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Fourth International, January-February 1952


John Wilkins

General of the Cold War

Forrestal: Symbol of Imperialism in Crisis


From Fourth International, Vol.13 No.1, January-February 1952, pp.22-26.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Forrestal Diaries
edited by Walter Millis
Viking Press, New York, 1951. $5.

James Forrestal was appointed US Secretary of the Navy in 1944 and resigned as America’s first Secretary of Defense in March 1949. This book contains his private notes, letters, reports and recorded conversations during those five years, ably edited by two newspapermen and carefully censored by the Department of Defense. Forrestal played a key role in forming and applying the “cold war” policy, especially in its military aspects. His diaries are extremely useful for glimpses into the inner councils where the Roosevelt and Truman administrations forged their foreign policy and for revealing insights into the mentality of the members of the Cabinet, Congress and Pentagon who now run the show in America and who are bent on mastering the world.

Forrestal himself typified the kind of men who staff the commanding posts in Washington’s imperialist hierarchy today. He was a Wall Street banker, president of the leading investment house of Dillon, Read, when he was first called into government service by Roosevelt in 1940 to take the newly created job of Under-Secretary of the Navy. As many notations in his diaries indicate, Forrestal approached all problems, foreign or domestic, military or civilian, from the standpoint of the American plutocrats. Without sympathy for the working masses or any understanding of the motives of their struggles, he functioned like an accountant with an adding machine for a head, carrying forward the schemes of the US ruling class. This did not prevent him from burnishing the most predatory and warlike aims with a gloss of altruism and pacifism.

A Businessman’s “Philosophy”

Forrestal was a principal promoter of that sinister cabal of military figures and big business and banking representatives which dictates national policies and directly administers the affairs of state under Truman. The main article of his social creed was to entrust the world and its salvation to the American businessman. He expounded this philosophy at a Cabinet meeting on March 7, 1947 when Truman and his colleagues were about to launch the cold war:

“I said that it would take all of the talent and brains of the country, just as it had taken all of them in the war, and that these abilities and talents should be harnessed in a single team. By that I meant that we would have to turn to business if what we are talking about is in reality holding out the hope to people in stricken countries that they again may make a living, and the way to provide a living for them will have to be opened up by business. Government alone cannot do the job, and business cannot do it unless it has the full-out support of government both inside and outside, and by that is meant the lifting of as many restraints and time-consuming irritations as possible, So that businessmen have time to devote themselves to the real problem.”

Hostile to Labor

Naturally Forrestal was hostile to the trade unions and urged Truman to approve the Taft-Hartley Act. He was equally repelled by the British Labor Government and its nationalizations. He noted with approval the objection voiced in August 1947 by his fellow banker, W. Averell Harriman, now chairman of the North Atlantic Council, against “underwriting the stability of a government whose objectives seem to be moving farther to the left ...”

These diaries provide several significant sidelights on the conservatism of the top labor bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic, and their disregard for labor’s welfare. He tells of meeting in 1944 with half a dozen US union leaders, including William Green and Philip Murray, on a project for enacting universal military training. “The reaction of the labor people present was sympathetic and cooperative,” he commented.

Even more repulsive is his report of a conversation with Ernest Bevin after Labor’s victory in July 1945, on the matter of saving the Japanese Emperor. Bevin was opposed to destroying the “Emperor concept” and Forrestal goes on to say,

“He then made a rather surprising statement – for a liberal and a labor leader: ‘It might have been far better for all of us not to have destroyed the institution of the Kaiser after the last war; we might not have had this one if we hadn’t done so. It might have been far better to have guided the Germans to a constitutional monarchy, rather than leaving them without a symbol and therefore opening the psychological doors to a man like Hitler ...”

Forrestal was primarily occupied in working out US foreign policy in the postwar period. As one of the principal artisans of its military implementation, he viewed the ending of World War II as the beginning of preparations for World War III. While jubilant cries of peace were echoing through the land, Forrestal was already engaged in developing new plans for America’s conquest of the world. As early as September 1945, he set forth the general strategic aims of the Navy Department in the following testimony before the House Naval Affairs Committee: “In the future as in the past, the key to victory and to the freedom of this country will be in the control of the seas and the skies above them.” As he moved toward the office of Secretary of Defense, he added to these not inconsiderable goals control of the major land masses in Western Europe and in Asia, For these purposes, he demanded a big army, the most powerful navy and air force, a monopoly and stepped up production of atomic explosives, as well as the introduction of universal military training in peacetime.

Plans for World Conquest Frustrated

At this juncture, however, America’s militarists ran up against an unexpected barrier – resistance by the men in uniform and the rest of the American people. It is clear from the complaints in Forrestal’s diary, that the GIs sweeping “want to go home” demonstrations coupled with the irresistible demand of the mass of the American people for quick resumption of peacetime life, frustrated the ambitions of the Pentagon in the immediate postwar period. It was pressure from these sources that forced rapid demobilization and has delayed up to now the imposition of universal military training.

