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A Hawk Among Hawks

By David Milne
12/5/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Walt Rostow advised JFK to consider waging nuclear war in Southeast Asia.

“There ’s nothing like brains. You can’t beat brains.” So said President John F. Kennedy, whose administration was shaped by the faith he placed in “the Harvards  and the Yales.” Following his narrow electoral victory over Richard Nixon in November 1960, Kennedy brought to Washington a glittering array of talent from the business world and elite universities to assume key foreign policy positions. A UC Berkeley and Harvard graduate, Robert S. McNamara was drafted in from the presidency of Ford Motors to serve as secretary of defense. Dean of Harvard College McGeorge Bundy became the president’s national security adviser. And Walt Whitman Rostow was lured from his academic perch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to serve as Bundy’s deputy.

The president was confident that his new team was up to the task. Rostow in turn was impressed by Kennedy’s intellect and utilitarian ethos: “Ideas were tools. He picked them up easily like statistics or the names of local politicians. He wanted to know how ideas could be put to work.” Two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson took a dimmer view of Kennedy’s appointments, however, complaining that “they’ve got the damndest bunch of boy commandos running around you ever saw.”

In 1972, New York Times journalist David Halberstam provided a damning indictment of the role that this intellectual cohort played in Americanizing the Vietnam War, describing this group of men as “The Best and the Brightest”—a sardonic label that has stuck to this day. Who now doubts that ostensibly clever advisers can make very poor decisions when infused with undue confidence? Yet Halberstam’s analysis of the Vietnam War discusses Rostow only intermittently, focusing most of his attention on the foreign policy trinity of Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Dean Rusk. Other eminent scholars of the Vietnam War have also followed this well-trodden path. George Herring’s America’s Longest War, Larry Berman’s Planning a Tragedy, Brian Van De Mark’s Into the Quagmire and Robert Schulzinger’s A Time for War all underestimate—to some degree or another—the influence that Rostow exerted on U.S. policy toward Vietnam in the 1960s.

Bundy, Rusk and McNamara were all present at the key escalatory meetings of the Vietnam War, and each made a forceful case for Americanizing the conflict. But these men were managers, not creators. From where did these ideas originate? The historical evidence strongly suggests that it was Walt Rostow who crafted both a compelling rationale for escalating the war and the most influential blueprint for “victory.” Historian John Prados wrote that “McNamara mostly responded to proposals brought to him by others…it was civilian strategists such as Rostow, or military commanders such as Westmoreland, who were the innovators and initiators….There is responsibility enough for Vietnam that can be shared.”

As a young student during the Depression, Rostow blazed an intellectual trail through Yale, graduating near the top of his class in 1936. Driven and ambitious, he did not take long 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.”

Rostow won a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to attend Balliol College, Oxford, from 1936 to 1938, where his propensity for hard work and high jinks had free rein. He wowed Oxford’s illustrious dons with his insights on economic history. More remarkably, Rostow established a drinking and songwriting partnership with future British Prime Minister Edward Heath—a man not noted for his joie de vivre. Returning to Connecticut in 1938, a worldlier Rostow completed his Ph.D. dissertation at Yale in 1940. His achievements immediately rewarded, Rostow’s career in academia began that same year as an instructor in economics at Columbia University. Following America’s entry into World War II, however, he volunteered eagerly for military service.

In February 1942 Rostow was stationed in London with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the CIA’s predecessor), where his job was to identify German targets most vulnerable to Allied bombing. He soon concluded that targeting Germany’s oil storage facilities would wreak havoc on its war-making ability. The principle was a simple one: without oil, the Luftwaffe was impotent. When systematic oil bombing began just a few weeks prior to D-Day, Rostow’s prediction was borne out. From then onward, the brutally effective German war machine collapsed from within. Overall, Rostow enjoyed a good war with the OSS and his recommendations played a small part in ensuring the speedy defeat of Nazi Germany. For his work with the British Air Ministry and the OSS, the New York-born son of immigrants was awarded the Legion of Merit and made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire. A confident young man had come of age in wartime and no strategy he championed had been contradicted by events.

After V-E Day, Rostow chose to remain in Europe to assist with the planning for postwar reconstruction. He had a profound concern for disadvantaged peoples and believed that government had a significant role to play in making the world a fairer, better place. His dedication to social democracy was shaped by his parents’ strong example (both were Russian émigré socialists) and made stronger through his affinity for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Sincere and impassioned, Rostow returned to American academia in 1950 and chose to bring his substantial intellect to bear on ameliorating Third World poverty.

