Biography and History

James V. Forrestal (1892-1949) was a Wall Street businessman who played an important role in U.S. military operations during and immediately after World War II. From 1940 to 1949 Forrestal served as, in order, assistant to President Roosevelt, Under Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Navy, and the first Secretary of Defense. He was instrumental in the buildup of the Navy during World War II and an important figure in the development of the unified National Military Establishment (NME) following the war.

Forrestal began his career on Wall Street in 1916 as a bond salesman for William A. Read and Company (later Dillon, Read and Company), a banking firm that was rising in importance at that time. Except for serving in the Navy from 1917 to 1919, Forrestal remained at William A. Read and Company until 1940. Because of his success as a bonds salesman, he was made a partner in the firm in 1923 and became the "right-hand man" of the head of the firm, Clarence Dillon. Forrestal became vice-president in 1926 and company president in 1937.

Forrestal left Wall Street in June 1940 to take a position as assistant to President Roosevelt, serving as his liaison for handling the national defense program. Soon after, in August, Roosevelt appointed Forrestal to the new post of Under Secretary of the Navy under Secretary Frank Knox. The new position was designed to handle contracts, tax and legal affairs, and to serve as liaison with other government agencies. Congress had just passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act, and it fell to Forrestal to implement the expansion of the Navy it required. Under Forrestal's leadership, the procurement and production program facilitated the rapid construction of navy ships and equipment, which reached record production levels, and the Navy grew from 158,000 to 3.6 million individuals. He also established public relations offices to promote national recognition of the Navy's role in the war and worked with War Secretary Robert Patterson to solve problems of raw material supplies through a plan designed by Ferdinand Eberstadt, a close advisor to Forrestal throughout his military career.

After the death of Frank Knox in May 1944, Forrestal was appointed Secretary of the Navy, having already established his reputation as a highly capable administrator. Favoring a business-like approach, Forrestal instituted a reduction of ceremony and utilized business methods to manage the Navy and encourage production. To this end, he visited the plants to inform workers about the progress of the war and the needs of the Navy and formed the Navy Industrial Association to bring together Navy personnel and significant civilian suppliers. To better understand the needs of the Navy, Forrestal travelled to Europe twice and three times to the Pacific and undertook a study of military logistics and strategy through extensive reading. As Secretary, he oversaw the Navy in the last year of the war and the following two years of demobilization.

After the end of World War II in 1945, Forrestal argued against demobilizing too rapidly. Instead, he advocated a program of universal military training and cautioned that the nation's military strength must be maintained to enforce a lasting peace. He was, however, initially a staunch opponent of President Truman's plan to unify the Army and the Navy into a single department of national defense. Forrestal argued that the department would be too large for its head to have any meaningful understanding of it, forcing him to rely too heavily on his military advisors. He was also concerned that unification would shift the primary method of defense from naval aircraft carriers to air force bombers with atomic weapons which he felt would weaken American's military position. When President Truman continued to support unification, Forrestal enlisted Ferdinand Eberstadt to develop a compromise plan. Eberstadt's plan, which formed the basis for the National Security Act of 1947, established a single military department called the National Military Establishment (NME). The NME, led by the Secretary of Defense, combined the departments of War and the Navy and established the Department of the Air Force. However, the plan retained some of the original structure of the U.S. military by making the heads of each department somewhat independent, coordinated by the Secretary of Defense but not directly subordinate to him. The Act also established the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

In September 1947, Forrestal was appointed the first Secretary of Defense. In this position, he was responsible for coordinating the activities of the U.S. military and developing national defense policy. As the first secretary, it was Forrestal's formidable task to enact the unification of the departments required by the National Security Act, coordinating the activities of the previously-independent Army (War) and Navy and overseeing the formation of the new Department of the Air Force. One of his chief obstacles proved to be the structure of the NME itself, which provided the Secretary of Defense with too little authority over the heads of the military departments. Another significant challenge was obtaining a sufficient budget for the department at a time when President Truman demanded a reduction in military spending. The limited funds exacerbated the competition between the military branches over resources. The challenges were further increased by the escalating tensions of the Cold War during Forrestal's tenure.

