Driven Patriot: The Life And Times Of James Forrestal
By Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley
Alfred Knopf, 1992, 562 pp.
The Chairman: John Mccloy And The Making Of The American Establishment
By Kai Bird
Simon & Schuster, 1992, 800 pp.
Spanning The Century: The Life Of W. Averell Harriman, 1891-1986
By Rudy Abramson
William Morrow, 1992, 699 pp.
These are three important biographies. Although the Cold War is over, there is still much to learn, understand and interpret. Pending the opening of the Kremlin archives, the most fertile field for investigation is "the life and times," that is, biographies of the major figures, and not only the presidents. While no new startling facts are likely to be revealed about the American side, recreating the ambience of the early years of the Cold War may open some new historical understanding, especially in light of the inevitable next wave of revisionism.
It is therefore a happy coincidence that we have before us three large biographies of men who helped shape the wartime as well as the postwar national security policies of the United States. This period, which began with Pearl Harbor and lasted until the inauguration of Richard Nixon, was dominated by the so-called establishment. If there was in fact such an establishment, then three of its key figures in the early years were John J. McCloy, James Forrestal and Averell Harriman.
Born in the 1890s, their backgrounds were quite different. McCloy and Forrestal came from modest circumstances, but both rose to prominence before World War II: McCloy as a partner in a prestigious New York law firm and Forrestal in the upper reaches of a large New York financial institution. Harriman of course was born to great wealth and was the bearer of a famous name. Ostensibly Republicans, they were drawn to Washington to work for Franklin Roosevelt. McCloy was recruited as an assistant secretary of war by Henry Stimson in 1940; Forrestal became undersecretary of the navy, brought in by Frank Knox and Roosevelt; Harriman, after dabbling in the New Deal, was appointed special emissary to the British government by Roosevelt.
Forrestal forged slightly ahead when he became secretary of the navy, and later the first secretary of defense. Oddly enough, after the war Forrestal started as a strong opponent of the creation of the new consolidated defense department. He succeeded in watering down the final legislation, to protect his beloved navy, but came to regret it when Truman appointed him to the office. He found that his handiwork made it difficult for him to stop the service rivalries and to shape a cohesive instrument. He was more successful in propagating the view of the young George F. Kennan and his doctrine of containment; in this sense Forrestal was, as his biographers put it, the Godfather of Containment. In the end, out of frustration with the quarreling in the defense department, under pressure to fashion a much-reduced military budget and worried about the failure of Washington to appreciate the Russian threat, he broke down and killed himself. Unfortunately he was succeeded by Louis Johnson, who nearly wrecked Forrestal's creation.
Harriman's career spanned a much longer period, ending only in 1969. He is best remembered, however, as wartime ambassador to Moscow; he later served as leader of the Marshall Plan in Europe and then as secretary of commerce under Truman. An active contender for the presidential nomination that eventually went to Adlai Stevenson, Harriman was elected governor of New York in 1954. In limbo during the Eisenhower period, he returned to serve both Kennedy and Johnson; his final mission, to work for a negotiated settlement of the Vietnam War, ended in failure. He never returned to active political service, though he remained a force in Washington circles.
McCloy's career was less flamboyant; indeed he made a virtue of humility but, as his biographer reiterates, he became the effective "chairman" of the establishment, advising every president through Reagan. His principal achievement was as high commissioner for Germany in the years that ended the allied military occupation and transformed West Germany into a legitimate member of the Western community.
All three men were driven by a strong sense of patriotism, galvanized by the war. After the war, however, they had become so mesmerized by public service that they could not return to their private professions. Forrestal was so obsessed with his office that he finally had to be relieved by Truman. Harriman always seemed to be between assignments. McCloy returned to his law practice, but only temporarily, and he was soon back in Washington as chairman of the World Bank.
