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Walt Whitman Rostow

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Walt Whitman Rostow (also known as Walt Rostow or W.W. Rostow) OBE (October 7, 1916 – February 13, 2003) was an American economist and political theorist who served as Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to US President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1966 to 1969.[1][2]

Walt Whitman Rostow
Walt Rostow 1968.jpg
7th United States National Security Advisor
In office
April 1, 1966 – January 20, 1969
PresidentLyndon Johnson
DeputyFrancis Bator
Preceded byMac Bundy
Succeeded byHenry Kissinger
Counselor of the United States Department of State
In office
December 4, 1961 – March 31, 1966
PresidentJohn F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson
Preceded byGeorge McGhee
Succeeded byRobert Bowie
Director of Policy Planning
In office
December 4, 1961 – March 31, 1966
PresidentJohn F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson
Preceded byGeorge McGhee
Succeeded byHenry Owen
Deputy National Security Advisor
In office
January 20, 1961 – December 4, 1961
PresidentJohn F. Kennedy
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byCarl Kaysen
Personal details
Born(1916-10-07)October 7, 1916
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedFebruary 13, 2003(2003-02-13) (aged 86)
Austin, Texas, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Elspeth Davies
Alma materYale University (BA, MA, PhD)
Balliol College, Oxford (BLitt)

Prominent for his role in the shaping of US foreign policy in Southeast Asia during the 1960s, he was a staunch anti-communist, noted for a belief in the efficacy of capitalism and free enterprise, strongly supporting US involvement in the Vietnam War. Rostow is known for his book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960), which was used in several fields of social science.

His older brother Eugene Rostow also held a number of high government foreign policy posts.


Early lifeEdit

Rostow was born in Manhattan, New York City, to a Russian Jewish immigrant family. His parents, Lillian (Helman) and Victor Rostow,[3] were active socialists, and named Walt after the poem Walt Whitman. His brother Eugene, who was named for Eugene V. Debs, became a legal scholar, and his brother Ralph, a department store manager. The Rostows were described as being very "idealistic" immigrants who deeply loved their adopted country and named their three sons after the three men they considered to be the greatest Americans, namely Eugene V. Debs, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.[4] The American journalist Stanley Karnow described Rostow as extremely intelligent with a "brilliant" academic record that saw him graduate from high school at the age of 15.[4]

Rostow entered Yale University at the age of 15 on a full scholarship, graduated at 19, and completed his Ph.D. there in 1940. He also won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Balliol College, Oxford, where he completed a B.Litt. degree. In 1936, during the Edward VIII abdication crisis, he assisted broadcaster Alistair Cooke, who reported on the events for the NBC radio network. After completing his education, he started teaching economics at Columbia University.[1]

Professional and academic careerEdit

During World War II, Rostow served in the Office of Strategic Services under William Joseph Donovan. Among other tasks, he participated in selecting targets for US bombardment. Nicholas Katzenbach later joked: "I finally understand the difference between Walt and me [...] I was the navigator who was shot down and spent two years in a German prison camp, and Walt was the guy picking my targets."

In 1945, immediately after the war, Rostow became assistant chief of the German-Austrian Economic Division in the United States Department of State in Washington, D.C. In 1946, he returned to Oxford as the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History. In 1947, he became the assistant to the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Europe, and was involved in the development of the Marshall Plan.

Rostow spent a year at Cambridge University as the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions. He was professor of economic history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1950 to 1961, and a staff member of the Center for International Studies (CIS) at MIT from 1951 to 1961. From late 1951 to August 1952, Rostow headed the Soviet Vulnerabilities Project. The project, which was sponsored by CIS and received significant support from the U.S. government, sought to identify Soviet vulnerabilities to political/psychological warfare, and received contributions from top Sovietologist and psychological warfare specialists.[5] In June 1955, Rostow headed a group of stalwart cold warriors called the Quantico Vulnerabilities Panel which issued a report[6] advocating nuclear coercion toward the Soviet Union. Although the experts were invited by Nelson Rockefeller, their proposal ran contrary to the policy of the Eisenhower administration.[7]

In 1954, Rostow advised President Dwight Eisenhower on economic and foreign policy, and in 1958 he became a speechwriter for him. In August 1954, Rostow and fellow CIA-connected MIT economics professor Max F. Millikan convinced Eisenhower to massively increase US foreign aid for development as part of a policy of spreading American-style capitalist economic growth in Asia and elsewhere, backed by the military.[8][9]

The Stages of Economic GrowthEdit

In 1960, Rostow published The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, which proposed the Rostovian take-off model of economic growth, one of the major historical models of economic growth, which argues that economic modernization occurs in five basic stages of varying length: traditional society, preconditions for take-off, take-off, drive to maturity, and high mass consumption. This became one of the important concepts in the theory of modernization in social evolutionism. Rostow's thesis was criticized at the time and subsequently as universalizing a model of Western development that could not be replicated in places like Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa.

