Walt’s Faults

The Diffusion of Power: An Essay in Recent History

by W.W. Rostow
Macmillan, 739 pp., $12.50

Walter W. Rostow
Walter W. Rostow; drawing by David Levine

Toward the end of this very long book Professor Rostow repeats from an earlier work, The United States in the World Arena (1960), what he calls “the critical questions for the future.” One of these questions is: “Will the United States mobilize the strength, will and imagination to bring about the emergence of the new nations in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as congenial open societies…?” Looking at the world picture in 1972, he concludes that he cannot give “a flat affirmative” but that “progress has been made.” It would be interesting to have Rostow’s list of the “congenial open societies” that the United States has caused to emerge lately in, say, Asia. Park’s South Korea? Marcos’s Philippines? Thieu’s South Vietnam? Or one, any one, anywhere?

The passage is characteristic of Walt Rostow. He starts by assuming that the United States has the duty and the power to “bring about” particular forms of society everywhere on earth, and that it will exercise its hegemony beneficently. On that nonexistent foundation he builds the thesis that all is working out splendidly. Compared to Professor Rostow, Dr. Pangloss was a shrewd student of the human condition.

Rostow’s fatuous optimism has long been famous in official Washington. Back in 1964, a marshal named Castelo Branco took power in Brazil. Rostow made this the occasion to express much enthusiasm about the possibilities for economic development in Latin military regimes. He used to tell staff meetings, “Always remember that it’s only once in a lifetime that you have the good fortune to have a Castelo Branco.” Alas, poor Castelo Branco, who turned over the Brazilian presidency to another military figure in 1967, is not mentioned even once in this book, which Rostow describes as a personal portrait of “the world community and the United States” in the period 1957-1972.

David Halberstam caught Rostow’s mad optimism perfectly in The Best and the Brightest, describing a scene in 1965 when he confided to Daniel Ellsberg that the Viet Cong were near collapse: “The charts are very good….” But no outside sources are necessary. Rostow’s own words, in this book, are so self-destructive that they would be hilarious if so much blood and torment were not involved.

He still sees the Tet offensive of 1968, for example, as a catastrophic failure for the other side in Vietnam. He includes in the book a memorandum to President Johnson of February 5, 1968, accompanied by two little graphs whose simple-mindedness has to be seen to be believed. One line is labeled “Allies” and another labeled “Communists”; the first runs uphill and the second down—and even more so after Tet (pp. 517-518). Henry Kissinger, who does not differ from Rostow in his strategic or moral outlook, at least allowed some realism to affect his view of the same question. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1969, Kissinger saw that…

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