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Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal.

Townsend Hoopes, Douglas Brinkley. Knopf, $30. Townsend Hoopes tells us in the preface of this book that as a "recent Marine lieutenant who aspired to meaningful public service," he found in James Vincent Forrestal "the model hero." Hoopes, who became a "young-man-of-all-works" for the first secretary of defense, considered Forrestal's 1949 suicide "a towering loss to the country and a profound personal tragedy."

In 1987, Hoopes was offered the research papers of the late Charles J.V. Murphy, a prodigious Time Inc. cold warrior who had begun work on a Forrestal biography. With the Murphy papers came Douglas Brinkley, now a Hofstra University history professor, who had worked with Murphy for six months. Hoopes, who rose to be Air Force undersecretary and who wrote the well-received The Devil and John Foster Dulles, is now 70. Brinkley is 30. Although they collaborated, the judgmental tone is clearly Hoopes'.

Hoopes rightly felt there was "a major gap in the biographical history of World War II and the postwar period," and he and Brinkley have helped to fill it with this well-researched, exhaustive, and mostly favorable biography. This is not revisionist history; it is mainstream and conventional. It is sympathetic yet probing, right down to the title. Forrestal was a driven patriot, and how he came to embody this epithet is the essence of this book.

An Irish immigrant's son, Forrestal was born in 1892 in Matteawan, New York, in the unfashionable southern part of Westchester County. His mother, says Hoopes, was "a stern, rather dour matriarch and an unreluctant disciplinarian" who wanted the boy to become a priest. But his "natural affinity" was for "the wealthier, more socially accepted Protestant families," and he seemed "somewhat embarrassed by the whole ambiance of his lower-middle-class Catholic Irishness."

Much of this biography has to do with Forrestal's successful efforts to flee that environment. He made it to Princeton, a "poor boy in a rich man's school," where he ran The Daily Princetonian and was voted "most likely to succeed" as well as "biggest bluffer" and, presciently, "the man nobody knows." He quit Princeton months before graduation and soon was well on his way to Wall Street wealth as a bond salesman. During World War I he became a Navy pilot but sat out most of that conflict at a desk in the office of the chief of naval operations. After the war, Forrestal came back to New York for the Roaring Twenties.

A nose twice broken by a professional boxing coach gave Forrestal a life-long "slight touch of menace" and provided, Hoopes says, "an attractive incongruity between his battered face and his well-cut, double-breasted suits and English shoes." A "pervasive and powerful sexuality" made many women his easy conquests both before and after his 1926 marriage, at 34, to Vogue writer Josephine Ogden, a "bold and creamy beauty" of 26. Their two boys, Michael (who would work in the Kennedy White House) and Peter, were badly neglected. Josephine became an alcoholic whose boozy antics would embarrass Forrestal. But he never seemed to understand or try to help.

Forrestal's Princeton connections led him to his great mentor, Clarence Dillon (father of Douglas, JFK's Treasury chief) of Wall Street's formidable Dillon, Read. Forrestal commuted by Rolls Royce from his elegant Long Island home, surviving the 1929 crash with $5 million or so. In those years, Hoopes reports, he was a "self-centered, ambitious, tireless striver--but also the serious reader of history and philosophy, driven by a powerful urge to expand his knowledge and experience, to realize the strong potential of a questing mind...."

Forrestal became Dillon, Read's president at a time when the New Deal began probing Wall Street's excesses. That and signs of the coming war in Europe turned his aspirations toward Washington. His good friend Justice William O. Douglas called President Roosevelt with "a strong recommendation," and on June 29, 1940, at age 48, Forrestal began what would be almost nine years of government service. He quickly became Navy undersecretary, then secretary in 1944. Soon thereafter he began recording what was published in 1951 as the Forrestal Diaries--an intimate account of top-level Washington.

He was a whirlwind executive. Once he "managed four business conferences during lunch--soup with [Navy Secretary Knox, the main course with his own guests, dessert at the White House, and coffee at the Metropolitan Club." He did cocktail parties "in eight minutes flat," turned tennis into "a cult of violence," and rushed through golf "with a clenched jaw."

His Navy tour began as a battle to get control of the admirals' baronies while creating the two-ocean navy. After the war, as first Defense secretary, Forrestal was Laocoon in the Pentagon, struggling to make the self-centered Navy and Air Force serve national, rather than parochial, interests--as the Army was far more willing to do. Accounts of these seemingly endless intra- and inter-service battles remind the reader how much of the past is prologue.

At the end of World War II, Forrestal toyed with running for office or buying a newspaper, but he simply couldn't leave Washington. One reason was his suspicion of the Soviet Union; he began searching for an American rationale to deal with this new menace. He found it in George Kennan's containment doctrine became Forrestal's foundation; he soon became Kennan's aggressive patron. Years later Kennan would characterize Forrestal as "sharp, tense, inquisitive, potentially very much a hard-liner.... He was surely one of the first senior figures in our government to realize that Stalin and the men around him were brutal and high-stepping gangsters."

His fear of Moscow led Forrestal to support Truman's military unification plan, but only in its weak 1947 compromise version. As Defense secretary he could do little toward real unification, trapped by his own devices. Before long he was, as Robert Lovett said, "a burnt-out case."

The culmination of the Hoopes-Brinkley account focuses on Forrestal's deterioration, his fraying judgment, and his inability to see the need to take "time out" from the Cold War contest. He came to see himself as the only strategist who could save America from the communists, and in his delusions of grandeur he even sought to control the newly created National Security Council as his, not Truman's, adjunct.

Forrestal's opposition to the creation of Israel--oil was the reason--led to bitter personal assaults by columnists Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell--the kind of criticism Forrestal's thin skin could not endure. He began to see enemies everywhere. When John McCone came to lunch at Prospect House, his Georgetown home, Forrestal pulled the shades, explaining that he wanted to avoid giving a sniper a good target. Forrestal soon learned that Truman was going to fire him and install Louis Johnson, a party fundraising hack.

When Forrestal finally left office, his friends sent him to Florida but, in alarm, soon rushed him to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. How he came to jump from a 14th-floor pantry window remains today as excruciating a story of bungling medics and lax security as it was nearly 43 years ago.

The authors' judgment is that Forrestal's "complexities and contradictions were traceable to his roots," including his lapsed Catholicism. He was also "cursed" by "the ability to see both sides of every hard question."

Unfortunately, the finale of this book is so loaded with lavish praise for this "public servant of great talent, influence, and accomplishment" as to be almost idolatrous. Still, it is plausible to conclude, as the authors do, that Forrestal's "inability ever to pause, look back, disengage himself even temporarily from the swift onrush of impersonal events led inexorably" to his suicide. And it also is plausible, as his son Michael said, that had he been more balanced, he would have been less interesting.
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Author:Roberts, Chalmers
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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