Though reasonably ambitious, they had an unusual ability to organize themselves and their associates and to accomplish their missions. The key was their self-assurance, but they also possessed a high sense of duty. Even when overruled they proceeded; and they were often overruled. They did not actively seek power so much as power flowed their way as they made themselves indispensable to the men they served. Kennedy, for example, was reluctant to use Harriman, but within two years Harriman was in Moscow negotiating the first limited ban on nuclear tests with Khrushchev. That agreement still stands.
Nevertheless it would be wrong to see them simply as prominent members of the establishment. Harriman was of the moderate left, despite his capitalist roots; throughout his life he could never quite shake the conviction that a negotiated settlement with Moscow was possible. Forrestal, on the other hand, had "socialist" leanings as a young man but moved to the right and became one of the most strident anticommunists. He did not have the intellectual capacity to work his way to a comprehensive strategy of his own; hence his attraction to the already crafted Kennan thesis.
McCloy was closer to the center; the main criticism of him was that he was too willing to serve the rich and famous and to tell his mentors what they wanted to hear. But McCloy argued near the end of the war for warning the Japanese before dropping the first atomic bomb. Forrestal had no qualms on that score but feared that Japan might be driven into the arms of the Soviet Union. He was highly skeptical of the Baruch plan for controlling atomic weapons, which McCloy had helped prepare.
Their influence began to wane under Truman. Indeed at Potsdam, Harriman, McCloy and Forrestal were uninvited attenders who spent their time chatting among themselves and sightseeing outside the conference while Jimmy Byrnes advised Truman-not exactly testimony to the power of the establishment.
The biographies of Forrestal and Harriman are quite sympathetic, well written, thoroughly researched and documented. Rudy Abramson, a Los Angeles Times journalist, benefited from access to various Harriman papers and archives; Douglas Brinkley and Townsend Hoopes benefited from interviews, including with Forrestal's late son, Michael; Hoopes had also worked for Forrestal in the Defense Department. Both books are informative and comprehensive, but the reader never really comes to understand Forrestal's increasingly vehement anticommunism or Harriman's conversion from a Republican businessman to a loyal New Dealer. There is a hint that Harriman's career was somehow driven by the ghost of his powerful father, E.H. Harriman; Brinkley and Hoopes speculate that Forrestal spent his life running away from his humble origins, including Catholicism, a lifelong flight that ended in suicide.
But the inner character of both men remains something of a mystery even after these heavy 500-page biographies. This may be a blessing, since such an understanding would undoubtedly have led the writers into psychobabble, which mercifully they avoid.
Bird does attempt to come to grips with the public McCloy and offers judgments on many issues based on his view of McCloy's capitulation to peer pressures. Yet it is a curious biography. For example Bird dwells on the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor; his discussion seems fair and balanced but suddenly he blames McCloy for the decisions, though his own text suggests it was a more complicated decision approved on two occasions by Roosevelt and Stimson. The same pattern marks Bird's narrative of the decision not to bomb the camps and rail lines around Auschwitz, a failure he blames on McCloy. Bird's interpretation of McCloy's role in Germany is to blame him for American agencies collaborating with former Nazis, including indirectly Klaus Barbie. It is a very, very long stretch to link McCloy's tenure as high commissioner for Germany with Barbie's secret work for American army intelligence. Moreover in some of his conclusions Bird relies on questionable sources, such as D.F. Fleming, who are scarcely up to date or reliable.
The Forrestal biography is somewhat too episodic, and the chronology occasionally leaves the reader confused. The Harriman biography is perhaps a bit too relentless, without any pauses for summing up Harriman's views; thus the real Averell Harriman may have eluded the writer's net.
All three books are too long. They reflect the new biographic technique of overwriting: every time a name or event is mentioned the authors feel compelled to explain at some length, while the principal subject waits on the sidelines.
Nevertheless these are three significant contributions, well worth reading, especially if one prefers to imbibe history through personal stories rather than the more standard diplomatic and political histories. One hopes that somewhere there are biographers at work on Dean Acheson, on the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen, and Robert Lovett.