Service under the Kennedy and Johnson administrationsEdit

The Stages of Economic Growth impressed presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who appointed Rostow as one of his political advisers, and sought his advice.[10] After attempting unsuccessfully to be appointed to a major post under the Eisenhower administration, Rostow decided to try his luck with Kennedy in 1960.[4] During the 1960 election, Rostow served as a speech-writer and adviser for the Kennedy campaign, where he become known as an "effervescent idea man".[4] Rostow wrote the speech calling for a "New Frontier", which Kennedy gave when he won the Democratic nomination.[4] The favorable reception to the "New Frontier" speech led Kennedy to promise Rostow a senior position if he won the election.[4]

When Kennedy became president in 1961, he appointed Rostow as deputy to his national security assistant McGeorge Bundy. Later that year, Rostow became Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff. In October 1961, Rostow went on a fact-finding mission to South Vietnam and he returned full of enthusiasm for greater American involvement in what he stated "might be the last great confrontation" with Communism.[4] The American journalist Stanley Karnow described Rostow as a man who "seemed to revel in the war" as it appeared that he wanted to prove that a short, bald, bespectacled New York intellectual could be just as hard, tough and macho as the idealized World War II veteran that Hollywood kept portraying in action films at the time.[4] Rostow had served in World War II as an intelligence analysis with the task of selecting bombing targets in Germany, an important, but comfortable "desk job" that ensured he never saw combat, a point about which he was very sensitive about.[4]

In 1963, Rostow first advocated invading North Vietnam, arguing for American and South Vietnamese landings on the coast of North Vietnam as the prelude for reuniting Vietnam under the Saigon government.[11] After Kennedy's assassination, his successor Lyndon B. Johnson promoted Rostow to Bundy's job after he wrote Johnson's first State of the Union speech. In 1964, Rostow championed the idea of Congress giving President Johnson the power to wage war in Southeast Asia, an idea that he first suggested in February 1964.[4] Rostow pointed out in a memo to the president that the degree of escalation in the Vietnam war envisioned by the administration would pose constitutional and legal problems as the constitution gave Congress, not the president, the right to declare war and the level of escalation envisioned would be a war in everything, but name.[12] Rostow' solution to this problem was for Congress to pass a resolution giving the president the legal power to essentially wage a war in Vietnam.[12]

When Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was the closest thing to a declaration of war that the United States had in Vietnam, Rostow was well pleased.[13] About the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to the resolution, Rostow later said: "We don't know what happened, but it had the desired effect".[13] In February 1965, Rostow advised Johnson to commit U.S. ground forces to Vietnam to prove that "we are prepared to face down any form of escalation" and to send "massive" naval and air forces to strike North Vietnam and if necessary, China as well.[14] In a memo to Johnson, Rostow wrote: "They [the Vietnamese Communists] will not actually accept a setback until they are sure that we mean it" and needed to know that "they now confront a LBJ who has made up his mind".[14]

National Security AdviserEdit

As national security adviser, Rostow was responsible for developing the government's policy in Vietnam, and was convinced that the war could be won, becoming Johnson's main war hawk and playing an important role in bringing Johnson's presidency to an end.[15] Rostow consistently argued to Johnson that any effort at a peaceful resolution to the Vietnam War would be "capitulation".[16] In his reports to Johnson, Rostow always put the emphasis on information that portrayed the United States as winning, becoming Johnson's favorite adviser on foreign affairs.[17] The optimistic reports that the hawkish Rostow wrote were much preferred by the president to the more pessimistic reports written by the "doves" in the administration.[17] The Ambassador-At-Large W. Averell Harriman called Rostow "America's Rasputin" as he considered him to have a sinister power over Johnson's mind, as he always pressed the president to take a harder line on Vietnam against the advice of his more dovish staff, Harriman included.[18] Johnson was not enthusiastic about the Vietnam War, later telling his biographer Doris Kearns in a very gendered language that the Great Society was "the woman I really loved" while the Vietnam conflict was "that bitch of a war on the other side of the world".[19] As a president, Johnson had often in private complained that he much rather focus on his "Great Society" program intended to end poverty and racism in America and that the Vietnam War was an unwanted distraction.[19] Given these views, Harriman found it mystifying that Johnson should shun his advice about finding a way for the United States to gracefully exit Vietnam while accepting the counsel of Rostow.[18]

