Walt Rostow

Walt Rostow

Walt Rostow, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, was born in New York on 7th October, 1916. His parents were active socialists and their three sons, Walt, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Eugene Rostow, were named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Eugene V. Debs.

After graduating from Yale University he was a Rhodes scholar (1936-38) at Balliol College, Oxford. He returned to the United States to complete a PhD at Yale and taught economics at Columbia University.

During the Second World War Rostow served as a major in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under William Donovan. The organization that was given the responsible for espionage and for helping the resistance movement in Europe.

In 1945 Rostow joined the state department in Washington as assistant chief of the German-Austrian division. Later he was involved in the development of the Marshall Plan. After leaving the state department he taught at Oxford University, Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1958 Rostow became a speech writer for President Dwight Eisenhower.

In 1960 he published his influential book, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. The book impressed John F. Kennedy and Rostow was appointed as one of his political advisers. When Kennedy became president in 1961 he appointed Rostow as deputy to his national security assistant, McGeorge Bundy. Later that year he became chairman of the state department's policy planning council.

After the assassination of Kennedy he worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson. This included writing Johnson's first state of the union speech. As national security adviser Rostow was also the main figure in developing the government's policy in Vietnam. Rostow was convinced the war could be won and his failed policy played an important role in bringing Johnson's presidency to an end.

When Richard Nixon became president Rostow left office and over the next thirty years taught economics at the University of Texas. Other books by Roscow include Politics and the Stages of Growth (1971), Rich Countries and Poor Countries (1987), Theories of Economic Growth (1990) and The Great Population Spike and After: Reflections on the 21st Century (1998).

Walt Rostow died on 13th February, 2003.

Primary Sources

(1) Donald Gibson, Battling Wall Street (1994)

Immediately upon becoming president, Kennedy was faced with a situation in Laos in which the Laotian communists, the Pathet Lao, were temporarily aligned with neutralist forces in a battle against rightwing forces led by General Phoumi Nosavan, actively supported by the CIA in the months preceding Kennedy's

inauguration.29 Events were thought to be leading to a possible communist domination of Laos and increasing dangers to South Vietnam and Cambodia. North Vietnam had a small but important force fighting with the Pathet Lao, and there was a possibility of Chinese involvement. The Soviets, although apparently reluctant to become directly engaged, were giving assistance to the Pathet Lao. Although most U.S. press commentary and sentiment in Congress was opposed to the commitment of U.S. forces, the press and Republican leaders were openly against any coalition or compromise government that would give the communists significant power. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and elements of the CIA and State Department supported military intervention, with the Joint Chiefs taking the position during much of this time that the U.S. had to be willing to use nuclear weapons if necessary. At least two members of Kennedy's administration, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the head of the State Department's Policy Planning Council, Walt Rostow, favored a more aggressive military policy. Also, on the day before Kennedy took office, President Eisenhower emphasized to him the problems in Laos and advised that U.S. forces might be needed.

Although Kennedy went through the preparations for deployment of U.S. forces, he consistently displayed an intention to avoid military intervention. He had stated in his first press conference in January of 1961 that Laos should be an independent country free of domination by either side.32 He rejected the recommendations to commit forces to Laos to preserve the existing rightwing government and instead opted to support the formation of a neutralist, coalition government.33 For many reasons, including the internal political situation and the emerging war in Vietnam, this solution would not be ultimately successful. Kennedy's decision not to commit troops may well have been influenced by practicalities such as the problems presented by Laos's geography, or it may have been determined by too much talk by military officials of the possible need to use nuclear weapons to win. The primary reason, however, may simply be the obvious one. That is, the use of military force against a country in a region so recently liberated from French domination could not but seem a continuation of those colonial policies in a new form. As we have seen, Kennedy had no interest in pursuing economic domination of Third World countries. He seems quite logically to have had a similar dislike for the use of the United States' political and military power against backward and weaker nations. This seems to be true in the other crisis he faced in the early months of his presidency, the Bay of Pigs adventure, even though his administration was responsible for continuing U.S.

(2) Adolfo Alvarez, Texana News (February 2003)

The son of a socialist immigrant who named him for the poet Walt Whitman, Rostow graduated from Yale at 19. He won a Rhodes scholarship and served as a major in the Army's covert Office of Strategic Services in World War II. Rostow then pursued a career as a scholar of economic modernization and a prominent adviser to politicians.

