James V. Forrestal

Harry Truman Administration

September 17, 1947 – March 28, 1949

Confronted immediately at its creation with complex global problems made more urgent by the Cold War, the new national security system had to begin functioning without delay. Indeed, when James Forrestal became the first secretary of defense on 17 September 1947 his swearing-in took place, at President Truman's order, several days earlier than originally scheduled. Concerned that the Communist government of Yugoslavia might attempt to seize the Adriatic city of Trieste, still occupied by U.S. and British troops, Truman decided that Forrestal should assume office at once.

Fortunately, the first secretary of defense was well-qualified to guide the National Military Establishment's (NME) participation in the new national security structure. Forrestal was born on 15 February 1892 in Matteawan (now Beacon), New York. His father, who emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1857, headed a construction company. After graduation from high school in 1908, Forrestal worked for three years on local newspapers in New York State and then entered Dartmouth College as a freshman in 1911. The following year he transferred to Princeton University, which he left in 1915 a few credits short of his degree, apparently because of academic and financial difficulties.

In 1916 Forrestal joined an investment banking house, William A. Read and Company of New York (later Dillon, Read and Company), as a bond salesman. Except for a period in the Navy during World War I, during which he took flight training, Forrestal remained with Dillon, Read until 1940. He rose rapidly in the company, becoming a partner in 1923, vice president in 1926, and president in 1938. His government service began in June 1940 as a special assistant to President Roosevelt. In August 1940 the president nominated Forrestal to fill the new position of under secretary of the Navy. Assigned by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to handle contracts, tax and legal affairs, and liaison with several other government agencies, Forrestal built his office into an efficient organization. Most importantly, he ran very effectively the Navy's machinery for industrial mobilization and procurement. By 19 May 1944 when he became secretary of the Navy, succeeding Knox who had died of a heart attack, he had become well-known in Washington as a highly capable administrator and manager. He guided the Navy through the last year of the war and the two difficult years of demobilization after the Japanese surrender.

Forrestal participated prominently in development of the National Security Act of 1947, even though he had opposed unification. Under pressure from President Truman and others, Forrestal made use of the 1945 Eberstadt Report and negotiations with Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson to play a prime role in shaping the initial form of the NME. Although Patterson was President Truman's first choice as secretary of defense, he preferred to return to private life. The president's subsequent selection of Forrestal, however ironic it might have appeared given the secretary of the Navy's resistance to unification, was deserved and logical considering his long experience in the Defense establishment and dedication to effective government administration.

Forrestal brought to his new office a deep distrust of the Soviet Union and a determination to make the new national security structure workable. He recognized the magnitude of the job; he wrote to a friend shortly after announcement of his appointment confiding his serious apprehensions about the future of the new organization. He soon discovered that perhaps the chief obstacle to accomplishing his objectives for the NME was the inherent weakness in the secretary of defense's powers as defined in the National Security Act. Another problem was the existence of virtually autonomous heads for the military departments. These organizational difficulties, combined with a steady escalation of Cold War tensions, ensured 18 months of frustration for Forrestal.

In February 1948 the Soviet Union completed its network of satellite nations in Eastern Europe, as Communists supported by Moscow seized control in Czechoslovakia. In June 1948 the Soviets blockaded land routes from the western zones of Germany to Berlin, forcing the United States and its allies to initiate an airlift that supplied Berlin until Moscow relaxed the blockade more than 10 months later. In the meantime, war broke out in Palestine between Arab and Israeli armies immediately after the proclamation of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948. As these events occurred, Congress approved the Marshall Plan, providing economic aid for 16 European nations, and in June 1948 the Senate adopted the Vandenberg Resolution, encouraging the administration to enter into collective defense arrangements. The United States and the United Kingdom led in developing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formally established when 12 nations signed the constituting treaty in April 1949. On the other side of the world in China, the Communists made significant headway against the Nationalists, leading in 1949 to final victory and the establishment of the People's Republic of China.

