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James V. Forrestal

James Forrestal was born in Beacon, New York in 1892. He began his defense career as an aviator in the US Navy during World War I. After the war, he focused on investment banking. In 1923, Forrestal was promoted to partner in Dillon, Read and Company. He then rose through the ranks to become president of the company in 1938.

In June 1940, Forrestal entered the political arena when he became the Administrative Assistant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Two months later, Roosevelt promoted him to Under-Secretary of the Navy. After Frank Knox died of a heart attack, Forrestal became Secretary of the Navy in 1944. The 1947 National Security Act combined the Departments of War and the Navy forming the National Military Establishment

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Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues

(NME). James Forrestal became the first US Secretary of Defense.

Forrestal was dedicated to successfully reforming the national security structure, but faced many obstacles. The National Security Act of 1947 granted the new secretary only "general" responsibilities and therefore, the position lacked significant authority. Forrestal became frustrated by his minimal power, Cold War animosity rising between the two superpowers, and tension with President Truman over the NME's budget and authority. This led to Forrestal to propose amendments to the National Security Act that would provide the Secretary of Defense with "specific" rather than "general responsibility," which would allow for greater authority.

Beginning in 1944, Forrestal kept a "secret diary" that contained his personal concerns relating to clandestine government operations. Some believe that entries in his diary reflect guilt and opposition to government actions. He was involved with the "highest classified operations" of the Interim Committee on Atomic Energy. In 1947, Forrestal was the Navy's leading official in creating a "multilevel radiation detection and radiobiological monitoring project for the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project." In addition, during the final days of the Manhattan Project he expressed his belief that Japan should be given adequate warning of the destructive power of the atomic bomb before it was dropped.

Forrestal's dedication to change within the defense structure that gave the Secretary of Defense more authority in decision-making was the most important contribution of his career. He resigned in March 1949 due to illness, which some attribute to be caused by mental exhaustion. After his resignation, Truman amended the National Security Act in favor of Forrestal's proposals. In August 1949, the NME was changed to the Department of Defense.

James Forrestal committed suicide in May 1949. His death remains shrouded in controversy due to his leadership on military issues and his involvement in covert operations, which he reflected upon in his secret diary.