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 the significance of Tet was the political defeat it inflicted on Saigon and Washington.

But then Rostow can write about “the extraordinarily high morale” of American troops in Vietnam between 1965 and 1968 (p. 552). He can tell us that Johnson’s faith in the democratic instincts of the South Vietnamese and their leaders was well rewarded, citing as an example the achievement of the members of the Constituent Assembly in having “exacted” from Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky “significant concessions diluting executive power in the constitution” of 1967 (p. 456). Looking at the economic situation in South Vietnam, a country whose forced shanty-urbanization and Americanized corruption have appalled other observers, he says that it is ready for “takeoff” (p. 470).

There is something very odd about the mind of Walt Whitman Rostow. He must, I suppose, have a “high” IQ, but there seems a blank in that part of his brain that analyzes and relates experience to concepts, a blank in judgment. He lives in a world of ideologies and learns nothing from experience. In 1972, he was still writing wistfully about the NATO Multilateral Force, or MLF, a half-baked proposal for a nuclear surface fleet manned by men of different nationalities that bored and irritated the Western alliance until President Johnson mercifully allowed it to die. He describes “Asian regionalism,” a pattern of economic and military association invisible to anyone else, as “a viable concept.” Burma is “the potential Ardennes” in some imagined but wholly unimaginable war (p. 283). Southeast Asia is vital to the United States because, among other things, “its geography commands the sea routes of the southwest Pacific.” (That last appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times last April 23. Rostow must be the most prolific outside contributor to that page; since it started a little more than two years ago it has published ten of his pieces.)

Of course Vietnam is the most flagrant example of his imperviousness to reason and experience. Writing in Esquire in answer to Halberstam, Rostow defended America’s course in Vietnam as part of a long effort “to prevent any single major power or coalition from taking over the balance of power in Asia.” An educated man, a foreign policy strategist, has to be afflicted by an extraordinarily self-willed blindness to write these words after our experience with Tito and Ceausescu, after the conflict between the USSR and China has become the fundamental reality in Asia—and to write them, moreover, about the Vietnamese, who historically have been more resistant than any other people on earth to outside domination. If the United States really wanted a diverse Asia, with no one power dominant, the most important thing it could have done in the last generation would have been to assure the success of Ho Chi Minh’s revolution.


Eyes has he, but they see not. He writes approvingly that Lyndon Johnson saw South Vietnam as “a struggling postcolonial nation, its farmers eagerly adapting to new rice seeds, the chicken revolution, chemical fertilizers, small tractors, diesel pumps….” Visiting Vietnam in 1961 and interviewing prisoners, Rostow concluded that the Viet Cong was more “a sophisticated bureaucratic operation than a political movement with great resonance.” He is a perfect example of the idiot savant.

But something more than ideological rigidity disfigures Rostow’s thought. There is also his insensitivity, his moral obtuseness. Writing about a program of Ngo Dinh Nhu’s to relocate peasants in strategic hamlets, he says in one short sentence: “This raised many problems, including the unwillingness of peasants to move.” Writing about the mass bombing of North Vietnam, he lists the many benefits it brought to the American war, such as diverting hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese workers to tasks of repair and reconstruction; then he gives the other side of the ledger in this single paragraph:

There were, of course, costs for this effort: the loss of planes and pilots; the killing of some North Vietnamese civilians; the development of political opposition in parts of western Europe and Japan, as well as among a minority of Americans; and diversion of attention from the refinement of tactical bombing along the infiltration routes.

Examples of Rostovian fantasy abound in this book. My favorite is his explanation of why Thieu eliminated all opposition in the last presidential election in South Vietnam: “Evidently, he was in no mood in the pre-election period of 1971 for noblesse oblige.”

Why bother about such a book? It is a laundry list of Rostow’s thoughts on foreign policy, government, and economics over the last fifteen years, as empty as it is vast. Even as an apologist for American imperialism, Rostow is limp. The dreary pages are unrelieved by one witty line, one rigorously argued idea, even one outrageous proposition stated provocatively enough to rouse spirited disagreement. Nor is he a man whose professional qualifications command much respect. Foreign policy experts, regardless of their political outlook, view Rostow with a certain contempt. In academic life he is an economist-historian, and an outsider’s impression is that professional economists and historians do not take him very seriously, regarding him as a writer not of analyses but of manifestoes.

His best-known work is The Stages of Economic Growth (1960), in which he argues the proposition that nations at some point reach “takeoff,” a “short stage of development, concentrated within two or three decades, in which the economy and the society of which it is part transform themselves so that economic growth becomes more or less automatic.” The theory was publicized as the key to solving the poverty of underdeveloped countries by introducing foreign aid to bring them up to “takeoff.”