Johnson remembered how the "Loss of China" in 1949 had badly damaged the Democratic administration of Harry S. Truman who was excoriated by the Republicans as "soft on communism" and criminally negligent in allowing the "loss of China", attacks that resonated with the American people at the time.[20] Johnson once told a reporter in an "off-the-record" conversation in 1965 that Truman "ceased to be effective" the moment when China was "lost" in 1949, and he had no intention of allowing himself to likewise rendered "ineffective" by "losing" South Vietnam..[20] Johnson was fearful that if he allowed the "loss of Vietnam", it would cause a similar right-wing backlash that would allow a "reactionary" Republican to win the presidency and for the GOP to take control of Congress, and together they would end his Great Society program along with the rest of Johnson's civil rights legislation.[20] Much of Rostow's influence on Johnson was due to his insistence that to protect his domestic achievements that Johnson had to fight the Vietnam war, and moreover that the war was eminently winnable provided that the correct policies were followed.[21] For Johnson, Rostow offered him a way out of an unpleasant situation of fighting a war in Vietnam that he rather not fight to protect the Great Society by promising him what Rostow insisted was a path to victory, as Rostow noted that presidents who win wars were usually also popular presidents.[21]

In particular, Rostow persistently argued to the president that a programme of sustained bombing would force North Vietnam to cease its support of the Viet Cong and thus win the war.[21] At one point in 1966-67, the hawkish Rostow advocated that the United States invade North Vietnam, even if it meant war with China, a course of action that the Pentagon rejected as likely to cause a nuclear war.[22] In addition, Rostow chaired a secret "psychological strategy committee" whose purpose was to supply "correct facts" about the Vietnam war to Congress, the media and the American people in general.[23]

In February 1967, the Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin visited London, and the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson tried to act as a mediator to end the Vietnam war, offering to serve as a honest broker.[24] Kosygin told Wilson that Soviet influence in North Vietnam was limited as the North Vietnamese sought to play the Soviet Union off against China, but if the Americans were willing to cease their bombing of North Vietnam, the Soviet government would indeed pressure Ho Chi Minh to sign a ceasefire.[24] Speaking on what he thought was a secure telephone line from the Soviet embassy in London to the Kremlin, Kosygin told the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that there was a "great opportunity for peace", through in the same call he admitted that the militant, ultra-leftwing line taken by China would pose problems.[24] Unknown to Kosygin, MI5 had tapped the telephone line and a translated transcript of his call to Brezhnev was forwarded to Wilson.[24] The transcript convinced Wilson that Kosygin was negotiating in good faith, and the prime minister then contracted the Americans.[24]

Working closely with David Bruce, the U.S. ambassador to the court of St. James and Chester Cooper, the special envoy of Johnson, Wilson presented a ceasefire offer to Kosygin on 11 February 1967 on behalf of the United States, which Kosygin promised would be passed on to Ho.[25] A few hours later, Cooper was attending a performance of Fiddler on the Roof when he an usher told him that there was an urgent call from Washington, saying that a Mr. Rostow wanted to speak with him at once.[26] In his telephone call, Rostow attacked Cooper for the conciliatory tone of Wilson's letter, which he called appeasement, and demanding it be rewritten to make it much tougher, a gesture that Cooper felt was meant to sabotage Operation Sunflower as the peace talks in London were known.[26] As demanded by Rostow, a new letter with considerably more confrontational tone was given to Kosygin, which led him to accuse the British and Americans of negotiating in bad faith.[26]

