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Complete and unexpurgated diaries from the Seeley G Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University

Editorial Introduction

James Vincent Forrestal (1892-1949) was the United States’ first Secretary of Defense.  A gifted yet ultimately ill-starred public servant, he helped to define his nation’s military posture at a time of profound flux in international relations.  Under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, he served as Under Secretary of the Navy (beginning on August 22, 1940), as Secretary of the Navy (beginning on May 19, 1944), and finally as Secretary of Defense, from September 17, 1947 until his resignation, instigated by President Truman, on March 28, 1949.

Biographers Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley have called Forrestal “the godfather of the national security state,” and though differences with President Truman, internal contradictions in the military establishment he oversaw, and his own personality compromised his effectiveness, his contributions to the ideological and strategic struggles in which his nation was engaged were far-reaching.

An enigmatic figure who drove himself to the limits of endurance and committed suicide shortly after leaving office, Forrestal was both lionized and reviled in his lifetime.  To some he was a creature of Wall Street; to others an anti-Communist titan, but perhaps the fairest epitaph can be found on his tombstone, which proclaimed his devotion to “The Great Cause of Good Government.”

Forrestal’s diaries are an essential though by no means all-purpose tool in any attempt to understand their author and the world in which he lived.  The diaries span the last five years of his public life, from March 1944 to March 1949, and consist of 2813 pages, as well as a sprinkling of insertions.  In general, the entries were typed on or attached to 6 x 9 ½ inch sheets of paper, and these were originally housed in 15 loose-leaf binders.

The diaries do not contain the handwritten and introspective reflections so often associated with such chronicles.  Instead, they take the form of dictated entries, usually embodying summaries of meetings and conversations, as well as documents penned by others that Forrestal deemed of sufficient interest or importance to preserve.

Through the prism of Forrestal’s summaries, including meetings of the Cabinet, the State-War-Navy Committee, and, beginning on September 26, 1947, the National Security Council, critical domestic and international issues of his time – from the closing stages of World War II to the opening stages of the Cold War – are documented.  The complexity and intractability of these issues, coupled with his own insecurities, would, in time, destroy Forrestal’s mental health.

As he noted on January 2, 1946, “one cannot help but be struck by the tremendous task that is involved in the implementation of American policy,” a task “further complicated by the fact that we are trying to preserve a world in which a capitalistic-democratic method can continue, whereas if the Russian adherence to truly Marxian dialectics continues their interest lies in a collapse of this system” (pages 775-776).

Forrestal’s summaries encapsulate numerous views, most vividly, perhaps, on September 21, 1945, at a cabinet meeting charged with weighing the wisdom of sharing atomic secrets with other nations.  Opinions ranged from those of Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, who argued that “failure to give them [the Soviet Union] our knowledge would make an embittered and sour people” (page 495) to those of Forrestal himself, who at a cabinet luncheon on September 18, had already declared himself to be “violently opposed to any disclosure” (page 476).  

The momentous questions associated with atomic energy are intermingled with many others.  Among them are the unification of the United States military, with its attendant inter-service rivalries; controversies over the size and distribution of postwar military spending, symbolized by Forrestal’s conflict with Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington; United States policy towards a divided China and a hostile Soviet Union; relations with Western Europe, including the fate of a beleaguered Berlin; and the future of Palestine, which Forrestal tried and failed to depoliticize.

The documents that Forrestal incorporated in his diaries vary widely in length and subject and offer an unfiltered perspective on issues that concerned him.

There is George Kennan’s long and influential telegram from Moscow on February 22, 1946 in which he analyzed the Soviet system and how best to confront “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] US there can be no permanent modus vivendi” (page 890).  There is the memorandum prepared by an aid to capture the “gist” of Forrestal’s meeting with Charles de Gaulle in Algiers on August 18, 1944, including de Gaulle’s contention “that France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and, collaterally, Great Britain, must form an economic group and that this group could then act as a counterweight to Russia” (page 14C).  And there are news clippings containing the texts of President Truman and Winston Churchill’s VE Day addresses of May 8, 1945 (pages 327-329).

Many pages in the diary consist only of daily schedules, particularly towards the end, but even these can be revealing insofar as they document Forrestal’s movements and the individuals with whom he interacted.

Forrestal’s diaries have an internal history quite apart from the historical record they contain, a history that raises questions of completeness that are only being settled now, with the publication of this microfilm edition.

