I write in reference to "The Fall of James Forrestal" [Style, May 23]. During the struggle over the legislation that resulted in the National Security Act of 1947, which formed the National Military Establishment (the precursor to the modern Defense Department), Mr. Forrestal and the Navy successfully fought for legislation that made the secretary of defense a weak coordinator rather than a true administrator.

Thus, the tragic irony of Mr. Forrestal's short tenure as secretary was that he inherited an office with great responsibility but bereft of the authority required to make the kind of decisions to resolve the roles and missions battle among the services.

The official history of the Office of the Secretary of Defense notes that "one of the most painful experiences of Forrestal's public career was reluctantly concluding that the statute he had done so much to engineer contained serious defects."

Prior to his demise, Mr. Forrestal recognized this and recommended that the Office of Secretary of Defense be strengthened. With the support of the Army and Air Force -- the services that wanted a strong secretary of defense from the start -- the 1949 amendments to the National Security Act, which gave more authority to the office, were passed by Congress and became law in August 1949.


Senior Historian

U.S. Air Force History Support Office