The NME played an important role in the development of U.S. policies and programs to meet these Cold War challenges. Forrestal believed strongly in the need for close coordination of defense and foreign policy and saw the National Security Council (NSC) as a major instrument for accomplishing this coordination. Although President Truman deemed the NSC a subordinate advisory body–he met infrequently with it before the Korean conflict began in June 1950–Forrestal thought it should originate policy proposals and provide firm guidance for strategic planning. He labored hard, for the most part unsuccessfully, to increase its influence.

The NME budget became a source of tension between Forrestal and Truman. Because of public pressures to limit defense expenditures and his predilection for a balanced budget, Truman would not agree to budget levels proposed by Forrestal or the even larger amounts desired by the military services. Disagreements between the services over roles and missions complicated the matter. Because the budget limits Truman imposed intensified the competition for scarce funds, the services developed elaborate rationales justifying their views of roles and missions and the funds to support them. The Air Force argued that strategic air power–the long-range bomber carrying nuclear weapons–could be the key factor in any future major conflict. It wanted funds to support 70 combat groups as well as exclusive use of atomic weapons. On the other hand, the Navy wanted to build large flush-deck carriers from which it could launch naval aircraft carrying atomic weapons. These and other differences among the services surfaced especially during annual NME consideration of the budget.

By the time Forrestal became secretary of defense most of the advance work on the FY 1949 budget had been completed. Truman submitted it to Congress in January 1948, requesting about $10 billion plus additional funds for universal military training and equipment stockpiling. The events in Czechoslovakia, Germany, and elsewhere in the early months of 1948 influenced Truman to consider a supplemental appropriation for FY 1949–actually an increase in the recommended budget. While Truman had in mind an additional $3 billion, the services wanted $9 billion. The bulk of the supplemental would go to the Air Force if the recommendation of an Air policy Commission that it needed 70 groups to do its job prevailed.

Hoping to facilitate agreement among the services over the budget and other matters, Forrestal met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) at Key West, Florida, 11–14 March 1948. Out of this meeting and subsequent discussions came a paper entitled "Functions of the Armed Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff" that Forrestal issued on 21 April 1948. Among JCS duties, the paper delineated preparation of strategic plans and provision for strategic direction of the armed forces, establishment of unified commands, and designation of executive agents for certain activities. The Navy received authorization "to conduct air operations as necessary for the accomplishment of objectives in a naval campaign," and the Air Force retained responsibility for strategic air warfare. The Key West document remained in force until the Eisenhower administration issued a revised version in 1954.

Although the Key West Agreement smoothed over some service differences, it had limited long-range effect. As for the FY 1949 budget, the JCS agreed on a $3.5 billion supplemental, enough when added to the original budget to fund 66 Air Force groups; the president reduced it to $3.1 billion. Congress eventually approved total obligational authority (TOA) for FY 1949 of $13.2 billion–$4.2 billion for the Air Force (including more than $820 million above what the administration recommended) to fund a 70-group program, $4.7 billion for the Navy, $4.03 billion for the Army, and $270 million for other defense purposes. Truman refused to allow the Air Force to spend the extra funds, limiting it to 59 groups. In 1997 constant dollars, FY 1949 TOA amounted to $127.7 billion.

Persistent differences among the services over roles and missions and Truman's determination to keep defense costs down made Forrestal's task in developing the FY 1950 budget extremely difficult. For example, the Navy and the Air Force continued to disagree over the issue of delivery of atomic weapons. Forrestal discussed this and other matters with the service secretaries and the JCS at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, on 20–22 August 1948. The conferees decided that the Air Force would have interim operational control of atomic weapons, but that "each service, in the fields of its primary missions, must have exclusive responsibility for planning and programming and the necessary authority." For the Air Force-Navy dispute over atomic weapons the Newport agreement meant that the Air Force should utilize any strategic bombing ability developed by the Navy. This and other decisions reached at Newport helped calm interservice dissension, making it easier to achieve agreement within the NME on the FY 1950 budget.