Throughout his career in academia, in the military and as a policy adviser, he rose to positions of prominence not through bootlicking—although he was deft at cultivating the right people—but through the force of his intellect, personal integrity and the appealing nature of his own personality. Rostow was self-confident but in no way abrasive. This gentleness in debate arose in part from his self-assurance—he was right, and thus did not need to shout very loud. However, his views on poverty were farsighted and well meant. He advocated for the U.S. to use its vast resources to combat global poverty and serve as a shining example of what other nations might achieve.

In 1950 Rostow was appointed to a professorship in economic history at MIT. During this time, he served as a consultant to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, recommending that he vastly increase America’s foreign aid to counter Soviet advances in the developing world. Rostow also helped shape the Open Skies proposal of 1955, which provided for mutual aerial inspections of U.S. and Soviet territory. Even so, the relationship between Eisenhower and Rostow never moved beyond cool formality. Rostow disagreed fundamentally with the Republican’s hands-off approach to the Third World and with what Rostow viewed as foolish over reliance on nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Frustrated by Ike’s refusal to engage seriously with his ideas, Rostow worked ever harder on providing an “answer” to Karl Marx—the task he had set himself at Yale as a 20-year-old.

Finally, Rostow’s magnum opus, The Stages of Economic Growth: A NonCommunist Manifesto, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1960. In it, Rostow argued that all nations passed through five economic stages—“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 a lead in pushing the world rapidly through his stages lest the Soviet Union take advantage of any disaffection with liberal capitalism.

Though Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth provided an insightful explanation of why communism would fail and capitalism prevail, critics attacked it for its almost Marxist economic determinism and presumption of Western superiority. Dependency theorists were particularly skeptical that poor nations would win through slavishly following the whims of the United States. Regarded a seminal text, (it is taught to university students to this day) the book launched Rostow into public prominence that was uncommon for economic historians.

Through Stages of Economic Growth and his relentless call for increased foreign aid, Rostow attracted the interest of the junior senator from Massachusetts. Through the 1950s, John F. Kennedy developed a close working relationship with Rostow. The main thrust of this collaboration was to attack what they perceived as Eisenhower’s misguided foreign policy priorities but, fostered by personality types that complemented one another perfectly, the two men established a close bond. Both were socially graceful and Rostow was particularly adept at cultivating those with power. In turn, as David Halberstam wrote, “Kennedy particularly liked Rostow, liked his openness, his boundless energy, liked the fact that Rostow, unlike most academics, was realistic, seemed to understand something about how Washington really worked, liked the fact that Rostow mixed well, got on well with professional politicians.” As Rostow later recalled, “We were too young to have been rooted deeply in the adventures of the New Deal; we had seen America in trouble and then in triumph as junior officers during the Second World War.” The war was their common formative experience, and Munich—to wilt in the face of wanton aggression—was the historical analogy most commonly touted after Kennedy became president in January 1961. Rostow and Kennedy were erudite, ambitious and possessed of a martial spirit. Their common, intense anticommunism—vigorous, with recourse to varied means—ensured that crisis management would define Kennedy’s presidency.

During the election campaign, Rostow coined enduring slogans such as “Let’s Get This Country Moving Again” and “The New Frontier,” which deftly contrasted JFK’s dynamism with Richard Nixon’s atavistic brand of conservatism. Kennedy rewarded Rostow appropriately when he named him deputy assistant for national security affairs on January 19, 1961. Through that year, Rostow helped the president affect a significant shift toward an activist foreign aid policy, increasing aid for international development from $2.5 billion per year (1956-1960) to $4 billion per year. Furthermore, Kennedy took the significant step of setting up the Agency for International Development with the (positively 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.” Finally, Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress, a massive program to furnish Latin America with $20 billion in public and private capital over the course of the 1960s designed to facilitate an economic growth rate of 2.5 percent. Rostow himself set the target growth figure and formulated seven of the Alliance’s dozen enumerated goals. Serving a president dedicated to paying any price and bearing any burden “to secure the advance of liberty,” Rostow’s long-held aspirations in the field of foreign aid were now being wholly satisfied. And yet, the issue that came to dominate Rostow’s career— and U.S. foreign policy—for the next 14 years, seemed to fly in from left field.

