Forrestal's military, bureaucratic woes alive now

May 03, 1992|By Col. Harry G. Summers Jr.




Townsend Hoopes

and Douglas Brinkley.


587 pages. $30. This is an important book. On the surface, it is a definitive biography of James Vincent Forrestal. "[N]aturally ambitious in a period dominated by the Horatio Alger work ethic," Forrestal would slough off his plebeian Irish-Catholic background to become a Wall Street millionaire, undersecretary and then secretary of the Navy during World War II, and finally in 1947 the nation's first secretary of defense.

At the biographical level, it is a tragic tale indeed. Forrestal was, his biographers say, imbued "with a consuming desire to get on, to keep moving, onward and upward, in a relentless drive for the prizes acclaimed by society. That he was a driven man, no one doubted. . . . Even by the contemporary standards of the time, Forrestal was a workaholic. . . . He had geared his life to this driven style and could not live otherwise . . . he was led to the conclusion that he must personally remain in permanent vigil on the watchtower. The nation's danger became his danger . . ."

Thus, "The result was a reckless abuse of his physical and mental powers which, aggravated by hostile press attacks and growing self-doubt led predictably to exhaustion and despair, and to a wholly disproportionate sense of personal failure." Falling "victim to inner demons he had long suppressed," Forrestal took his own life, falling to his death from the 16th floor of the Bethesda (Md.) Naval Hospital on May 22, 1949.

What makes the book important, however, is the below-the-surface story -- a revealing look at the inner workings of America's defense bureaucracy. Although James Forrestal has long since passed to his reward, that bureaucracy is still very much alive. Interservice rivalry is a case in point. Before his suicide, Forrestal told Navy Capt. Dr. George N. Raines, Bethesda's chief psychiatrist, that "he had failed in his job at the Pentagon because he had gambled that the military services could be unified on the basis of reasoned cooperation instead of 'banging heads together,' the gamble had failed and Forrestal berated himself for naive misjudgment."

Ironically, Forrestal had been literally hoisted on his own petard. "Allowing himself to become the principal spokesman for a Navy officer corps that was bitterly opposed to any organizational change, he succeeded in achieving a weak and unworkable compromise, an outcome that deprived the . . . Secretary of Defense of . . . the authority . . . required to tame the fierce interservice rivalries . . ."

The authors continue: "Then, fatefully, he accepted the new job and discovered he had succeeded only too well."

These are the kinds of insights that biographers Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley bring to bear. Mr. Hoopes, now a distinguished international executive at the University of Maryland, served as undersecretary of the Air Force during the Johnson administration. He was one of Forrestal's assistants at the Department of Defense and has written an incisive account of bureaucratic bungling during the Vietnam War and a biography of John Foster Dulles. Dr. Brinkley, a history professor at Hofstra University, is the author of two works on Dean Acheson and the making of U.S. foreign policy.

Among the bureaucratic battles they describe is Mr. Forrestal's tough campaign to impose civilian control over the Navy's admirals and to force an understanding of the Clausewitzian dictum that war has two dimensions: preparation for war and war proper. Thanks to Secretary of War Elihu Root at the turn of the century, the Army long ago had learned that lesson. It was well established that preparation for war was primarily a task for the civilian secretariat. War proper was the job of the generals.

But the admirals had arrogated both jobs to themselves. It was only after a hard struggle that Forrestal forced the Navy to see the duality of war. "The presence of [Fleet Admiral and Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J.] King insured that there would be a fighting fleet, but the presence of Forrestal insured that it would be there in the first place for King to command."

From 1940 until 1945, "the fleet inventory grew from 1,090 vessels to 50,759 vessels, its ranks of officers and sailors RTC increased from 160,997 to 3,383,196 . . . their design, construction and delivery to the fighting forces was Forrestal's responsibility . . . it was Forrestal, primarily, who analyzed, organized, rationalized, energized and accelerated the whole vast intricate process."

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