Rostow, Walter Whitman ("Walt")
ROSTOW, Walter Whitman ("Walt")
(b. 7 October 1916 in New York City), economic historian of theories of development who served in the administrations of presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as deputy special assistant to the president for national security affairs (1961), chairman of the State Department Policy Planning Council (1961–1966), and special assistant to the president for national security affairs (1966–1969). An enthusiastic hawk on the Vietnam War, Rostow's views carried particular weight in the later years of the Johnson administration.
Rostow was the second of three sons of Victor Aaron Rostow, a Russian-Jewish immigrant to the United States who worked as a metallurgical engineer, and Lillian Helman Rostow, a homemaker. He studied economics at Yale University and as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, earning a Ph.D. from Yale in 1940. During and after World War II, he served in the Office of Strategic Services (1941–1945), the State Department (1945–1946), and the Economic Commission for Europe (1947–1949). On 26 June 1947 he married Elspeth Vaughan Davies, a professor of political science; they had two children. Returning to the academic world in 1950, for ten years the plump and bespectacled Rostow taught economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was also an associate of the Institute's Center for International Studies, which was supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
During the 1960 election campaign, Rostow provided informal advice and ideas on foreign affairs to the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy, to whom he had been close since 1958, and devised two of Kennedy's campaign slogans, "Let's Get This Country Moving Again" and "The New Frontier." Since the mid-1950s Kennedy, a committed foreign-policy activist whose inaugural speech proclaimed his dedication to winning the cold war, had already devoted much thought to how the United States might gain the loyalties of the developing or "Third World" countries, the often post-colonial nations of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, which Kennedy perceived as the most acute arena of competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. Rostow's academic writings—including The Process of Economic Growth (1952) and The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960), which centered upon the possibility of providing an alternative to Marxist models and historical theories of economic development and purported to provide a roadmap developing countries could follow in order to achieve modernization without revolution—appealed to the young senator. As president, Kennedy displayed the same confidence as Rostow in his country's ability to remake developing nations in its own image. This outlook characterized programs such as the Alliance for Progress, designed to promote economic development and stave off revolution in Latin America, a particularly pronounced concern of the Kennedy administration after its failure to overthrow Fidel Castro's radical government in Cuba.
Rostow's initial reward for his assistance to Kennedy's campaign was an appointment as deputy to McGeorge Bundy, President Kennedy's special assistant for national security affairs. Rostow almost immediately became involved with Vietnam, whose southern half was often viewed in the late 1950s as a successful model for U.S. modernization efforts in former colonial states. Rostow had long argued that only the use of military force against the outside source could halt externally supported insurgencies. He also believed that the very process of modernization often generated short-term dislocations and dissatisfactions that could facilitate communist challenges, and that these challenges must be held off until full modernization was accomplished. In early February 1961 Rostow passed on to Kennedy and enthusiastically endorsed a report by Brigadier General Edward G. Lansdale, which suggested that a serious crisis was imminent in South Vietnam and recommended a major expansion of U.S. programs in that country. Rostow urged consideration of the options of bombing North Vietnam or occupying its southern regions, an outlook that made him one of the strongest hawks in the Kennedy administration, and he would remain as such until the end of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. In October 1961 Rostow and General Maxwell D. Taylor went on a mission to Vietnam to assess the situation there and to consider the merits of possible U.S. courses of action. Their report recommended that the United States change its existing advisory role to one of "limited partnership" with South Vietnam, increasing U.S. economic aid to and the number of military advisers in the country. A secret appendix to the report also suggested that 8,000 U.S. combat troops be deployed. All but the last of these recommendations were implemented.
In late 1961 Rostow was appointed a State Department counselor and chairman of the department's Policy Planning Council, with wide-ranging responsibilities for long-range analysis and planning. He launched measures to improve the viability of West Berlin, international planning efforts, and initiatives to win Latin American support for a U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. In April 1963 he explored the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir but returned deeply pessimistic. In May 1964 Rostow also became U.S. representative to the Inter-American Committee on the Alliance for Progress, whose mission was to promote economic development and progress, reform, and peaceful change in Latin America.