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. For him, a resolute U.S. response to Communist troublemaking in Vietnam required immediate action. “The use of air power in Vietnam,” Rostow wrote to Kennedy on June 30, “puts pressure on the point that is not merely the sources of aggression but a point of true anxiety and vulnerability on the Communist side—Hanoi.” Conceding that such actions “put a very serious issue to both Moscow and Peiping,” he elaborated “it does so at a moment when Soviet missile capabilities are incomplete; before Peiping has nuclear weapons [and] at a time of great hunger and relative weakness in China.” Rostow advised that the United States provide plenty of warning before initiating any bombing campaign or invasion strategy as it “offers the Communists ample opportunity to draw back if they are not prepared to press their offensive all the way to nuclear war.” If nuclear hostilities commenced, however, Rostow believed that “we had better face it now rather than two years from now.” And so, just five months into his first job in government, Walt Rostow—an economic historian and theorist of Third World development—advised the president that he should consider waging nuclear war in East Asia.

Rostow’s fixation with attacking North Vietnam came to the fore again on July 13, 1961, when he proposed to Secretary of State Rusk that the United States should aim to “impose” on Hanoi “about the same level of damage and inconvenience that the Viet Cong are imposing on the South…using American air and naval strength.” If, in response, the North Vietnamese were to “cross their border substantially,” Rostow suggested the United States should implement “a limited military operation in the north, e.g. the capture and holding of the port of Haiphong.” The word “limited,” however, does some injustice to the sheer scope and complexity of attempting to capture a city in enemy territory. Rostow was temperamentally inclined to ignore the most imposing of odds. His approach to problems was conceptual—and often brutal. As Nicholas Katzenbach, who served as attorney general and undersecretary of state, remarked despairingly to a colleague in later years: “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.”

The Taylor-Rostow report of November 1961, prepared in collaboration with Special Military Adviser Maxwell Taylor, 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 U.S. should consider “liberating” North Vietnam if it maintained its aggression. Ho Chi Minh, Rostow claimed, “not only had something to gain— the South—but a base to risk—the North— if war should come.” The president rejected the combat troop option out of hand, yet agreed with the report’s conviction that the situation was critical and that action was required. As Rostow recalled, “The advisory structure the Taylor mission outlined was, essentially, approved; the number of American advisers expanded rapidly; and the support for the South Vietnamese in military hardware and other resources was substantially increased.” Rostow’s appraisal is correct. The Taylor-Rostow report solidified America’s commitment to South Vietnam, both in aid and advisers. But the concept of bombing the North also had been rationalized, for use at a later time. Kennedy’s undersecretary of state, Chester Bowles, later referred to the report as “the beginning of the end.”

Doubts were beginning to form in the president’s mind about the relaxed manner in which Rostow contemplated war. Speaking to National Security Council (NSC) staff member Michael Forrestal, Kennedy remarked: “Walt is a fountain of ideas; perhaps one in ten of them is absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately six or seven are not merely unsound, but dangerously so. I admire his creativity, but it will be more comfortable to have him creating at some remove from the White House.”

Rostow simply overwhelmed the president with his output. Kennedy considered a great deal of it suspect, and remarked, “Walt can write faster than I can read.” This was not meant as a compliment. Such prolixity was useful in universities that placed a premium on the frequency of published output, but not so useful in the White House with a president who valued those who got to the point, and disparaged those who did not. As part of what became known as the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre,” on November 29, 1961, Kennedy moved Rostow to serve as chairman of the newly named Policy Planning Council at the State Department.

Rostow remained for 41⁄2 years at Foggy Bottom, where he continued his advocacy for taking the fight to North Vietnam with unflinching determination. Reacting bitterly to his demotion, Rostow expressed doubt that Kennedy was serious about defeating communism in South Vietnam. Years later, he revealed the true extent of his disappointment. He judged Kennedy’s failure to move promptly against North Vietnam as “the greatest single error in American foreign policy in the 1960s.” Kennedy certainly did not have the excuse of not having warnings and solutions available to him at the time.

Rostow unleashed a series of belligerent memoranda arguing a similar theme each time—the need to attack North Vietnam— and each was met with stony silence. McNamara, Bundy and Rusk were all unwilling to accept that bombing the North, and sending U.S. troops in serious numbers, was necessary for victory. It was not until the end of 1963 that Rostow’s plans for war were taken seriously again at the highest levels. With the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, Rostow’s ideas stopped rebounding against an unyielding force. By December, both the State and Defense departments had begun to refer to the strategy of attacking North Vietnam directly as the “Rostow Thesis.” The thesis held that the United States must deal with externally supported insurgency by striking at its source.

