“Dean of Cold War Historians” on James Forrestal

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His name is a simple one, but it is not a common one, and it’s not often in the news, so that makes it rather easy to forget.  Fortunately, there’s an easy way to call it up.  All you have to do it to turn to the “senior citizen’s memory,” the Internet, and search “dean of Cold War historians.”  It doesn’t matter whether you use Google, Bing, Yahoo, or DuckDuckGo.  They all agree that the native Texan, Yale University history professor, longtime George W. Bush friend and admirer and CFR member, John Lewis Gaddis is the man.  When it comes to what Gaddis has had to say about a vitally important American leader in the early years of the Cold War, Secretary of the Navy and then the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, those search engines tell a far different story, though, and therein lies a really big story.

What I would like readers to do at this point is to use those four top search engines to search “John Lewis Gaddis James Forrestal,” but to get the full impact of the experience, save the big one, the one that is used just over 92% of the time worldwide for Internet searches, Google, for the last.  One would expect that the frequency that readers go to a site in which the two names happen to appear would be the determining factor for the site’s appearance on the search result list.  Since I’m the guy writing more about Forrestal than anyone else these days, and since my writings are relatively popular—one indicator being the 212 ratings that The Assassination of James Forrestal has received on Amazon, with an average rating of four and a half stars—and I have mentioned Gaddis more than once in that context, my articles would appear near the top of the results in such a query.  And such is the case with Yahoo, Bing, and DuckDuckGo.  It is not the case with Google, though.  I am completely shut out there.

Google is “notoriously tight-lipped about how their [search] algorithm works,” says SpyfuAnd well they should be.  As I have written in a related context, “Usually when someone keeps something hidden, it’s because he has something to hide.”  “Google, Tool of the Deep State,” is the title of an article that I posted back in June.  Now we have some more strong evidence for the article’s title.  Google is a totalitarian operation of the American Deep State.  Objective, disinterested measures are not the determining factors in their search results.  They are resting their thumb heavily on the scale.  In this instance, they’re obviously protecting their boy Gaddis and they are intentionally keeping important information about their nemesis, James Forrestal, away from the prying eyes of the public.

So, let’s give you some more information for them to try to keep away from everyone else.  In my article “Godfather of Soviet Containment Is Cancel Culture Victim,” I surveyed three recent textbooks on the Cold War, one by a professor at my alma mater, Davidson College, one by a Harvard professor, and a third, co-written by a Yale professor (not Gaddis) and a New York University professor.  I showed how all of them had, in a most Soviet-like fashion, cleansed Forrestal completely from the Cold War record.  In that article I only mentioned Gaddis in passing for the misinformation in his 2011 biography of George F. Kennan about the nature of Forrestal’s death, while showing that he probably consciously lied about what he knows about the matter when responding to my question to him when he was on a book promotion tour.

Gaddis’s 2006 textbook, The Cold War: A New History, still seems to be the standard one assigned for most college courses if its Amazon customer reviews and level of continuing sales is an indicator.  So, does he completely omit Forrestal from his book as Ralph B. Levering, Odd Westad, and Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue do from theirs?  We can say that, indeed, for all practical purposes, he does.  All he has is this quote from Forrestal in 1947 on page 37, “As long as we can outproduce the world, can control the sea and can strike inland with the atomic bomb, we can assume certain risks otherwise unacceptable.”

That was when we still had a monopoly on the bomb.  Gaddis has no mention in his text of the vital role that Forrestal played in publicizing the famous 1946 “long telegram” of our State Department official in Moscow, Kennan, and pushing Kennan to write his influential “X” article in Foreign Affairs magazine the next year, laying the groundwork for President Harry Truman’s “Soviet containment” policy, which signaled the opening stages of the Cold War.  We might conclude that those more recent textbook writers have just taken their cue from “The Dean” when it comes to Forrestal’s place in American history.

So how did Kennan’s February telegram become so influential, per Gaddis?  This is from page 33: “Kennan’s ‘long telegram’ became the basis for United States strategy toward the Soviet Union throughout the rest of the Cold War.”  That’s it.  It just happened.  His reference for the assertion is three pages in Kennan’s Memoirs: 1925-1950.  If Kennan shares any of the credit there with Forrestal, we wouldn’t learn it from Gaddis.