At the same time that the American people were blocking further advances by militarism at home, Forrestal and the entire administration were extremely alarmed about the revolutionary surge throughout Europe and Asia. The diaries record Harriman’s observation in May 1945 that

“we must face our diplomatic decisions from here on with the consciousness that half and maybe all of Europe might be communistic by the end of next winter, and that if we support Communist armies in China against Chiang Kai-shek, we should have to, face ultimately the fact that two or three hundred millions of people in China would march when the Kremlin ordered.”

In July 1945 the American Ambassador to France told the President that unless France got some coal from the US for the coming winter, “there would inevitably be communism and possibly anarchy.” Next morning at J.P. Morgan’s in Paris, Forrestal was told “there was no leadership left among the top industrial people in France; they were all under constant attack and all very discouraged ...”

Such apprehensive estimates of the situation confirm the judgment made at the time by the Trotskyist movement that the Stalinist leaders, then carrying out the Kremlin’s line of direct collaboration with the capitalists, spoiled an exceptional opportunity to mobilize the masses in Western Europe for the elimination of the bourgeois regimes.

Three Stages of US Foreign Policy

While Forrestal was at the helm from 1944 to 1949, US foreign policy passed through three main stages. First was the period of concluding the Second World War when the Big Three alliance prevailed and all energies were concentrated on defeating Germany and Japan. Then followed the demobilization period during the last half of 1945 and 1946, when an unfavorable correlation of forces in Europe and Asia and other circumstances beyond their control compelled the executives of American imperialism to restrict their objectives to consolidating their gains and mark time for a while in their expansionist program.

The third, and most important, phase began in March 1947 with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine and the “cold war” strategy. Because of their global scope, it is impossible to treat all the facets of foreign policy disclosed in these diaries. Forrestal, as Navy Secretary, was especially concerned with the Pacific, which was the main theater of naval operation and the chief prize of World War II. He was determined to make the Pacific into “an American lake” and told the President at a meeting of top State, War, and Navy representatives in October 1946 that “the ultimate security of the US depends in major part on our ability to control the Pacific Ocean.” Toward this end he maneuvered to keep all the Pacific Islands taken from Japan for Naval bases and expressed concern lest the United Nations try to exercise some supervision over them in the form of trusteeship. He wanted no interference from any other power in this strategic area.

Even before Japan surrendered, he posed the question to the Cabinet about future political objectives in the Far East in reference to the Soviet Union: “What is our policy on Russian influence in the Far East? Do we desire a counterweight to that influence? And should it be China or should it be Japan?” These questions were settled however, not by the desires of the strategists in Washington, but by the actions of the Chinese people. Consequently, it is defeated Japan that is today being prepared as a counterweight and military base of operations against the USSR – and not China.

Intrigues, Warships and Bribes

Forrestal acquired considerable unpopularity at home and in Democratic Party circles by openly opposing the partition of Palestine and the setting up of the state of Israel. The motives for his position were exclusively imperialist. He worried about harm to the interests of the American oil monopolies by the Arabs in the Middle East and wanted to ensure ample supplies of oil there for the US Navy. Truman was unable to go along with him because, as it was explained to Forrestal, American Jews were heavy donators to Democratic Party campaign funds and could turn the elections in a number of key states. It was this opposition that later led to Forrestal’s departure from the government.

Forrestal was instrumental in sending US naval squadrons for the first time into the Mediterranean. This was part of a calculated policy to buttress Greek and Turkish resistance to the Kremlin, save Italy from “Communist engulfment,” and in general to see that America replaced Britain as “ruler of the waves.” “It is my hope,” he wrote to the commander of the American naval forces in the Mediterranean “that the American policy will be to have units of the American Navy sail in any waters in any part of the globe.”

Forrestal’s intervention in Europe was not limited to official channels. There is a hint in these notes of a large private fund he is known to have raised among his rich friends to buy votes in the March 1948 elections in Italy and prevent a victory for the left. This combination of warships and bribes has not proved very effective. Forrestal has gone – but the Italian workers remain strong and radical.

Bewilderment Over China

China and the USSR presented the two most troublesome problems for the Truman administration and Forrestal in the field of foreign affairs. So far as the facts are concerned, the diaries do not tell much more about the Chinese situation than has previously been published in the State Department’s White Paper and other writings on China. But they confirm the impression of postwar helplessness and confusion of the US policy-makers in respect to China. Despite their military victory, the imperialists found themselves bewildered and disoriented by the complicated problems and fast-moving events that culminated in the Third Chinese Revolution and the fiasco of their own intervention.