It was his relentless support of American military intervention in Southeast Asia, first as a White House and State Department official in the Kennedy administration and then as Johnson's national security adviser at the height of the Vietnam War, that marked him for life.

He became the president's national security adviser at a time when criticism and opposition to the war were beginning to crystallize, and he eventually served the purpose of shielding the president from criticism and from reality," wrote David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest, his 1972 study of the Vietnam War's origins. "He deflected others' pessimism and rewarded those who were optimistic. It was not contrived; it was the way he was."

To the end of his life, Rostow expressed no public regrets about his position on the war, contending in a 1986 interview that congressional cuts in military aid had caused the fall of South Vietnam. "I'm not obsessed with Vietnam, and I never was," he said then. "I don't spend much time worrying about that period."

Because of his hawkish stance, Rostow was a pariah in many academic quarters, but he flourished at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, where he was an emeritus professor of political economy.

(3) Steve Weinberg, America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War (16th March, 2008)

Thousands of books about the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War have appeared in English and other languages. So a skeptic might conclude that nothing fresh is left to be published. David Milne, a British university lecturer, has proved any such skeptic mistaken. Milne's intellectual biography of Walt Whitman Rostow (1916-2003) is a superb, and fresh, achievement.

Born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Rostow became an academic achiever early in life. He entered Yale University at age 15, focused his studies on the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, studied two years at Oxford University in England, then returned to Yale, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1940 with a dissertation titled "British Trade Fluctuations, 1868-1896."

Rostow began teaching at Columbia University, married a fellow scholar, served in World War II with the Office of Strategic Services spy agency, fathered children, helped draft a plan from a perch on the Continent for the recovery of European nations after the war, and eventually returned to the United States to settle in as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor after turning down an appointment at Harvard University.

Rostow developed a reputation as a pleasant human being and teacher, but his research focused outward, on international policymaking. According to Milne, Rostow eventually developed into an "anticommunist zealot." Some of Rostow's zealotry focused on the then barely recognizable nation of Vietnam, which had split into the communist north and the anticommunist south.

Rostow believed the U.S. government needed to reunite Vietnam under democratic, or at least anticommunist, rule. Although an admirer of democracy in the United States, Rostow did not seriously consider ballot-box democracy as a viable solution in Vietnam. Rather, he viewed military force as a solution, apparently indifferent to the deaths that would result among not only combatants but also civilians.

Living and teaching in the Boston area during the 1950s, Rostow became friendly with John F. Kennedy, the heir to a family fortune who had entered politics and was serving in the U.S. Senate.

When Kennedy became president of the United States, he wanted Rostow to join his administration, and Rostow wanted an invitation. Rostow would move to Washington, as deputy special assistant for national security affairs, placing him, as Milne says, "at the very center of executive power in the White House."

From the relative obscurity (as far as the general public knew) of that position, Rostow enjoyed access to the president and power to recommend war against the communist Soviet Union as well as its allies and satellite nations. Vietnam became Rostow's focal point; he recommended without qualification that the U.S. government drop bombs on North Vietnamese territory.

Kennedy and most of his other advisers rejected Rostow's hawkishness for a while. But Rostow began to make inroads. Then, Kennedy was dead, killed by an assassin's bullet. With Lyndon B. Johnson as the new president, Rostow's hawkish prescriptions began to prevail, with huge consequences for the North Vietnamese.

Johnson told the world that he would not be the president "who saw Southeast Asia go the same way China went" - that is, communist.

Eventually, Johnson suffered the consequences of his concordance with Rostow, whom he promoted within the bureaucracy. Significant portions of the American public turned against the Vietnam War and drove Johnson, along with Rostow, from the White House. By then, Rostow's hawkishness had contributed to thousands upon thousands of deaths and disabilities, with American soldiers, civilians, and their loved ones making up some of that total.

As Milne tells his narrative, he provides portraits of many others in the foreign policy realm, introducing Henry Kissinger, for example, as "vainglorious and brilliant" in his attempts to "fashion a diplomatic breakthrough where others had failed."

In addition, Milne relates Rostow's hawkishness within a Democratic Party context to the later hawkishness of advisers such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz within a Republican Party warmongering context.

Milne closes the book with an epilogue that explains how Rostow left government service reviled by many, but landed a position at the University of Texas thanks to Johnson's generosity.

In Austin, Rostow wrote book after book and article after article about the need for the U.S. government to exercise military as well as diplomatic strength.

If Rostow felt remorse, he hid it well.