On the question of communist infiltration of the government, Gaddis is little different from the other Cold War historians.  On page 41, in a chapter bearing the title of “The Return of Fear,” he makes the obligatory acknowledgement of Alger Hiss:

It was just at this point—while Mao was in Moscow and Truman was making his decision to build a hydrogen bomb—that two major espionage cases broke, one in the United States and the other in Great Britain.  On January 21st [1950], former State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury for having denied under oath that he had been a Soviet agent during the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Three days later, the British government revealed that an émigré German scientist, Klaus Fuchs, had confessed to having spied for the Russians while working on the wartime Manhattan Project.

He then goes on, like the others, to trash Senator Joe McCarthy for blowing so much smoke about communists in the government.  The man who fingered Hiss, communist-spy-cell defector, Whittaker Chambers does not appear in the book, nor does the other key defector, Helen Bentley.  You would never guess from reading Gaddis that at the time Chambers made his revelations that this mere “former State Department official” was president of the influential Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in New York City, nor would you get any hint of the degree of Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government as suggested here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Eastern_Bloc_agents_in_the_United_States.

Gaddis’s Kennan Biography

In his 2011 Pulitzer Prize and CFR Arthur Ross Book Award-winning, George F. Kennan: An American Life, characterized as “magisterial” in a blurb on the front of the paperback edition by Henry Kissinger, Gaddis can hardly avoid completely Forrestal’s role in promoting Kennan and his “long telegram.”  It’s right there in its entirety in two sentences on page 218 that he could just as easily have inserted into his Cold War history, but chose not to: “[Ambassador to Russia Averell] Harriman shared it with Secretary of the Navy Forrestal who had been looking for an analysis of this kind.  Forrestal, in turn, had the telegram reproduced and circulated all over Washington, including to Truman himself.”

In that book, Gaddis even informs us (pp. 258-262) that Kennan’s very influential “X” article that appeared in the March 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs was originally a private position paper that he had prepared for Forrestal and it was Forrestal who was responsible for turning it into a magazine article.  Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley cover all of this extensively in their “Godfather of Containment” chapter of their 1993 Forrestal biography, but as far as Gaddis and those other historians are concerned, Forrestal was too insignificant a figure to merit mention in this context—or any context with most of them—in their Cold War textbooks.

Finally, let’s have a look at the passage that I challenged Gaddis over that is described in Chapter 15 of the 2nd edition of The Assassination of James Forrestal(Chapter 13 of the original edition) and I discuss at greater length in the article, “’Forrestal Committed Suicide,’ Claims Cold War Historian.”  It’s early 1948:

Once it became clear that Yugoslavia had stopped assisting the Greek communists, [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson favored relaxing restrictions on trade with that country, even to the point of allowing the sale of a militarily significant steel mill.  That got him into trouble with the new secretary of defense, Louis Johnson—Forrestal had resigned after suffering a nervous breakdown and then committed suicide. (p. 354)

When I questioned him on the matter, Gaddis claimed never to have heard of the Willcutts Report on Forrestal’s death.  That is in spite of the fact that the Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University had sent out a press release about its availability on their web site in November of 2004 and, even more importantly, Nicholas Thompson in his 2009 book The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War discussed the Willcutts Report extensively, and that book, as one might expect, is in Gaddis’s bibliography.

For the record, not only does the evidence strongly indicate that Forrestal did not commit suicide and the Willcutts Report did not conclude as much, but most definitely he was not committed to the Bethesda Naval Hospital for a nervous breakdown.  If you search the word “nervous” in the htm version of the Willcutts Report, the only place it appears is in the résumé of one of the doctors who endorsed the report.  The latest evidence, which we reveal in the new second chapter of our second edition, shows that Forrestal suffered no breakdown of any kind and that his commitment to the hospital for “psychiatric reasons” was of the sort more common for political dissidents in the Soviet Union.

As a final note, don’t think of that Princeton library as the unadulterated good guys in the Forrestal death saga.  On the 69th anniversary of his death, May 22, 2017, they wrote, “Nassau Hall’s flag flies at half mast as a tribute to James V. Forrestal, a member of the Class of 1915 and the nation’s first Secretary of Defense, who died after jumping out a window on the sixteenth floor of Bethesda Naval Hospital on this date.”  (Please note my censorious comment and their supine failure either to retract or to defend what they have written.)

David Martin

2 Thoughts to ““Dean of Cold War Historians” on James Forrestal”

  1. anastasia

    The first and simplest stage of discipline, which can be taught even to young children, is called in Newspeak, Crimestop. Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.

  2. anastasia

    Above comment is from George Orwell, 1984

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