The two highest-ranking government officials in the history of the American republic to have “committed suicide” are Deputy White House Counsel, Vincent W. Foster, Jr., on July 20, 1993, and Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal, on May 22, 1949. Actually, Forrestal was not a government official at the time of his death. He had been rather abruptly removed from office on March 28, and after almost immediately suffering some kind of breakdown, he had been kept against his will since April 2, a period of more than 7 weeks, on the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Since he was no longer a government employee, it is unclear upon what authority he was being “cared for” at this U. S. military facility.
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Though technically no longer a government official at the time of his death, Forrestal was a far more prominent and powerful man than Foster. Independently wealthy since his days as president of Dillon, Read, and Company on Wall Street, as Secretary of the Navy he had graced the cover of Time magazine on October 29, 1945. In September of 1947, even though he had opposed the legislation that created the department, Forrestal was made America’s first Secretary of Defense. Widely acclaimed as an extraordinarily dedicated and effective administrator, he rivaled Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, as the best known member of President Harry Truman’s cabinet.
Both Foster and Forrestal are said to have been suicidally depressed. Indeed, this is usually the first thing that will be mentioned when the matter of the death of either of these two men is brought up. The evidence that either of them was in such a disturbed mental state that he would resort to such an extreme solution is actually quite weak. In Foster’s case, it rests heavily upon the very doubtful authenticity of a disjointed, sophomoric note belatedly “found” in a briefcase that had previously been emptied out in full view of a number of people. In Forrestal’s case, the public was told in the very first press announcement of his death that he had stopped in the middle of copying over a classical poem, one that seems to welcome, in certain circumstances, the ending of one’s life. We have never been told how anyone knows that Forrestal actually wrote what he is said to have written, although author Arnold Rogow (James Forrestal, A Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy, 1963), the man most responsible for fixing in the public mind the notion that Forrestal was mentally unbalanced, has written, without the first bit of evidence for it, that Forrestal was seen writing it. Authors Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley (Driven Patriot, the Life and Times of James Forrestal, 1992) have also stated that Forrestal was seen writing it, but by a different person from the one cited by Rogow, although they give Rogow as their source. Curiously, nowhere on the public record are the actual would-be witness or witnesses themselves quoted directly on this matter.
Defenders of the official line on Foster’s death almost never refer to the known evidence. Rather, they allude to the “depression” as though it were a proven fact; they invoke authority, either the authority of the family, most of whom have publicly, at least, accepted the official conclusion, or of the authority of the various official “investigations” that have been made of his death; and they raise questions about the motive. If Foster was murdered, who did it and why?
When family members of victims don’t agree with the official line, whether it be this case or the Oklahoma City bombing, TWA 800, Pan Am 103, the Martin Luther King, Jr. murder, or 9-11, we seldom hear much about it in our press. The Forrestal death is an outstanding example of that rule.
The press also typically gives great attention to the findings of any official body that has been appointed to make an investigation. The heavily-touted Warren Commission is the best-known instance of this phenomenon. In the Foster death it was first a report by Robert Fiske and then one by Kenneth Starr.
So what do we have with the Forrestal death? It’s the Willcutts Review Board, named for Rear Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of the National Naval Medical Center. The Review Board took the testimony of all witnesses and finished its work on May 30. It was not until October 11, however, that its conclusions were released to the public, and here’s what was discovered, as related on page 15 of The New York Times of October 12, 1949:
That the body found on the ledge outside of Building 1 of the National Medical Center at 1:50 A.M. and pronounced dead at 1:55 A.M. Sunday, May 22, 1949, was identified as that of the late James V. Forrestal, a patient in the neuropsychiatric service of the United States Naval Hospital National Medical Center.
That the late James V. Forrestal died about 1:50 A.M. on Sunday, May 22, 1949, at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, as a result of injuries, multiple extreme, received incident to a fall from a high point in the tower, Building 1.
That the behavior of the deceased during the period of the stay in the hospital preceding his death was indicative of a mental depression.
That the treatment and precautions in the conduct of the case were in agreement with accepted psychiatric practice and commensurate with the evident status of the patient at all times.
That the death was not caused in any manner by the intent, fault, negligence or inefficiency of any person or persons in the naval service or connected therewith.
That’s it, folks. Notice what’s missing. There is no conclusion of suicide. They just tell us that Forrestal died from a fall from a high point in the building and that he had been depressed, but they don’t say who was responsible for the fall. They don’t even make mention of the dressing gown sash that was knotted tightly around the body’s neck, so they don’t have to explain it. There was no police investigation, so this is the official last word on Forrestal’s death. The findings upon which these conclusions are based were kept secret, and they remain secret to this day. If anyone did, indeed, witness Forrestal transcribing words from a poem onto a notepad shortly before he took his fatal plunge, it would be in the Review Board testimony. The authors Hoopes and Brinkley, in their extensive Forrestal biography, concealed from the readers the fact that this report has never been made public. Rogow mentioned the fact in passing in a footnote and made nothing of it, as though such things were routine and acceptable in this government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Finally, there is the matter of the motive and the likely suspects. It is no mystery at all who Forrestal’s greatest enemies were and who benefitted immensely from his death.
In Forrestal’s case, the answers are yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. For over a year he had been subject to a vilification campaign in the press the likes of which hardly any public official has ever had to endure in America. Leading the campaign, from the left and the right, respectively, were America’s two best-known and most powerful syndicated columnists, Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell. They painted Forrestal as a corrupt tool of Wall Street and the oil companies who put the interests of his cronies ahead of concern for the well being of refugees from European persecution. His big offense was that he was outspoken in his opposition to the creation of the state of Israel. The entire foreign policy establishment, led by Secretary of State Marshall, felt the same way, but the strong-willed Forrestal was the lightning rod for the supporters of Israel. He had received threatening telephone calls and he complained of being followed and electronically bugged. It has also been credibly reported that the Zionists attempted to blackmail him over the financial assistance that his investment banking firm, Dillon, Read, had given to the Nazis prior to World War II.
One might argue that because Israel had already been recognized by the United States by the time Forrestal died, and because he had been removed from the Truman cabinet and discredited by his breakdown and hospitalization, he was no longer a threat to the supporters of Israel. But he was a man of prominence, wealth, and determination who intended to buy a newspaper and to write a book that threatened to expose a number of Roosevelt-Truman administration secrets, especially related to the machinations that brought the United States into World