Wilson in a telephone call to Johnson complained that the letter as rewritten by Rostow had ruined the peace talks and caused "a hell of a situation".[25] Wilson charged that Kosygin had taken a major risk for peace in Vietnam that could had exposed him to criticism within the Politburo and certainly would had exposed him to criticism from the Chinese who constantly accused the Soviets of not doing enough to support North Vietnam, and he felt an opportunity for peace had been gratuitously squandered.[26] Anxious to salvage something from Operation Sunflower, Wilson, Bruce and Cooper put forward a new offer to Kosygin on 12 February that the United States would cease the bombing of North Vietnam in exchange for no more North Vietnamese troops going down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.[26] Johnson added in the condition that North Vietnam had to respond to the offer by noon the next day, a deadline that Bruce called "ridiculous" and Kosygin left London the next day.[26] Karnow wrote it is no means certain that Wilson's claim that a "historic opportunity" to end the war in Vietnam in 1967 had been squandered as all Kosygin was promising was to pressure Ho to accept a ceasefire and as he himself noted that when the Soviets pressured the North Vietnamese to do something that they did not want to do, they just drew closer to China.[26] Soviet pressure on North Vietnam tended to most effective in conjugation with China, and in 1967 the Chinese were attacking the Soviets in the most violent terms, accusing them of abandoning true communism, making any possibility of Sino-Soviet pressure on North Vietnam most unlikely. Karnow wrote at most Operation Sunflower offered was a chance to begin negotiations to end the war, and Johnson and Rostow shunned that chance.[26]

During the siege of Khe Sanh in January 1968, Rostow reported to President Johnson that the North Vietnamese were sending their forces to "re-enact a new Dienbienphu", predicating that Khe Sanh would be the decisive battle in 1968 and the United States must commit all of its forces to prevent the fall of Khe Sahn.[27] In this, Rostow was playing into North Vietnamese hands as the intention by Hanoi was to draw away American forces from the main cities of South Vietnam as the prelude for the Tet Offensive..[28] During the Tet Offensive in 1968, Rostow in a report stated that a Vietcong attack against a remote village in South Vietnam had been timed to coincide with a debate in Congress about appropriations for the war, leading Karnow to sarcastically write "as if tacticians in Hanoi consulted the Congressional Record before deploying their units"..[29] During the debate in Washington in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive about whatever to send more troops to South Vietnam or not, Rostow argued that firmness in Vietnam was needed to deter " the Middle East, elsewhere in Asia and perhaps even in Europe" and recommended that U.S ground forces enter North Vietnam and Laos to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail.[30]

However, Johnson was badly spooked by his near-defeat in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which he won by only 300 votes against the anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy, a politician whom many people did not take seriously.[31] Even worryingly for Johnson, inspired by this display of presidential weakness in New Hampshire, Senator Robert Kennedy, a politician whom many people did take seriously, entered the Democratic primaries on an anti-war platform.[32] Faced with a situation where there was a real possibility of him losing the Democratic nomination to be president, Johnson decided upon to seek a political as opposed to a military solution to the Vietnam war.[33] For the Wisconsin Democratic primary scheduled for 2 April 1968, the polls in March 1968 showed Kennedy in the lead, McCarthy coming in second and Johnson humiliatingly coming in third.[32] Johnson sought the advice of the so-called "wise men", a group of elder statesmen who advised him to find a way to end the war.[34] Rostow changed his opinions to suit the president's changed mood and now advised Johnson to limit the bombing raids against North Vietnam.[35]

Involvement with the Israeli nuclear programEdit

While working as national security advisor, Rostow became involved in setting the United States' posture towards Israel. Although he supported military and economic assistance to Israel, Rostow believed that increased public alignment between the two states could run counter to US diplomatic and oil interests in the region. After reviewing the May 1967 report from the Atomic Energy Commission team that had inspected Dimona along with other intelligence, Rostow informed President Johnson that, though the team found no evidence of a nuclear weapons program, "there are enough unanswered questions to make us want to avoid getting locked in too closely with Israel."

Concerns about Israel's nuclear program were tabled by the United States during the build-up to the Six-Day War and its aftermath. Though Rostow, Johnson, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk tried to convince Israel not to resort to military force, they supported Israel once the war began. When the nuclear issue resurfaced in January 1968, just prior to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's visit to the United States, Rostow recommended that the president make it clear that the United States expected Israel to sign the NPT.[36]

Public intellectualEdit

When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, Rostow left office, and over the next thirty years taught economics at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin with his wife Elspeth Rostow, who later became dean of the school. He wrote extensively in defense of free enterprise economics, particularly in developing nations. Rostow's successor as National Security Adviser, the Harvard professor, Henry Kissinger, was obsessed with the fear of becoming "this administration's Walt Rostow" whose support for the Vietnam War ruined his reputation with the liberal American intelligentsia and led him teaching at the University of Texas, which was regarded as a second-rate university, a fate that Kissinger was keen to avoid.[37]

Honors and awardsEdit

Rostow received the Order of the British Empire (1945), the Legion of Merit (1945), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1969).


