James ForrestalJames Vincent Forrestal (February 15, 1892 - May 22, 1949) was a Secretary of the Navy and the first United States Secretary of Defense, notorious for suddenly resigning and then committing suicide by throwing himself from a hospital window two months later.
He was born in Matteawan, now Beacon, New York. After graduating from high school, he worked for newspapers for three years, entering Dartmouth College in 1911, and transferring to Princeton University a year later, although he left just short of a degree. He went to work as a bond salesman for William A. Reed and Company, rising to become president of the company in 1938.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Forrestal to be a special assistant in June 1940, then appointed him Under Secretary of the Navy in August, where he was very effective at mobilizing industrial production for the war effort. He became secretary of the Navy May 19, 1944, Henry Knox having died of a heart attack, and did a fine job of leading the Navy through the closing year of the war and the demobilization following.
Forrestal opposed the unification of the services, but even so helped develop the National Security Act of 1947 that created the National Military Establishment (the Department of Defense was not created as such until August 1949), and with the former Secretary of War Robert Patterson retiring to private life, Forrestal was the next choice.
His 18 months at Defense came at an exceptionally difficult time for the US military establishment; Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia and China, Berlin was blockaded, necessitating the Berlin Airlift to keep it going, Israel's declaration of independence brought war to the Middle East, and negotiations were going on for the formation of NATO.
At the same time, President Harry Truman constrained military budgets billions of dollars below what the services were requesting, putting Forrestal in the middle of the tug-of-war. At the same time, Forrestal was becoming more and more worried about the Soviet threat.
Forrestal resigned on March 28, 1949, due to a "mental breakdown" and was checked into the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Two months later, his body was found on a third-floor roof below the 16th-floor room where he was staying. Officially ruled a suicide, reports of paranoia and of involuntary commitment to the hospital, as well as suspicions about the detailed circumstances of his death have fed a variety of conspiracy theories, ranging from Soviet agents to UFOs.
Forrestal was first and foremost a proponent of Aircraft carrier centered battle-groups. The newly created Department of the Airforce opposed his plans to build new ones, claiming that operations could be accomplished from ground bases. The conflict between Forrestal and the Airforce was probably the foremost cause of his mental breakdown and ultimate suicide. Ironically, only a year after his suicide, his ideas were completely exonerated. The Korean War, with its very rugged terrain, showed that the Aircraft carriers would be essential in future wars.