Although President Truman set a ceiling of $14.4 billion for FY 1950, the services initially proposed $29 billion, later reduced to $23.6 billion. Forrestal asked the JCS to prepare both a $14.4 billion plan and an alternate budget of $17.5 to $18 billion, hoping that the president might accept the latter. Eventually Forrestal presented two budgets: one for $14.2 billion (a new ceiling set by the Bureau of the Budget) and the other for $16.9 billion. Truman summarily rejected the higher version and sent the $14.2 billion proposal to Congress in January 1949. Congress eventually agreed to about $14.3 billion, including an extra $737 million to support 58 Air Force groups rather than the 48 prescribed in Truman's budget proposal. Again Truman made clear that the Air Force would not spend the unsought funds. In developing the 1949 and 1950 budgets Forrestal faced the reality that they did not depend on the military's expressed requirements alone but also on competing domestic needs, political considerations, and the president's own views, and that the National Security Act had done little to lessen interservice rivalry.

For all the problems, Forrestal could list 15 "solid accomplishments in the process of unification" in his first report as secretary of defense in December 1948. These included the formulation of long-range and short-range strategic plans, the development of an integrated NME budget for FY 1950, the definition of service roles and missions, the coordination of service procurement efforts, and the establishment of additional overseas unified commands. Forrestal observed in this report that "the mere passage of the National Security Act did not mean the accomplishment of its objectives overnight. The most difficult part of the task of unification is to bring conflicting ideas into harmony. . . . How fast we complete the process of resolution will depend on the speed with which we achieve the harmony of thought which is inherent in true unification. I am confident that we shall reach that accord."

Although he still felt the National Security Act provided "a sound basis for substantial progress in the unification of the armed forces," Forrestal recommended several amendments reflecting his personal experience after 15 months as secretary of defense: establishment of the position of under secretary of defense; major strengthening of the secretary of defense's authority by giving him specific rather than "general" responsibility for exercising "direction, authority, and control" over the NME; removal of the chief of staff to the commander in chief as a member of the JCS; designation of a JCS chairman; increasing the size of the JCS Joint Staff; clarification of the secretary's role in personnel matters; and dropping the service secretaries from NSC membership, leaving the secretary of defense as the only NME member. President Truman followed up the Forrestal proposals with a message to Congress on 5 March 1949 recommending specific changes in the National Security Act, most importantly converting the NME into an executive department–the Department of Defense–and providing the secretary of defense "with appropriate responsibility and authority, and with civilian and military assistance adequate to fulfill his enlarged responsibility."

These proposals reflected Forrestal's experiences as secretary of defense. He had left the ranks of those favoring merely coordination and had joined the advocates of a more genuine and thoroughgoing unification. His commitment to making effective the national security structure outlined in the 1947 law increased in urgency as he became more and more concerned about the Soviet military threat. The 1949 amendments to the National Security Act stand as testimony to Forrestal's determination to improve the Defense structure.

The amendments, in Public Law 216, 10 August 1949, included these major provisions: The service secretaries were no longer NSC members; an executive department, the Department of Defense, replaced the NME, and the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force became military departments; the secretary of defense received "direction, authority, and control" (eliminating the modifying word "general") over the Department of Defense, and the military departments were to be "separately administered by their respective Secretaries under the direction, authority, and control of the Secretary of Defense"; the offices of deputy secretary and three assistant secretaries of defense were created (the deputy secretary replaced the under secretary, a position established in April 1949, and the assistant secretaries replaced the three "special assistants" authorized in the 1947 legislation); the JCS acquired a non-voting chairman; the JCS Joint Staff was increased to 210 officers; and the Office of Comptroller of the Department of Defense, to be filled by one of the assistant secretaries, became statutory.

The 1949 amendments began the legislative process of clarifying and expanding the powers of the secretary of defense. In fact, centralization of authority in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) became a constant objective under Forrestal and many of his successors. Unfortunately, Forrestal was no longer in the Pentagon when Congress approved these amendments. He left office on 28 March 1949 and died tragically less than two months later. Not only the first but one of the most notable secretaries of defense, his contributions have been commemorated by a bronze bust at the Pentagon's Mall Entrance and by the designation of a major federal office building in downtown Washington as the Forrestal Building. Some months after he left office, the House Armed Services Committee, with which he had worked closely over the years, described his administration as secretary of defense as "able, sensitive, restrained, and far-sighted."