Rostow, Walter Whitman (“Walt”)

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Rostow, Walter Whitman (“Walt”)

(b. 7 October 1916 in New York City; d. 13 February 2003 in Austin, Texas), economic historian, deputy assistant for national security affairs under President John F. Kennedy, chairman of the Policy Planning Council at the State Department, and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s special assistant for national-security affairs.

Rostow’s parents, Lillian (Hellman) Rostowsky and Victor Rostowsky, were married in 1912 and had three sons. His father was a Jewish emigrant from Russia who settled in the United States in 1910, and, like many immigrants, he Americanized his surname upon his arrival at Ellis Island. (His mother was not the famous playwright.) A metallurgist, Victor Rostow found work in New Haven, Connecticut, where the public school, Hillhouse High School, offered its eight top students a scholarship to attend Yale University. Rostow thus secured scholarships to attend America’s third-oldest university.

Rostow blazed an intellectual trail through Yale, graduating magna cum laude with a BA in history and economics in 1936. It took little time for him to decide upon his career’s calling. “I would work on two problems,” Rostow recalled. “One was economic history and the other was Karl Marx. Marx raised some interesting questions but gave some bloody bad answers. I would do an answer one day to Marx’s theory of history.” Having secured a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to attend Balliol College, Oxford, from 1936 to 1938, Rostow completed his PhD dissertation at Yale—on the predictive potential of the British industrial revolution—in 1940. His career in academia began immediately, when he became an instructor in economics at Columbia University in New York City. Following America’s entry into World War II, however, Rostow volunteered for the U.S. Army.

Rostow was stationed in London, England, from February 1942 through the end of the war, with the Enemy Objectives Unit (EOU) subdivision of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Rostow’s job was to identify which German targets were most vulnerable to Allied bombing. In collaboration with others Rostow soon concluded that targeting Germany’s oil-storage facilities would wreak the most havoc on its war-making ability. The principle was a simple one: without oil, the Luftwaffe was impotent. Rostow’s prediction was borne out when systematic oil bombing began just a few weeks prior to D-Day. “I shall never forget the date May 12,” the Nazi architect Albert Speer later recalled in his memoir. “On that day the technical war was decided. With the attack... upon several fuel plants in central and eastern Germany, a new era in the air war began.” For his work with the British Air Ministry and the OSS, Rostow was awarded the Legion of Merit and made an honorary member of the Order of the British Empire. Rostow was a standout member of what Tom Brokaw later described as the “Greatest Generation.”

Following Rostow’s demobilization in 1946, Harvard University offered him a professorship in economic history; he was the youngest man ever to be so honored. Rostow initially accepted Harvard’s invitation to begin teaching in September 1946, but after receiving what he felt was a more interesting offer he said no. The University of Oxford had been impressed by Rostow’s late 1930s articles on the British industrial revolution and offered him a one-year appointment as the Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History. Infected by an evident wanderlust, Rostow spent what he later described as “a full and satisfying year in Oxford.” Rostow opted to extend his one-year sojourn to Europe. On 26 June 1947 Rostow married the political scientist Elspeth Vaughan Davies, whom he had met at a conference in Paris, France, in 1937. The couple had two children.

In late June 1947 Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish Socialist secretary of the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), asked Rostow to serve as his executive secretary in Geneva, Switzerland. After playing a part in destroying a Nazi war machine that had torn nations asunder, Rostow now moved to help the continent find redemption: to rebuild the proud nations—America’s brethren—he had studied so assiduously at Yale and Oxford. Interestingly, many at the time thought that Rostow was too accommodating to the Soviet position in Eastern Europe. This reputation for softness was reinforced by Rostow’s optimism that the divided Germany would and should soon reunify. As the economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith recalled, although Rostow was “one of the most effective young officers in the Department,” some thought him “too favourably disposed to trying to work things out with the Soviets.” Security vetting later brought Rostow’s alleged softness on Communism to President John F. Kennedy’s attention. “Why are they always picking on Walt as soft-headed?” Kennedy inquired incredulously, “He’s the biggest Cold Warrior I’ve got!”

Rostow’s twice-extended European adventure came to an end in 1950, when he accepted a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge as a professor of economic history. In 1951 Rostow’s Yale contemporary, the economist Max F. Millikan, left the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to establish and direct the Center for International Studies (CENIS; now known as CIS) at MIT. Upon establishing himself on campus, Millikan immediately requested that Rostow become a staff member and assist in the center’s founding. Among the CENIS staff Rostow’s productivity was unmatched. During the nine years he spent at MIT, Rostow wrote or collaborated on the production of eight books and a glut of scholarly articles championing a revolution in the provision of foreign aid. It was at MIT that Rostow’s anti-Communism became truly intense. During this time Rostow served as a consultant to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, recommending that he vastly increase America’s foreign aid to combat Soviet advances in the Third World. Rostow also helped mold the Open Skies proposal of 1955, which provided for mutual aerial inspections of U.S. and Soviet territory. All the while Rostow worked on “answering” Karl Marx—the task he had set himself at Yale.

Rostow’s magnum opus, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1960. Rostow argued that all nations pass through five stages of economic growth—“traditional society,” the “preconditions for take-off,” “take-off,” “the drive to maturity,” and the “age of high mass consumption”—and that Communism was assuredly not the final stage, as Karl Marx contended, but merely a parasitic infection. Rostow urged that the United States must take the lead in combating global poverty lest the Soviet Union take advantage: “the underdeveloped nation [must] move successfully through the preconditions into a well established take off within the orbit of the democratic world, resisting the blandishments and temptations of Communism. This is the most important task [of the West].” An insightful explanation of why Communism would fail and capitalism prevail, Rostow’s book was later attacked for its almost Marxian economic determinism and presumption of Western superiority—dependency theorists were particularly skeptical that poor nations would win through slavishly following the West. A seminal work, Stages of Economic Growth launched Rostow to a public prominence not usual to economic historians. It is taught to school and university students to this day.

