Secretary of State James Forrestal's death was ruled a suicide even

Secretary of State James Forrestal’s death was ruled a suicide even

Secretary of State James Forrestal’s death was ruled a suicide even though there were signs of a struggle, he was found thrown from a closed window with a cord around his neck and left a suicide note that was in someone else’s handwriting

James Forrestal

was Secretary of the Navy during the last year of World War II. In
September 1947, after consolidation of the Army and Navy, President
Truman appointed him Secretary of Defense, the first person to hold that
position. Forrestal later became outspoken in his criticism of certain
policies of the Truman administration. We won’t go into the details or
the smear campaign waged against him by Drew Pearson, Walter Winchell
and others. Near the end of March 1949 Truman demanded Forrestal’s
resignation, a move Forrestal had anticipated. Forrestal’s

Secretary of State James Forrestal's death was ruled a suicide even
successor was sworn in March 28. The next day the House Armed Services
Committee held a ceremony lauding Forrestal’s military service, at which
he gave a brief speech. Afterwards Stuart Symington, Secretary of the
Air Force, sought out Forrestal and talked with him on their ride back
to the Pentagon. Marx Leva, Forrestal’s top aide and who had an office
next to his, found Forrestal profoundly changed after this meeting,
preoccupied and absent minded. He informed Forrestal’s friend Ferdinand
Eberstadt who then persuaded Forrestal to go with him to a vacation spot
at Hobe Sound, on the east coast of southern Florida, for a rest. On
March 31 Clifford Swanson, Surgeon General of the Navy, began
proceedings to have Forrestal hospitalized if he so desired. Two days
later Forrestal was flown from Hobe Sound back to Washington and
admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital suffering from what the doctors
described as exhaustion and depression due to overwork.He
was placed on the 16th floor of the central tower in a suite with a
small kitchen. By all accounts after a few weeks rest he had recovered,
yet he was not released. Seven and a half weeks later, on May 22 a few
minutes before 2 a.m., hospital personnel heard him landing on a roof 13
floors below the kitchen window, a bathrobe cord knotted around his
neck.A military board of investigation “for the
purpose of inquiring into and reporting upon the circumstances attending
the death of Mr. James V. Forrestal” was convened on May 23 by Morton
D. Willcutts, Rear Admiral of the Navy’s Medical Corps, with Captain A.
A. Marsteller as senior ranking officer. The proceedings lasted five
days. The resulting report, approved July 13, 1949, is now known as the
Willcutts Report. The Navy never published the report in full and it
remained filed away and forgotten until April 2004, when David Martin discovered it using a Freedom of Information Act request. A PDF photocopy is at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University.The
HTML rendition of the Willcutts Report presented here has several
advantages over the photocopy. It is much easier to read, your browser
can find desired text instantly, Google can better index it, and you can
easily and accurately quote the report using copy-paste. The ability to
search will be especially useful since the report is a mass of
unorganized detail. Even a cursory reading of the
report reveals that books about Forrestal seriously misrepresent what
happened the evening of May 21st 1949. David Martin, who has made a
specialty of exposing the chicanery of what he calls court historians
and journalists, analyzes this in detail in his series of articles cited
above. Forrestal has been called crazy, yet you will search the report
in vain for such words as delusion, persecution, anxiety, paranoia.The
report begins rather boringly with 27 pages of official approvals,
statements and endorsements. The meat is the Proceedings section, a
transcript of witness testimony starting on photocopy page 28. This
section’s pages are numbered 1 to 61 in the report, which are pages 28
to 88 of the photocopy. Then follows an untitled review of the evidence,
and lastly an appendix of exhibits (including the most revealing
Nurse’s Notes). The first 27 pages of the report – numbered 1 to 27 in
the photocopy – are not part of the report proper, though it’s usually
convenient to refer to everything as simply “the report.”It
is provided below uninterrupted by comment (except for bracketed notes
on textual lapses) but a few remarks must be made at the outset.
Forrestal had long antagonized two groups known for assassinating their
opponents: communists and zionists. Any investigation of his death
worthy of the name would have considered the very real possibility he
had been murdered, “suicided” as the expression goes, yet this
possibility is never explicitly raised in the report. The board members
and the witnesses they call all seem to take for granted that Forrestal
killed himself. The questions asked focus on one issue: Was anyone in
the Naval Medical Corps responsible? The report is far from the very
thorough inquiry it claims to be.When in the
report you read about providing Forrestal “security” it always means
protecting him from himself, never from an outside threat. That he might
have needed the latter kind of protection apparently never occurred to
the hospital administration.Everyone in the
Medical Corps who dealt with Forrestal before his death seems worried
about getting charged with incompetence. Their worry is understandable
since they were responsible for preventing patients in the
neuropsychiatric ward from injuring themselves. If Forrestal had to die,
better for their reputation had it not been by suicide. If Forrestal
had to die an unnatural death, better had it been murder. Thus the
investigative board’s failure to consider the possibility of murder,
given that it was a possibility, is all the more puzzling. Their naïveté, if such it was, was not in the Medical Corps’ interest.In
spite of ignoring the murder angle, the board never states flat out
that the death was suicide, either. Winfred Overholser’s statement
(photocopy page 2) is his opinion of the report rather than part of the
report itself. In particular, he says: “From a study of the report, it
is my opinion that Mr. James V. Forrestal came to his death by suicide
while in a state of mental depression.” This is a gratuitous remark
since the report, despite it insinuating suicide, reaches no conclusion
regarding the ultimate cause of Forrestal’s death. It simply does not
address the question. Neither of its two “Finding of Facts” sections
(page 22 and page 88) mentions suicide, and its untitled review of
evidence (page 89) states only that the hospital psychologists
considered him a potential suicide and that they took a calculated risk,
and then abruptly – too abruptly – ends.Reading
the transcript of witnesses, some pompous, some naïve, many apprehensive
they will be charged with negligence, the impression gradually builds
of a silent presence lurking over the proceedings: the ghost of unasked
questions.”

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