Despite the difficulties, Forrestal identified several important accomplishments in his first report as Secretary of Defense in December 1948, among them the development of short- and long-range strategic plans, an integrated NME budget, the definition of roles within the NME, the coordination of service procurement efforts, and the establishment of overseas unified commands. He also identified several factors that would facilitate further progress, including the significant strengthening of the Secretary of Defense's authority as well as changes to other structural elements of the NME. Many of his recommendations were part of the 1949 amendments to the National Security Act voted into law in August 1949, although by that time Forrestal had already left his post. Forrestal resigned as Secretary of Defense on March 28, 1949 and was succeeded by Louis Johnson, previously Assistant Secretary of War.

James Vincent Forrestal was born on February 15, 1892 in Beacon, New York to James and Mary A. (Toohey) Forrestal. He began his college education at Dartmouth College in 1911 and transferred to Princeton University the next year as a member of the Class of 1915. At Princeton, Forrestal was chairman of The Daily Princetonian, a member of the student council, and voted "most likely to succeed" by his class. After Princeton, Forrestal briefly held positions at the New York World, the New Jersey Zinc Company, and the Tobacco Products Corporation before beginning his career on Wall Street. Forrestal married Josephine Ogden, a columnist for Vogue magazine, in October 1926. They had two sons, Michael and Peter. Forrestal committed suicide on May 23, 1949 at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland while being treated for depression and occupational fatigue similar to that suffered by service men in battle. Upon being informed of his death, President Truman said "This able and devoted public servant was as truly a casualty of the war as if he had died on the firing line."

Source: From the finding aid for MC051

  • Ferdinand Eberstadt Papers. 1868-1970 (inclusive), 1935-1965 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC021

    Ferdinand Eberstadt (1890-1969) was a prominent Wall Street investment banker who also served in several government posts throughout his career. During World War II, he organized the production and distribution of supplies to the United States military through his work with the Army-Navy Munitions Board and the War Production Board, and he was subsequently involved in plans for the reorganization of the armed services and in the development of post-war economic policies. The Eberstadt papers primarily document his extensive career in public service to the United States related to defense and the economy, as well as his career as an investment banker and his personal life, and include correspondence, reports, his writings, and his personal papers.

  • James V. Forrestal Papers. 1907-1958 (inclusive), 1940-1949 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC051

    James V. Forrestal (1892-1949) was a Wall Street businessman who played an important role in U.S. military operations during and immediately after World War II. From 1940 to 1949 Forrestal served as, in order, assistant to President Roosevelt, Under Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Navy, and the first Secretary of Defense. The Forrestal Papers document his service from Under Secretary of the Navy to Secretary of Defense and include correspondence, memoranda, reports, speeches, and press releases.

  • James V. Forrestal Papers. 1907-1958 (inclusive), 1940-1949 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC051

    James V. Forrestal (1892-1949) was a Wall Street businessman who played an important role in U.S. military operations during and immediately after World War II. From 1940 to 1949 Forrestal served as, in order, assistant to President Roosevelt, Under Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Navy, and the first Secretary of Defense. The Forrestal Papers document his service from Under Secretary of the Navy to Secretary of Defense and include correspondence, memoranda, reports, speeches, and press releases.

  • Arnold A. Rogow Papers on James V. Forrestal. 1933-1993 (inclusive), 1940-1960 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC240

    Arnold A. Rogow (1924-2006) was a political scientist, author, and psychotherapist. His main area of research was psychological explanations for politics, especially the decision-making of leaders, notably James Forrestal and Alexander Hamilton. The Rogow Papers are composed of materials he collected for his book James Forrestal: A Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy (The Macmillan Press: New York, 1963) and include correspondence with individuals who knew Forrestal, Rogow's notes, and other research materials.