  • Investment and the Great Depression, 1938, Econ History Review
  • Essays on the British Economy of the Nineteenth Century, 1948.
  • The Terms of Trade in Theory and Practice, 1950, Econ History Review
  • The Historical Analysis of Terms of Trade, 1951, Econ History Review
  • The Process of Economic Growth, 1952.
  • Growth and Fluctuations in the British Economy, 1790–1850: An Historical, Statistical, and Theoretical Study of Britain's Economic Development, with Arthur Gayer and Anna Schwartz, 1953 ISBN 0-06-492344-4
  • The Dynamics of Soviet Society (with others), Norton and Co. 1953, slight update Anchor edition 1954.
  • "Trends in the Allocation of Resources in Secular Growth, 1955, in Dupriez, editor, Economic Progress
  • An American Policy in Asia, with R.W. Hatch, 1955.
  • The Take-Off into Self-Sustained Growth, 1956, EJ
  • A Proposal: Key to an effective foreign policy, with Max Millikan, 1957.
  • The Stages of Economic Growth, 1959, Econ History Review
  • The Stages of Economic Growth: A non-communist manifesto, 1960.[38]
  • The United States in the World Arena: An Essay in Recent History (American Project Series), 1960, 568 pages.
  • Politics and the Stages of Growth, 1971.
  • How it All Began: Origins of the modern economy, 1975.
  • The World Economy: History and prospect, 1978.
  • Why the Poor Get Richer and the Rich Slow Down: Essays in the Marshallian long period, 1980.
  • Eisenhower, Kennedy, and foreign aid, 1985.
  • Theorists of Economic Growth from David Hume to the Present, 1990.
  • The Great Population Spike and After, 1998

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "The Cold Warrior Who Never Apologized". New York Times. September 8, 2017.
  2. ^ "Voice of U.S. Policy. Walt Whitman Rostow". New York Times. April 13, 1967.
  3. ^ "Rostow, W. W. : American National Biography Online - oi".
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Karnow 1983, p. 358.
  5. ^ Mitrovich, Gregory (2000). Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956. Cornell University Press. pp. 117–120. ISBN 978-0801437113.
  7. ^ Mitrovich, Gregory (2000). Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956. Cornell University Press. pp. 169–171. ISBN 978-0801437113.
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-08-02. Retrieved 2013-08-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-08-02. Retrieved 2013-08-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ Marc J. Selverstone (24 March 2014). A Companion to John F. Kennedy. Wiley. pp. 277–. ISBN 978-1-118-60886-9.
  11. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 379.
  12. ^ a b Karnow 1983, p. 358-360.
  13. ^ a b Karnow 1983, p. 376.
  14. ^ a b Karnow 1983, p. 405.
  15. ^ [htps:// Vietnam Walter Rostow]
  16. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 503.
  17. ^ a b Karnow 1983, p. 502.
  18. ^ a b Milne 2007, p. 8.
  19. ^ a b Karnow 1983, p. 320.
  20. ^ a b c Milne 2007, p. 133.
  21. ^ a b c Milne 2007, p. 134.
  22. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 505.
  23. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 513.
  24. ^ a b c d e Karnow 1983, p. 495.
  25. ^ a b Karnow 1983, p. 495-496.
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h Karnow 1983, p. 496.
  27. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 541.
  28. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 542.
  29. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 537.
  30. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 553.
  31. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 558-559.
  32. ^ a b Karnow 1983, p. 559.
  33. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 559-560.
  34. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 563.
  35. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 563-564.
  36. ^ "Walt Rostow - Wilson Center". 2013-09-13.
  37. ^ Karnow 1983, p. 645.
  38. ^ Walt Whitman Rostow (1990) [1960]. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-40928-5.

Further readingEdit

  • Karnow, Stanley (1983). Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking. ISBN 0140265473.
  • Milne, David (2008). America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 978-0-374-10386-6.

External linksEdit