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James Forrestal was born into a humble immigrant family and rose to wealth and power on Wall Street. As World War II approached, he entered government service and in less than a decade, left an indelible imprint on the structure of the United States military establishment.
James Vincent Forrestal was born on February 15, 1892, in Matteawan, now Beacon, New York. His father had emigrated from Ireland as a boy and achieved a measure of economic success in his own construction company. James' mother raised him as a strict Catholic, but the boy abandoned the practice of that faith once he left home.
After high school, Forrestal worked for three years in local newspapers before starting his college education, enrolling first at Dartmouth College and then transferring to Princeton. At Princeton, his class voted him "most likely to succeed," but he dropped out in 1915, due to academic and financial difficulties, just shy of his degree.
In 1916, Forrestal joined the Wall Street firm of William A. Read and Company, which later became Dillon Read. Except for a brief period of World War I military service, during which he trained as a Navy pilot but did not see combat, Forrestal remained at the firm until 1940, becoming a partner in 1923, vice-president in 1926, and president in 1938, at the age of 46. His career made him financially secure, enabling him to weather the Great Crash of 1929 without personal discomfort.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt made Forrestal a special assistant in June 1940, commencing more than eight years of government service. Within two months, Roosevelt had nominated Forrestal to fill the new position of Under Secretary of the Navy. He became well known as an efficient administrator and on the sudden death of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox in 1944, Forrestal was promoted to that position.
As Secretary of the Navy, Forrestal guided the Navy through the final year of the war and two subsequent years of demobilization. In the discussions that led to the National Security Act of 1947, Forrestal played an active role although he personally opposed unification of the services. The act created a National Military Establishment with a Secretary of Defense as its head.
President Harry S. Truman preferred Secretary of War Robert Patterson for the position, but Patterson wished to return to private life. Forrestal was an interesting second choice, given his resistance to unification, but he accepted.
At war’s end, Forrestal also became involved in the war against communism in America, which upset many liberals in Washington, D.C. who believed that a good relationship could be built with Joseph Stalin. In September 1946, Forrestal joined forces with James F. Byrnes to oust cabinet member Henry Wallace, after a speech Wallace gave calling for an end to the Cold War.
The National Military Establishment came into existence on September 17, 1947, and James Forrestal was sworn in as its first Secretary of Defense on the same date. The next day, the United States Air Force achieved its independence. The three services were given primacy in their respective fields — the Army on land, the Navy on the sea, and the Air Force in the air — although the Navy retained an air arm and the Marines.
The weak central organization that the 1947 Act had created gave limited power to the Secretary of Defense. The three branches quarreled constantly over missions and funding. Forrestal quickly realized that the structure was unwieldy and began to argue for revisions. As a result of his recommendations, a new act was passed in 1949, that created the Department of Defense, increasing the authority of Secretary of Defense and relegating the service chiefs to less-than-cabinet status.
Unfortunately, Forrestal's mental health began to deteriorate and he resigned in February 1949, before the changes had been made. He had already begun to exhibit some disturbing behavior and not long after leaving office, he entered the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, for mental treatment. On May 22, 1949, he fell to his death from a window in the hospital. The official explanation was suicide, but conspiracy theories blossomed in the years that followed.
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