Lyndon Johnson’s assumption of the presidency provided a clear boost to the trajectory of Rostow’s career. It is still impossible to know what Kennedy intended to do with South Vietnam. But his “neutralization” of Laos in 1962 suggested that his avowed strategy of “Flexible Response” (including no response) represented genuine subtlety of touch. In contrast, his successor was in no mood for the creative diplomacy of retrenchment. An astute student of American politics who had a penchant for compromise, Johnson realized that implementing a radical domestic agenda required avoiding the foreign policy controversies—to wit the “loss” of China— that plagued President Harry Truman. South Vietnam’s independence, therefore, became virtually sacrosanct.

Rostow’s strategy for securing this aim gained prominence both in the Pentagon and at the State Department. As Rostow explained to Rusk on February 14, 1964, “Ho has an industrial complex to protect: he is no longer a guerrilla fighter with nothing to lose.” Rostow believed that North Vietnam would eventually cave in to U.S. bombing in order to save its fledgling industrial base. The Rolling Thunder bombing campaign that began in March 1965 followed similar principles. In a target nation that was largely agricultural in composition, however, this rationale was shown to be built on straw foundations. Rostow assumed that Ho Chi Minh’s priorities were similar to his own: namely that the pursuit of economic growth was the overwhelming consideration in peace and war. But the North Vietnamese regime was more than willing to take a serious economic hit to further the overwhelming goal of reunification. Rostow failed to appreciate the longevity of an ideology not beholden to the economic basis that informed his own. The economic determinism that underpinned Rostow’s academic work did not stand up when applied to the complexities of the Vietnamese civil war.

The warmth and mutual respect that characterized the LBJ-Rostow relationship well served Rostow’s resurrection as a foreign policy force. The Rostow Thesis brought Rostow to Johnson’s attention as someone with original ideas and absolute commitment to the cause of defeating Southeast Asian communism. Rostow possessed the character traits that Johnson most appreciated. He was gregarious, hard working and loyal, and he intuitively believed in the necessity of America’s Vietnam mission. The world-weary Bundy had blotted his copybook with the president for reasons he could hardly avoid: his haughty, northeastern mannerisms aroused Johnson’s deep-rooted sense of intellectual inferiority. Less emotional than both Rostow and Johnson, Bundy struck the president as coldly professorial, and insufficiently instinctual.

Rostow’s intellectual make-up, while honed at universities that ordinarily brought out the Texan’s deep prejudices, made sense to Johnson. Both Rostow and Johnson were outsiders—one a southerner and the other from a modest Jewish background. But more than anything, loyalty was a virtue that this president respected above all others—indeed, he demanded it of all who worked with him. Johnson resented those who rocked the boat. While the president refused to follow Rostow’s counsel by invading Laos and North Vietnam and bombing the centers of Hanoi and Haiphong, he admired Rostow’s hard-edged advice, and appreciated the fact that he was never shrill in providing it. The Vietnam War cast the blackest shadow on Johnson’s presidency, but Rostow’s ebullient advice was a sliver of light. In the face of widespread criticism, it is hardly surprising that Johnson was fond of a man who compared him directly to Abraham Lincoln, and who claimed, as did William Tecumseh Sherman, to have an indelicate plan for victory. Rostow said what the president wanted to hear, not owing to self-regarding design, but because unflappable confidence and zealous anticommunism defined Rostow’s character.

So what of Johnson’s other foreign policy advisers? Did they not carry more clout with the president than Rostow? While Robert McNamara was a brilliant manager of facts and data, he was no innovator. He took his ideas from others, subjected them to a searching, usually quantitative critique, and if the numbers worked, his decision was made. Dean Rusk was deferential and unwilling to impose himself on the big foreign policy questions. The secretary of state sought constant approval and encouragement from his president, but refused to champion a distinctive line.

McGeorge Bundy had a fine mind. He could prioritize information, write pithy memoranda and terrify subordinates with his rationality and impatience with flabby arguments. Yet Bundy also lacked creativity. He was leery of ideology and happiest managing crises, not formulating broad strategies. Rostow was different: he was the prophet of American victory in the Vietnam War. He felt that he intuitively understood the nature of communist insurgency and was confident that he knew how to win the war. Moreover, in Stages of Economic Growth he had mapped out the future of world history and in doing so trumped Marx’s theory of inevitable Communist victory. Unlike McNamara, Bundy and Rusk, Rostow had a number of plans to defeat communism in Vietnam. He was unfailingly optimistic that the United States would win the war. Lyndon Johnson needed new ideas to protect South Vietnam and constant reassurance that the war was winnable. Walt Rostow provided both with a value system that promised victory.