Washington had staked everything on Chiang Kai-shek – and this was done in collusion with the Kremlin. Marshal Stalin told Harry Hopkins on his mission to Moscow in May 1945 “there is no other leader strong enough to unify China and he indicates that he will back Chiang in spite of some reservations. Stalin said that the US was the only one with resources capable of rebuilding China and the Soviet will have all it can do to keep itself alive economically, and can offer little help.”

“Tough” Anti-Soviet Policy

In line with this policy the State Department tried to cement a coalition between Chiang and the Chinese Communists through the Marshall mission. When conflict between the contending camps again flared up, Washington faced the following dilemma as Forrestal saw it:

“If the unification of China and Manchuria under Chinese national forces is to be a US policy, involvement in fratricidal warfare and possibly a war with the Soviet Union must be accepted, and would definitely require additional US forces far beyond those previously available in the theater to implement the policy.”

1946 was not yet 1950 and China did not then become a Korea. Washington felt at the time it could neither raise the forces nor extort consent from the American nation for full participation in civil war on the Chinese mainland. The administration had to content itself with chafing on the sidelines, hoping for some miracle to save Chiang from himself and the vengeance of the aroused Chinese millions. Truman’s officials were well aware of the rottenness of the dictator and continued their aid to Chiang with a heavy heart and vocal forebodings of total disaster. But they could find no practical alternative to serve their imperialist ends in that area.

With Chiang’s overthrow by Mao Tse-tung’s forces, any of Washington’s plans pivoted on control of China collapsed. The bankruptcy of Washington’s policy toward China portrayed in these diaries and emphasized by later events demonstrates that, despite the tremendous material resources at their command, the rulers of the US are far from almighty. They can propose and they can plot along imperialist lines. Yet in the last analysis it is not their blueprints or even their legions and bombs that decide the course of events and fundamental questions, but the power of the masses drawn into life-and-death struggles. Just as the GI demonstrations backed by the folks at home had forced and hastened demobilization against the will of the Army high command, so the insurgent Chinese masses upset the Pentagon’s schemes on the Asiatic continent in the late Forties.

The diaries give much important information on the evolution of relations with Moscow. Even during wartime, Forrestal aligned himself with the “tough” anti-Soviet elements in the Cabinet as contrasted with Roosevelt and Wallace, who were for the maximum of concessions to maintain the alliance with Stalin. He was, however, then in no position to determine the main lines of policy toward the Soviet Union. His opportunity for influence came as conditions began to change in the closing months of the war.

The first serious signs of conflict among the Big Three manifested themselves in the spring of 1945. At a State-War-Navy meeting on April 2, 1945

“the Secretary of State advised of serious deterioration in our relations with Russia. The President has sent a strong message to Stalin, deploring this condition, which he points out is brought to a focus by the request to have the Lublin Poles invited to San Francisco. He recites the fact that the ties between Russia and this country, knit together by the necessities of war, are in grave danger of dissolution, and asks the most serious consideration by the Marshal of the questions involved.”

Several weeks later Forrestal saw Averell Harriman, then American Ambassador to Russia, who insisted on “much greater firmness” toward Russia. “He said the outward thrust of Communism was not dead and that we might well have to face an ideological warfare just as vigorous and dangerous as fascism or Nazism.” The following July at lunch with General Clay and Harriman in Germany during the Potsdam conference, Harriman continued: “Russia was a vacuum into which all movable goods would be sucked. He said the greatest crime of Hitler was that his actions had resulted in opening the gates of Eastern Europe to Asia.”

Forrestal took advantage of the growing anti-Soviet sentiments in top circles to conduct a vigorous campaign to preserve the American monopoly of the atom bomb and withhold knowledge of its processes from the wartime allies, especially from the USSR, Replying at a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 21, 1945 to Henry Wallace, who favored giving atomic information to the Russians, Forrestal declared that “the Russians, like the Japanese, are essentially Oriental in their thinking ... it seems doubtful that we should endeavor to buy their understanding and sympathy. We tried that once with Hitler. There are no returns on appeasement.”

By that time the Yalta honeymoon was definitely over and quite different notes were being sounded in the Washington atmosphere. 1945 and 1946 witnessed an increasingly sharper attitude toward Moscow, although the strategists at Washington had not yet abandoned all hopes for a new modus vivendi. The fact is that they were in no position to act otherwise. On the one side, although victorious, the US did not possess enough forces “in being” to undertake far-flung military operations. On the other side, the still unsubsided revolutionary sweep in Europe and Asia stayed their hand.

Evaluation of Military Problem

In December 1947 Forrestal summarized the international military situation as follows:

“There are really four outstanding military facts in the world at this time. They are:

  1. the predominance of Russian land power in Europe and Asia;
  2. the predominance of American sea power;
  3. our exclusive possession of the atomic bomb;
  4. American productive capacity.”