A decade later this looks like a thread-bare piece of wishful thinking. But as early as 1960, at a conference of the International Economic Association, Professor Simon Kuznets of Harvard spoke of the book as untestable in its thesis, oversimplified, and meaningless: “I do not know what a ‘political, social and institutional framework which exploits the impulses to expansion in the modern sector, etc.’ is; or how to identify such a framework except by hindsight….”

The interesting questions about Rostow are how he came to have power in the United States government and how he used that power. In the first year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Rostow was deputy to McGeorge Bundy, the President’s special assistant for national security affairs. In December, 1961, he was moved to the State Department as chairman of the Policy Planning Council. He returned to the White House as Lyndon Johnson’s national security assistant in April, 1966.

Kennedy had come to know him, before 1960, as one of the Cambridge liberals. Rostow’s particular interest then was in the underdeveloped world, and his reputation must have been greatly enlarged when the Economist of London gave tremendous play in 1959 to his “Stages of Growth” thesis, giving it the grand subtitle, “A Non-Communist Manifesto.” In Washington he quickly identified himself with the current military line on security issues. Why? Was he trying to impress men (Kennedy; Rusk, Bundy) who prided themselves on their tough-mindedness? Or trying to avoid being identified as an academic, the child of socialist parents? Whatever the reason, Rostow probably would not have had powerful influence if Kennedy had remained President. In fact, Kennedy moved him out of the White House to a job at State where he had no responsibility for operations. But Kennedy’s successor desperately needed optimism and loyalty from his staff—and may have savored these qualities all the more in one of those usually untrustworthy professors.


A man who observed Rostow in the White House during the Johnson years has tried to explain his presence there:

He had a great deal of influence with the President, but I think it came less from his ideas than from his anxious-to-please personality. He used to reinforce all of the President’s own feelings about what was going on, and hopes that things were now turning better. I should add that the feeling that he was anxious to please was not confined to President Johnson. He was really a very nice man, and one of his sources of power at the White House was the fact that people who would have got mad at someone else for doing what he did, did not get nearly so mad at him. You could curse him behind his back, but you could rarely bring yourself to do it to his face—not because he frightened you, quite to the contrary. You really didn’t wish to hurt his feelings.

How did he use his power? First, it is clear from the accounts of those who dealt with him in the White House that he systematically interpreted intelligence reports for President Johnson in ways most likely to make the war seem to be going well and to emphasize the need for intensified military efforts. Intelligence is always subject to different interpretations; Rostow’s doctrinaire turn of mind and imperviousness to experience naturally made him find meanings that supported his preconceptions. Second, as far as possible he kept dissenting views from the President. When one consultant came in with a memorandum favoring a reduction in the bombing, Rostow said candidly that he would not show it to the President because it was too persuasive.

In the unending debate over Vietnam policy, Rostow has been the most persistent civilian advocate of bombing and other acts of total war against North Vietnam. As early as 1961, he raised with Kennedy the idea of invading the North, a proposal that he argued more fully to Johnson in 1967. In 1967 also, he recommended mining the harbors of North Vietnam (see the New York Times version of the Pentagon Papers, Bantam, 1971, p. 574). There is good reason to believe that he was one of those responsible for the change of policy on suspending bombing that aborted the British government’s attempt to have Premier Kosygin help set up Vietnam negotiations when he visited London in 1967. Rostow does not discuss that episode in his book. Nor does he tell us what he contributed to the effort to get President Johnson to send 200,000 more; American troops to Vietnam after Tet, 1968, a campaign that some think was more inspired by Rostow than by the military.

Chester Cooper, a former White House adviser on Vietnam policy, remarks in his fascinating book on Vietnam, The Lost Crusade, that “ill-timed bombing raids” often spoiled American diplomatic initiatives:

Because of sheer stubbornness on Pennsylvania Avenue the bombing continued or intensified in the midst of sensitive conversations. Sometimes…attacks against new targets were pressed in a clumsy attempt to prove to Hanoi (and ourselves) that the mere fact of our having launched a proposal for negotiations did not mean we were unwilling to carry on the war.

Cooper mentions a “heated argument” with Rostow about a proposed raid near the Hanoi airport. Cooper lost. The bombs fell.

The mystery remains. Why was this fond and foolish man allowed to influence the United States toward a policy of mass destruction and terror? Professor Rostow is now at the University of Texas, but his policies go on. The mining that he advocated was done last May. The week before Christmas Hanoi’s electric power plant, which he had wanted to make a bombing target in 1967 (pp. 510-511), was destroyed, and the Hanoi airport was bombed. Then B-52s were used for the first time against Hanoi, with the expected consequences in civilian destruction and loss of life. If the Vietnamese fail once more to conform to the American plan for their society, will someone find in the White House files a final solution left behind by this very nice man?

This Issue

February 8, 1973