It was with Vietnam, however, that Rostow's name became indelibly associated. Under Johnson, to whom he enjoyed personal access from June 1964, Rostow remained one of the administration's strongest advocates of an assertive U.S. policy in Vietnam, constantly urging increased military pressure against North Vietnam. By late 1964 he believed that escalating U.S. military actions, including the commitment of ground forces and a naval blockade and bombing of North Vietnam, would convince Hanoi that victory over South Vietnam was impossible. When these measures were implemented in 1965, Rostow urged their expansion and intensification, and he continued to do so after he was appointed in March 1966 to succeed McGeorge Bundy as special assistant to the president for national security affairs. This appointment alarmed many of his colleagues, who feared that the perennially enthusiastic and optimistic Rostow lacked the balance, judgment, and sophistication essential to that position.
In the final years of the Johnson administration, Rostow's confidence in an eventually favorable outcome in Vietnam remained unshaken by mounting public protests or the war's inconclusive progress. In 1967 he called for the extension of the U.S. bombing program, opposing an unconditional bombing halt, although in late 1967 he did endorse proposals by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara to try to reduce U.S. casualties and shift more of the burden of fighting to the South Vietnamese. In an increasingly divided and demoralized administration, Rostow remained a committed hawk, opposed to the March 1968 decision taken after the Tet Offensive to open negotiations with North Vietnam and withdraw from the war. Rostow also accompanied Johnson to his June 1967 meeting in Glass-boro, New Jersey, with Soviet premier Aleksei N. Kosygin. During the July 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Rostow and Johnson worked closely together, and afterward Rostow served on a special group, headed by Bundy, that attempted to manage the immediate crisis and initiate long-range plans for the Middle East.
After his resignation from the State Department in January 1969, Rostow became a professor of economics and history at the University of Texas at Austin. Some of his colleagues in the Johnson administration such as Robert McNamara subsequently admitted their policies were mistaken, but Rostow's voluminous writings after leaving office, such as The Diffusion of Power: An Essay in Recent History (1972), consistently defended U.S. actions in Vietnam. In the mid-1990s he argued that U.S. involvement in the war gave other Southeast Asian nations the breathing space they required to develop strong economies and become staunch regional bastions of anticommunism. In volumes such as Politics and the Stages of Growth (1971), The World Economy: History and Prospect (1978), Why the Poor Get Richer and the Rich Slow Down: Essays in the Marshallian Long Period (1980), Rich Countries and Poor Countries: Reflections on the Past, Lessons for the Future (1987), Essays of a Half-Century: Ideas, Policies, and Action (1988), History, Policy, and Economic Theory: Essays in Interaction (1990), and The Great Population Spike and After: Reflections on the 21st Century (1998), Rostow also wrote extensively on the economic issues with which he had always been preoccupied. For many, Rostow epitomized the can-do spirit of the "American High" of the early cold war, and they considered his somewhat naive belief in his country's capacity to shape the world to its liking as emblematic of the hubris that ultimately embroiled the United States in Vietnam.
Collections of Rostow's papers are in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library at the University of Texas at Austin. Many of his official writings have also been published in the appropriate volumes of the series Foreign Relations of the United States. Rostow's autobiography is Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market (forthcoming 2003). In addition, several of his works deal in part with his activities in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972), gives a harshly critical portrait of Rostow. Works focusing on his role in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations include Kimber Charles Pearce, Rostow, Kennedy, and the Rhetoric of Foreign Aid (2001); Kevin V. Mulcahy, "Walt Rostow as National Security Adviser," Presidential Studies Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1995): 223–236, and "Rethinking Groupthink: Walt Rostow and the National Security Advisory Process in the Johnson Administration," Presidential Studies Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1995): 237–250; David Grossman Armstrong, "The True Believer: Walt Whitman Rostow and the Path to Vietnam" (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2000); and Mark Henry Haefele, "Walt Rostow, Modernization, and Vietnam: Stages of Theoretical Growth" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2000). Rostow as economist is the subject of Charles P. Kindleberger and Guido di Tella, eds., Economics in the Long View: Essays in Honor of W. W. Rostow, 3 vols. (1982); Barry Supple, "Revisiting Rostow," Economic History Review 37, no. 1 (1984): 107–114; and Robert Dorfman, "Economic Development from the Beginning to Rostow," Journal of Economic Literature 29, no. 2 (June 1991): 573–591. The Kennedy and Johnson libraries hold oral histories recorded by Rostow.