiy has been greeted by the history community, I must say that I am not at all optimistic that the Miller Center will have to give up its published theory that Forrestal committed suicide anytime soon.

Yes, I did say "theory." You may read the 5-point conclusion of the last official word of the government on Forrestal's death, that is, the results of the Willcutts report, all you want and you will not find anywhere the conclusion that James Forrestal committed suicide. It is as though the Warren Commission had not concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. To be sure, within hours of his death, the county coroner said that Forrestal committed suicide and the Bethesda Naval Hospital issued a statement saying that he had committed suicide, and all the newspapers said that he did, but none were qualified to make such a ruling at that point. The fact of the matter is that after all the testimony was taken (though it was far from all that should have been taken) and all the evidence was gathered (again, less than there should have been), the Willcutts review board could not find it within itself to say that Forrestal committed suicide.

And as far as "unsubstantiated theories" go, I know you call it merely an allegation, but the notion that Forrestal in the fleeting time available would have gone to the trouble to attempt to hang himself out of a 16th story window is about as unsubstantiated as a theory can get. Certainly nothing in the Willcutts report comes close to supporting it. Hoopes and Brinkley write that the bathrobe cord "gave way," suggesting that it broke, but that conclusion is completely contradicted by the testimony of Hospitalman William Eliades, as close as the report gets to the subject:

"I looked to see whether he had tried to hang himself and see whether a piece of cord had broken off. It was all in one piece except it was tied around his neck."

The question of whether enough of the cord was left over for it to have been tied to the radiator under the window or whether the longest loose end appeared by its wrinkles to have been recently tied to anything was not addressed.

While in the interests of historical accuracy I would prefer that you not parade on your site the outlandish notion that Forrestal might have tried to double-kill himself by hanging from a 16th story window, as one who wouldn't mind seeing more skepticism of the insupportable suicide theory engendered in the public, I'd just as soon that you leave it alone for now.

As a final point, Professor Hamby, with whom I imagine you will share this email, is not supported at all by the doctors at Bethesda Naval Hospital in his assertion in his book that Forrestal was exhibiting classical signs of paranoia. The words "paranoia" and "paranoid" are completely lacking from the descriptions of Forrestal by the doctors. The second in command of the doctors, Captain Stephen Smith, on the other hand, was particularly impressed with Forrestal's exceptional command of reality.

I shall continue in my efforts to inform historians of the existence of the Willcutts report and of what is contained therein. Examples can be found at You could render a great public service by lending a hand. Whatever you might choose to do, I am satisfied that, in due time, the truth will out.

David Martin, Ph. D.


The stories that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Kennedy with no assistance from anyone else and that James Forrestal killed himself have continued in parallel, to be trumpeted by establishment organs like the Miller Center, up to the present time.  But when it comes to the official investigations into the deaths, the parallels end.  The Warren Commission Report on Kennedy's death was not kept secret for 55 years, only to be pried loose by a Freedom of Information Act request.  And although there is a lot of evidence in the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission Report that calls the lone gunman theory into question, there is nothing that contradicts the conventional wisdom so clearly and obviously as to be found in the Willcutts Report on Forrestal.  Scholars have used the Warren Report to support the official version of events.  That can't be done with the Willcutts Report, which may be why the scholars at the Miller Center and their brethren in the history community continue to ignore it.

David Martin

April 29, 2008


Home Page    Column    Column 5 Archive    Contact