On July 11, a web portal Politicano posted on its Facebook page an article titled “Russophobia Drives First U.S. Secretary of Defense Mad and He Commits Suicide.” The article claims that U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal bore hatred against Russians and he committed suicide jumping from the 16th floor of a psychiatric hospital and shouting”the Russians are coming.” Similar materials echoing Soviet propaganda and disinformation were also published by Georgia and the World and tb24.ge in 2016.
Soviet and Russian Sources
“The Russians are coming. They’re right around. I’ve seen Russian soldiers” – these words were attributed to James Forrestal by Soviet propaganda. Shortly after the suicide, Soviet broadsheet newspaper Pravda published a cartoon depicting the “Russophobe” U.S. Secretary of Defense. The authors of the cartoon were famous Soviet cartoonists, the Kukryniksy.
This myth is still topical in Russian sources. For example, in May 2015 Russian weekly newspaper Аргументы и факты (Arguments and Facts) released an article titled “The Russians are coming. How Russophobia led the U.S. Secretary of Defense to suicide («Русские идут». Как русофобия довела до самоубийства министра обороны США).” The article develops the same narrative as if hatred against Russians drove Forrestal mad and during his stay in a psychiatric hospital he was constantly repeating: “I’ve seen Russian soldiers. The Russians are coming. They’re right around.”
On May 22, 1949 James Forrestal was found on a third-floor roof of the U. S. Naval Hospital.
The article released by Politicano reads that “James Forrestal, the first U.S. Secretary of Defense and one of the founders of the Pentagon, committed suicide on May 22, 1949. He jumped from the 16thfloor of a psychiatric hospital shouting “the Russians are coming.”
The facts and circumstances leading up to the death of James Forrestal were reviewed by the military board of investigation, which was convened on May 23, 1949 by Morton D. Willcutts, Rear Admiral of the Navy’s Medical Corps. The resulting report was approved on July 13 and it is known as the Willcutts Report. The report was discovered in 2004 and it notes that “the late James V. Forrestal died as a result of injuries, multiple, extreme, received incident to a fall from a high point in the tower, building one, National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.” The Willcutts Report also contains testimonies given by Dr. George N. Raines, who was the responsible psychiatrist in charge of the patient’s care, as well as the hospital personnel and other witnesses. They provide detailed information about the patient’s condition from the very beginning of his treatment to his death.
According to the report, William Eliades is the first witness, who found Forrestal’s body after suicide. He says in his testimony that on the night of May 21 he was sitting in the watch room reading a magazine when he heard a loud crash. He was the first to discover the body at 1:50 am and notify the Information desk.
- Fact No 1: Not a single witness has noted that during his stay at the Naval Hospital James Forrestal was mentioning “Russians.”
- Fact No 2: Not a single witness has noted that they witnessed the moment when Forrestal jumped down shouting “the Russians are coming”. It is quite clear from Eliades’ testimony that nobody has witnessed Forrestal’s suicide.
- Fact No 3: Not a single part of the report notes that anybody heard how Forrestal was shouting “the Russians are coming.”
George N. Raines, Captain, Medical Corps, U. S. Navy, who was in charge of Forrestal’s treatment, said in his testimony that the latter was obviously “quite severely depressed.” He, however, did not mention in his testimony that Forrestal had a paranoiac fear of Russians.
Thus, the statement that the first U.S. Secretary of Defense jumped from the 16th floor shouting “The Russians are coming” is false.
The article by Politicano also notes: “Witnesses recollect that upon hearing a fire engine, Forrestal rushed into the street shouting that the Russians were attacking.”
This unfounded assertion belongs to James Forrestal’s opponent, famous American columnist, Drew Pearson, who claimed that the U.S. Secretary of State, awakened by the sound of a fire siren, had rushed out into the street screaming “The Russians are attacking.” No other sources but Drew Pearson confirmed this claim.
This episode is also discussed in the book “Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal” released by Townsend Hoopes and Douglas G. Brinkley in 1992. In the same year the book won the Roosevelt Naval History Prize and is now considered a definitive work.
The authors note that Drew Pearson’s allegation is groundless and cite Forrestal’s doctor, Captain George Raines, who called it an outright fabrication.
First U.S. Secretary of Defense
James Forrestal was the first U.S. Secretary of Defense; he was appointed on this post in 1947 and not in 1944 as claimed by Politicano. Before that, he was Secretary of the Navy; he had become well-known in Washington as a highly capable administrator and manager. Forrestal’s key goal was to restructure the U.S. security system in order to make it more efficient in terms of meeting Cold War challenges. He had deepest distrust of the Soviet Union and its foreign policy, because during that period the Soviet Union was creating its network of satellite nations in Eastern Europe and the Communists were coming to power in China. In view of Cold War challenges and Soviet military threats, Forrestal believed strongly in the need for close coordination of defense and foreign policy. He worked a lot to improve the defense structure. There was a certain disagreement between Forrestal and President Harry Truman mostly on budget issues, because the Secretary of State was in favor of spending extra funds. James Forrestal left office on 28 March 1949 and entered psychiatric treatment.
Prepared by Dali Kurdadze