Beacon’s Favorite Son: The Story of James V. Forrestal

James V. Forrestal served as the country’s first Secretary of Defense. Here’s the story of the Dutchess County man’s amazing life — and mysterious death


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Duty calls: In 1945, Forrestal (left), then Secretary of the Navy, attended the christening of the Franklin D. Roosevelt aircraft carrier with Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King

Photograph from Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library

Robert Murphy, president of the Beacon Historical Society, once called him “Beacon’s favorite son.” Yet most Beaconites under retirement age who aren’t historians would be hard-pressed to tell you why. Sure, there is an elementary school named after him. But unlike schools named after, say, John F. Kennedy, only those who ask would know about the extraordinary life, and mysterious death, of James V. Forrestal, a civilian leader of the U.S. military during World War II and, later, the nation’s first Secretary of Defense.

James Vincent Forrestal was born on February 15, 1892, in what was then known as Matteawan. His father, also named James, was an Irish immigrant and a contractor who started a successful construction company that built a hospital and commercial buildings in the 1890s. The senior Forrestal was also a loyal Democrat who served as the Matteawan postmaster. Young James was known as Vincent, or Vince, to distinguish him from his father, Murphy says.

He was an excellent student and graduated from Matteawan High School at age 16. His abiding interest was journalism; he served as the editor of the school’s monthly publication, the Orange and Black, and then worked for two local newspapers, including the Matteawan Journal. Its editor, Morgan Hoyt, was a Democrat, early supporter, and friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. “In fact, because of Hoyt, FDR came to Beacon every election eve for the good luck that rubbed off of Hoyt,” Murphy says. That may have been where the young Forrestal met FDR, who would later play an enormous role in his future.

james v. forrestal in high school
Early training: Forrestal (holding the ball) played on the 1908 Matteawan High School basketball team. Photograph courtesy of Mary Forrestal Pennybacker and the Beacon Historical Society

At the tender age of 19, Forrestal was hired as city editor of the Poughkeepsie News Press, a predecessor of the Poughkeepsie Journal. But he left the paper to attend Dartmouth College, and then transferred to Princeton for his sophomore year, where he edited the Daily Princetonian. He worked at the News Press over summer break, and on August 17, 1913, the cub reporter “had his shining moment,” Murphy says. “Harry K. Thaw, notorious murderer of Stanford White, escaped from Matteawan State Prison. Forrestal scooped the story, put out a special edition of the paper, and acted as a liaison for the New York City papers trying to cover this national story. In later years, Hoyt said he would have made a great newspaperman if he had not gone into national service.”

Voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in his senior year, Forrestal left school in 1915 without his degree, “apparently due to academic and financial difficulties, according to the U.S. Navy,” the Poughkeepsie Journal reported. And in 1916, Forrestal traded a career in journalism for finance, joining the investment banking firm of William A. Read and Co., which later become Dillon, Read & Co.

The World at War

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, he enlisted in the Navy. After being discharged in 1919, he returned to banking, and, in 1926, he married a Vogue magazine writer named Josephine Stovall. Forrestal was as successful at banking as he was at reporting; he rose to president of the firm, and made his fortune. He also worked for the Dutchess County Democratic party, helping locals gain state and national office. One of those locals was his neighbor, FDR, who asked him to come to Washington as his special assistant in June 1940.

Later that year, he was appointed undersecretary of the Navy. “He promulgated FDR’s ‘arsenal of democracy’ program, adapting America’s industry to wartime production for the Navy,” Murphy says. “He earned high praise” for his work. It was during this time, in 1943, that Forrestal returned to Beacon for what Murphy calls “a rare visit.” He presented something called the Army-Navy “E” Production Award to a rubber factory on Tioronda Avenue. He gave a heartfelt speech extolling the town and county as “representative of the amalgam of peoples which has given this nation extraordinary growth and world power within a century.”

Forrestal was as successful at banking as he was at reporting; he rose to president of the firm

When Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox died in 1944, Forrestal was promoted to the then-Cabinet level position. He served in that position until 1947, when President Harry Truman created the Department of Defense and nominated Forrestal as its first secretary. At just 55 years old, he had seemingly reached the pinnacle of an amazing career. Sadly, he would be dead less than three years later.

Forrestal’s political views were at times progressive, at times conservative. He was an advocate for racial integration of the military, which was implemented in 1949. He was also deeply fearful of Russian Communism, and an early supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy. He argued against partition of Palestine to create the state of Israel, fearing backlash from the Arab nations that supplied the U.S. oil. These views made him a target of scathing commentary from the Washington press, especially the influential columnist Drew Pearson, who called for his removal from the Cabinet and called him “the most dangerous man in America.”

james v. forrestal at war
Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal at the Iwo Jima Invasion in February 1945. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Further scandal ensued after the election of 1948, when it was revealed that Forrestal had privately agreed to serve with New York Democrat Thomas Dewey when Dewey, as was expected, won the presidency. Dewey, however, famously did not defeat Harry S. Truman, and, when Pearson published the story, Forrestal was fired. He fell into a deep depression that got him admitted, in April 1949, to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Doctors covered his mental illness with a public diagnosis of “nervous and physical exhaustion.” But he was given psychiatric treatments of the time, including insulin-induced shock therapy and barbiturates. On May 22, 1949 his body was found on the third-floor roof, a fatal distance from his 16th floor hall kitchen.

A Casualty of War

Most likely, he jumped. But conspiracy theories of murder — by Communists, Zionists or U.S. agents — appeared almost immediately. None has been proved. “By all news accounts, prior to his resignation from Truman’s cabinet, Forrestal appeared haggard and sick before his hospitalization,” Murphy says. “Forrestal’s Beacon friend Morg Hoyt, and his brother Henry and his family, all considered Forrestal a casualty of war — the Cold War — like any other wounded soldier.” Murphy believes Forrestal took his own life. Forrestal is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Back home, James V. Forrestal Elementary School opened in 1953 on land that his older brother Henry and his wife donated in 1951, in James’ memory. On the national level, the first Navy super-carrier, the USS Forrestal, was commissioned in 1955; it was decommissioned in 1993. And in 1969, the James V. Forrestal Building opened in Washington, DC, as a military office building that was nicknamed, for a time, the “Little Pentagon.” It is now the home of the U.S. Department of Energy.

You’re welcome, Beaconites. Now you know a bit about your Favorite Son.

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