It was first imperative to cope with this predominance of Russian land power by creating far more powerful combat divisions in the US and in Western Europe. This was necessary, Washington thought, not only in the event of war, but also for the success of further negotiations with the Kremlin.

On March 10, 1946 Forrestal saw Churchill who remarked that “he was very gloomy about coming to any accommodation with Russia unless and until it became clear to the Russians that they would be met with force if they continued their expansion.” This comment gives a clue to Churchill’s present attitude in negotiations with the Kremlin as well as to subsequent developments in US policy. In fact, Washington’s change in line was heralded by Churchill’s speech at Fulton, Missouri, which was warmly applauded by Forrestal. Washington’s last effort at securing a compromise with Moscow was the offer by Secretary of State Byrnes at the London meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers in 1946 for a 5-year four-power pact against German rearmament – a suggestion which looks like ancient history in the light of the contemplated integration of Western Germany into the Atlantic war councils.

The new course in American foreign policy was announced with the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, which has fed on through the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Blockade and the Atlantic Pact to the Korean War. Forrestal’s diaries indicate that this crucial turning point was immediately precipitated by the British withdrawal from Greece and continued Russian pressure on Turkey. But it marked a far more basic reorientation of US policy toward the USSR. The cold war was designed to contain Soviet influence by all means, to construct a ring of armed bases and airfields around the perimeter of the USSR and build up the armed strength of the US and its satellites to redress the unfavorable balance in the military arena. Having participated in the formulation of this policy and effected an agreeable unification of the Army, Navy and Air Force, Forrestal’s work was done. He was relieved from office soon after Truman’s selection in March 1949.

Revealing Characteristics of US Rulers

The Forrestal diaries show many interesting things about the directors of the US government. They are extremely sensitive in their reactions to trespasses upon the interests of American capitalism in any part of the world and aggressively resolved to dominate the planet. Yet they have no thought-out conception of the forces at work in the world today, or even of their own international program. They have evidently proceeded in a pragmatic manner, meeting problems by rapid improvisation as they arose, trusting to luck and their seemingly inexhaustible wealth and resources to see them through.

At the same time, they stand ready to plunge the country into the most reckless adventures overnight when they are unexpectedly thrust into a tight corner. Forrestal reveals, for example, that Truman was set to risk war with the Soviet Union in 1946 if the Kremlin insisted on moving against Turkey over the Dardanelles. The decision to enter the Korean War four years later was apparently taken on the spur of the moment in a reversal of previous policy.

This mixture of opportunism and light-minded adventurism in the foreign field has characterized the Chief Executive and his advisers in recent years. How dangerous this is for the American people when the ultimate decision on going to war is actually concentrated in the Presidency alone! One word from the White House – and the globe can go up in flames.

A second feature mirrored in Forrestal’s diaries is the gross ignorance of the monopolists about the main social forces existing in the world they expect to rule. Forrestal and his fellows thought and acted as though nothing counted in the settlement of great questions involving the lives of nations but billion-dollar appropriations and armed force. They believe that any reluctance by the American people to follow the plutocrats could be simply disposed of by deceitful propaganda campaigns. The diaries contain some instructive entries on the ways and means by which the militarists used radio commentators, movies and newspapers, whenever they wished to put over a costly or unpopular measure. These professional “democrats” invariably displayed utter contempt for the intelligence of the people.

Forrestal’s Suicide: A Symptom

Finally, it is not difficult to discern from these pages that, all reservations to the contrary, the “cold war” is regarded by the more ruthless Pentagon minds as preliminary steps toward the inevitable direct assault upon the USSR. Among the many congratulations Forrestal received when he became Secretary of Defense was this message from Myron Taylor, ex-head of the US Steel Corporation and then the President’s envoy at the Vatican: “May this (great honor) lead to world peace. If that is impossible, then to effective war and enduring peace in timely sequence.” This was the only letter of congratulation Forrestal preserved in his confidential files, and it very likely reflected his private hopes and the real perspectives ol the militarist-monopolist clique he belonged to.

Almost all the entries in these notebooks are impersonal. They do not betray any symptoms of the inner conflicts which exploded in the nervous breakdown and mental unbalance quickly following Forrestal’s retirement from office. At one point in the last months of his life, he ran out into the streets madly shouting: “The Russians are coming!” He flung himself from a hospital window to his death soon after.

Nor do his diaries exhibit the least comprehension of the colossal social conflicts within the capitalist structure or the profound contradictions in the positions of the US imperialists at home and abroad that have already checked their aggressions at several key points and will eventually lead to their downfall. There is a dramatic symbolism in Forrestal’s crackup and suicide. It prefigures the fate of the system and the ruling class he worked so hard to preserve.

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