Through Stages of Economic Growth and the assistance he provided to John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, in attacking what he took to be Eisenhower’s shortsighted neglect of development policy, Rostow gained a reputation as an original thinker on foreign affairs. Impressed by Rostow’s creativity and drive, President Kennedy on 19 January 1961 appointed Rostow to serve as his deputy assistant for national-security affairs. Throughout 1961 Rostow helped the president effect a significant shift toward an activist foreign-aid policy. Kennedy increased aid for international development from $2.5 billion (1956–1960) to $4 billion per year, an increase of 62.5 percent on the funds provided by his Republican predecessor. Furthermore, Kennedy took the significant step of setting up the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with the Rostovian rationale that “Many of the less-developed nations are on the threshold of achieving sufficient economic, social and political strength and self-sustained growth to stand permanently on their own feet.” Kennedy also launched the Alliance for Progress, a massive aid program designed to furnish Latin America with $20 billion in public and private capital over the course of the 1960s to facilitate an economic growth rate of 2.5 percent—a figure chosen by Rostow. According to the historian Kimber Charles Pearce, Rostow formulated seven of the Alliance for Progress’s twelve enumerated goals.

Through the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations, however, Rostow made a more significant mark on the Vietnam War than on the issue of development aid. In the summer of 1961 Rostow became the first civilian member of the Kennedy administration to argue in favor of deploying U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam and the first to urge the president to consider bombing North Vietnam directly if the southern insurgency continued. In collaboration with Special Military Adviser Maxwell Taylor, Rostow produced a report in November 1961 that urged the deployment to South Vietnam of six to eight thousand American combat troops in the guise of “flood-relief workers.” The report also suggested that the United States should consider “liberating” North Vietnam if it maintained its aggression: that Ho Chi Minh “not only had something to gain—the South—but a base to risk—the North—if war should come.” Concerned by Rostow’s bellicosity, Kennedy reportedly remarked that, while he admired Rostow’s creativity, “it will be more comfortable to have him creating at some remove from the White House.” With this in mind Kennedy moved Rostow on 29 November 1961, appointing him to serve as chairman and counselor of the newly named Policy Planning Council at the State Department.

Rostow remained at the State Department for four and one-half years, and he continued with unflinching determination his drive to take the fight to North Vietnam. Rostow’s strategy for bombing North Vietnam gained prominence both in the Pentagon and at the State Department, where it was referred to as the “Rostow Thesis.” As Rostow explained to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on 14 February 1964, “Ho [Chi Minh] has an industrial complex to protect: he is no longer a guerrilla fighter with nothing to lose.” Rostow believed that North Vietnam eventually would cave in to U.S. bombing in order to save its fledgling industrial base. The Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, which commenced in March 1965, followed similar principles. In targeting a nation that was largely agricultural in composition, however, this rationale was proven erroneous.

As the war escalated and media criticism intensified, President Lyndon B. Johnson came to view Rostow favorably as a hardheaded prophet of American victory in the Vietnam War—one of the few who remained implacably loyal to the anti-Communist cause in Southeast Asia. Following McGeorge Bundy’s departure to the Ford Foundation, Johnson appointed Rostow on 1 April 1966 to succeed Bundy as his special assistant for national-security affairs. Rostow spent the next two and one-half years advising the president to escalate the war and to be wary of any peace negotiations led by third-party intermediaries, including British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the Harvard professor of government Henry A. Kissinger—who Rostow worried “may go a little soft when you get down to the crunch.” Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara later accused Rostow of burying CIA reports that were critical of the war’s progress. The U.S. diplomat W. Averell Harriman, Johnson’s “Ambassador for Peace,” described Rostow as “America’s Rasputin” because of the harmful influence he exerted on the president. Following Richard M. Nixon’s presidential election victory, Rostow left government to work at the University of Texas at Austin, where he helped establish the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Rostow remained active as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin until his death due to kidney failure. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

Rostow was an academic prodigy, became a world-renowned economic historian, and presented an influential case for vastly increasing America’s foreign aid. Somewhat counter intuitively, Rostow was also one of the key architects of the Vietnam War—he was the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ most belligerent advocate for attacking North Vietnam directly and without restraint. While President Johnson never went as far as Rostow would have liked with respect to bombing the North Vietnamese dikes and invading North Vietnam outright, Rostow was Johnson’s closest, most trusted adviser in the field of foreign affairs. Rostow later argued that by taking a stand in Vietnam, the United States helped facilitate the rapid economic growth enjoyed by the Pacific “tiger economies” in the 1970s and 1980s. Rostow remained largely alone in viewing America’s Vietnam War as a victory in some measure. “Je ne regrette rien” (I regret nothing) was Rostow’s mantra to the very end.

Rostow’s papers relating to his wide-ranging career can be found at the MIT Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts; and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas. Among the most important of his thirty-three books are The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960), The View from the Seventh Floor (1964), and Theorists of Economic Growth from David Hume to the Present: With a Perspective on the Next Century (1990). Rostow wrote two autobiographical studies, The Diffusion of Power: An Essay in Recent History (1972) and Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market (2003). See also Kimber Charles Pearce, Rostow, Kennedy, and the Rhetoric of Foreign Aid (2001), and Michael E. Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation-Building” in the Kennedy Era (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (15 Feb. 2003).

David Milne

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Rostow, Walter Whitman (“Walt”)

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