Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Traffic Deaths and Missing Persons

As I've said, the LBJ Presidential Archives are an exciting way to spend a few hours (or days), particularly if you have nerd-like tendencies. The people are terribly helpful, and you don't need any pretense for being there; people who just want to browse the files are just as welcome as people writing dissertations.

I was primarily reading National Security Files having to do with Vietnam while I was there. I learned, as I've posted in two quickly and poorly composed posts already, about a series of covert US CIA and military actions that, though intended to stave off having to commit American combat troops, ended up precipitating the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which essentially started the war as far as the Americans were concerned).

One of the few Johnson administration officials who explicitly acknowledged this, and was even troubled by it, at least as far as I could find, was a State Department Special Assistant named Michael Forrestal. In this memo, from September 1964, he's pushing for someone to coordinate covert operations against the North Vietnamese. He rather dryly understates that the Gulf of Tonkin taught everyone how "unproductive" it can be when these actions overlap.

A few months before that, in July 1964, someone prepared a memo for the administration showing that more American people had died in car accidents in the Washington, D.C. area than had died in Vietnam thus far.

Forrestal's response is terse and dismissive:
I asked my professor, Elspeth Rostow, whose late husband, Walt, was Johnson's National Security Adviser, what she knew about Michael Forrestal. She said he was a little more conservative than most of the people who were in the Kennedy-Johnson administrations; that he, as far as she knew, never married but was extremely popular socially in Washington (having him at your party was apparently a big "get"); and that, in spite of being very intelligent, he may have been too spoiled to really meet his potential.

His father, James, was the first person to be secretary of defense after the National Security Act of 1947 created the position. She described the father as a troubled man, though, and he committed suicide about 18 months later.

Elspeth Rostow has no idea what became of Michael Forrestal. He's not referenced in Wikipedia, not even in his father's entry. While I was in her office, she opened a directory from the last year of the Johnson administration. Michael Forrestal wasn't listed; he'd left government by then. "So after 1969 he was never heard from again?" I asked. "Well," said Professor Rostow, "he undoubtedly was, just not by me."

It turns out that Forrestal died of an aneurysm in January 1989. He's buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to his parents and brother.

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