Madness in Washington?

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET

What would happen if one of the people in charge of the American military had gone mad? What if it happened while we were on the brink of World War III and no one knew about it?

Those questions are not the stuff of thrillers, but of America's history. As I retell in my new book, The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour, this really did happen sixty years ago.

Secretary of Defense James Forrestal was the first person to hold that position - the Cabinet member who had more responsibility over America's armed forces than anyone who came before him. Though he has been largely forgotten - or perhaps ignored - by history, he was a driving force in shaping the policies that would guide America in the Cold War. The Marshall Plan, the doctrine of containment, and the National Security Council were all - at least in part - his brainchildren.

But by the time the Soviets blockaded western Berlin and brought the world to the brink of a new war in the midst of the 1948 campaign, he was losing his mind. He was suffering from all manner of ailments that would come within months to include severe hallucinations and paranoia. I'm not a psychologist but in consulting with them I believe his symptoms likely point to schizophrenia.

Within a year, while still serving as Harry Truman's Defense Secretary, he had spiraled out of control. In The Candy Bombers, using newly declassified documents, I shed some new light on what happened on the mysterious night that James Forrestal's life ended, but perhaps the full circumstances will never be known.

Sometimes members of the Bush Administration's highest ranks have been accused of madness. It is too glib a way of excusing some of the policies that have done so much damage to America's place in the world.

But the question remains: What would happen if one of our nation's top officials truly did go mad?