As Rostow established this bond of trust and, indeed, familial intimacy with the president, his views came to  directly influence U.S. policy toward the Vietnamese civil war. The “graduated” bombing of North Vietnam was Rostow’s most significant contribution to military strategy. Following his promotion to national security adviser in April 1966, the amount of U.S. ordnance dropped on North Vietnam increased from 33,000 tons in 1965 to 128,000 tons in 1966. This sharp rise in bombing is not solely attributable to Rostow’s ascension in influence vis-à-vis Rusk and McNamara, but his contribution gave a critical boost to the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s argument for escalation. From the summer of 1966 to the fall of 1967, Rostow’s leverage with the president was at its most pronounced, and the escalation of the war continued apace, contrary to the defense secretary’s wishes and even those of the secretary of state.

Beyond this story of military escalation, Rostow was instrumental in extending the conflict’s duration through his implacable hostility to peace negotiations with North Vietnam—particularly those led by third-party intermediaries. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson held high hopes that his discussions with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in February 1967 might produce a Vietnam breakthrough. However, convinced that Wilson held little sympathy for South Vietnam’s plight, Rostow advised the president to harden the U.S. negotiating position and hence undercut Wilson’s efforts. While it is a challenge to trace precisely the degree to which Rostow’s counsel proved decisive, it is surely significant that the British prime minister blamed the national security adviser wholly and directly for the diplomatic debacle that followed.

In March 1967, Wilson wrote to his foreign secretary George Brown “I suspect that Rostow himself was largely responsible for the misunderstandings during the Kosygin visit.” In later months, Rostow again cast significant doubts on another third party: Henry Kissinger. Skeptical that his negotiations were ever going to amount to anything, Rostow worried that the sonorous Harvard professor of government was likely to “go a little soft when you get down to the crunch.” Rostow is one of the few people to have accused Kissinger of being a soft touch at the negotiating table. Both Wilson and Kissinger rued the fact that Rostow had the president’s ear.

More than even Harold Wilson, Ambassador at Large Averell Harriman voiced the fiercest denunciation of the mesmerizing effect that Rostow exerted on Johnson’s decision-making. The contempt was reciprocal. While Harriman described Rostow acidly as “America’s Rasputin,” Rostow thought Harriman was willing to achieve peace at an inappropriate price to American credibility.

The 1968 Harriman-led Paris peace negotiations failed to bring South Vietnam on board, and failed to convince North Vietnam of Johnson’s sincerity. In both instances Rostow played a key role in ensuring that the negotiations were wedded to stringent terms—amenable only to the Vietnam south of the 17th parallel—and worked hard to convince Johnson not to order a unilateral bombing cessation.

Recognizing that the substantive part of his job had ended—and that Harriman-baiting was not as satisfying as it once had been—Rostow ended his career as national security adviser denigrating those who questioned the Vietnam War’s necessity. On September 16, 1968, Rostow wrote to the president that he had given some thought to formulating “my equivalent for 1968 of ‘Let’s Get This Country Moving Again’”—his eloquent contribution to Kennedy’s 1960 election victory. Struggling to match his earlier concision, Rostow came up with: ‘We’re not going to let a handful of white and black punks turn this country over to [George] Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and those who base their campaign on their support.”

While Rostow had not infused this slogan with the optimism of his earlier Kennedy-era efforts, it at least had the merit of matching Lyndon Johnson’s black mood. As his government career neared its end, job offers from the likes of MIT, Yale and Harvard were noticeably absent. Worried that Rostow might struggle to find work, in light of his now-controversial status as the world’s most belligerent development theorist, Johnson invited Rostow and his wife, Elspeth, to join him at the University of Texas at Austin to help establish the LBJ School for Public Affairs. Rostow gratefully accepted the job, and lived in Austin for the remainder of what was a long life, dying there in 2003.

Reflecting back on the Vietnam War, Rostow once commented, “I don’t spend much time worrying about that period.” Je ne regrette rien was Rostow’s mantra to the very end.


David Milne is a lecturer in U.S. foreign relations at the University of Nottingham, England. For additional reading, see his book America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War, 1961-1968; and Rostow’s own book Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market.

Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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