Following Forrestal’s death on May 22, 1949, ownership of the diaries passed to his executors and thence to the New York Herald Tribune, which acquired the rights to the diaries for $100,000 on September 28, 1950.  The Tribune then granted the Viking Press the right to publish the diaries, which it did selectively in 1951 under the title The Forrestal Diaries.  Part of this 581-page volume, which was edited by Tribune editorial writer Walter Millis in collaboration with former Forrestal aid Eugene Duffied, was serialized in the Tribune and other newspapers.  An excerpt also appeared in Life.

Ownership of the diaries passed from the Tribune to Princeton University, Forrestal’s alma mater, on December 29, 1952, thanks to funds supplied by Clarence Dillon and Laurance Rockefeller.  The acquisition of the diaries coincided with the donation to Princeton of a much larger body of personal papers by Forrestal’s wife and two sons, which, like the diaries, focus on Forrestal’s years as Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense.

Princeton’s acquisition of the diaries also entailed negotiations with the United States Government, which had screened the published edition and insisted on retaining an interest in the originals for 25 years, lest “unrestricted access to them at this time or in the near future by unauthorized persons or divulgence of their contents may be dangerous to the military security of the United States and may impair the conduct of its foreign affairs.”

In the years that followed, the Department of Defense reviewed and, with the exception of a small number of pages, declassified the diaries, a process completed on June 28, 1973.  On May 15, 1992 all remaining material of a classified nature was opened, apart from 10 pages relating to atomic issues that the Department of Defense had “temporarily

retained” under its agreement with Princeton University.

The comparatively recent declassification of the diaries is one of two reasons for studying the diaries themselves, either at Princeton University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library or through this microfilm edition, rather than relying on The Forrestal Diaries.  According to Millis, the typescript of this volume was “submitted to the Department of Defense . . . for security review.  As a result of this review a few passages . . . were eliminated as directly violative of military security.  A rather larger portion was condensed, paraphrased or in some instances omitted entirely on the ground that it might materially embarrass the current conduct of international relations, and that its publication would therefore not be in the national interest.”

The second reason for consulting the original diaries or this microfilm edition lies in the fact that a significant body of material never made it into print.  In Millis’s words, “omission and selection on a large scale were unavoidable” given the volume of the diaries.  Five categories of material were omitted, including “the merely routine, ephemeral or repetitious,” passages that were deemed to lessen the clarity and succinctness of the diaries, references to topics that “have since been thoroughly publicized,” references to topics “with which Forrestal was not primarily concerned and which receive only passing and fragmentary mention in the diary,” and hearsay concerning specific individuals “which might raise questions of fairness, if not of libel.”

By way of example, at a cabinet luncheon on April 28, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall, newly returned from a meeting of foreign ministers in Moscow, reported that British Foreign Secretary Ernest “Bevin was not helpful.  His volubility made negotiation difficult.  In several cases Marshall had his point made and his discussion concluded only to have his objectives upset by Bevin’s tendency to over-talk” (page 1601).

The Forrestal Diaries omits this passage, along with others from the cabinet luncheon, including Forrestal’s own assessment of the dualistic roles of the Soviet Union and the United States: “I reminded Marshall of our conversations just before he left and of my own feeling that the United States had everything which the world needed to restore it to normal and the Russians had nothing – neither capital nor goods nor food.  That the only products they could export were chaos and anarchy” (page 1603).

Similarly, a meeting on July 8, 1947 relating to atomic energy is entirely omitted from The Forrestal Diaries, including its reference to British unhappiness at “our failure to supply them with the industrial know-how for the production of the bomb and for the exploitation otherwise of atomic energy” (page 1715).

It is passages such at these, multiplied many times over, that make Forrestal’s diaries so rich a source for students of American public policy at a pivotal juncture in twentieth-century history.

Lloyd Gardner


Forrestal, James V. Diaries, Papers, and Donor Files. Public Policy Papers. Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Princeton University Library.

Forrestal, James V. The Forrestal Diaries. Edited by Walter Millis with the collaboration of E. S. Duffield. New York: The Viking Press, 1951.

Hoopes, Townsend, and Douglas Brinkley. Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Rogow, Arnold A. James Forrestal: A Study of Personality, Politics, and Policy. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.



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