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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 961

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This is the grave of Walt Rostow.

What a Thanksgiving treat to profile at Walt Rostow. So much to be thankful for here…..

I always found it amusing that Rostow’s full name was Walt Whitman Rostow. Talk about not fulfilling your namesake’s ideals! He was born in New York in 1916 to a Russian Jewish immigrant family that loved literature and art. His father was a socialist, as were many Russian Jews, and deeply committed to peace. Yeah, about raising your children with your values…..His mother was the children of immigrants but who was too poor to go to college, also being Russian and Jewish in New York. Probably she worked in the sweatshops of that period, as did so many of these immigrants. So they married and had three boys. They named those boys after the greatest Americans they knew–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eugene Debs, and Walt Whitman.

Walt’s father turned against the Soviets in the 1920s due to the rise of the police state and so was disappointed. Walt thus became a strictly anti-communist activist as an adult. He was a very, very smart boy and started at Yale at the age of 15 on a full scholarship. He finished at 19, got a Rhodes Scholarship, and studied at Oxford, and worked for NBC during the Edward VIII abdication crisis, getting information for Alistair Cooke who was reporting on it for American radio. Rostow came back to Yale for awhile and then started teaching economics at Columbia in 1940. All of this and he was still only 24 years old.

Rostow quickly got picked up by the OSS for World War II, as he was intelligent and valuable with a good knowledge of Europe. He helped pick bombing targets, something he would later specialize in. He worked out of London from 1942-45. He strongly encouraged the military to target German oil facilities, believing that was the best way to undermine them. The Army didn’t listen for a long time and for his whole life he blamed the military for not listening to him, saying if they had started this earlier (it was 1944 when the Army Air Force finally went down this road), the war would have ended earlier too. Maybe. In any case, Rostow had a new cause and it wasn’t poetry and it wasn’t socialism and it wasn’t peace. It was strategic bombing.

Rostow came out of the war as a young member of the new Cold War foreign policy elite. He was named assistant chief of German-Austrian Economic Division in the State Department in late 1945. He taught at Oxford in 1946 and then became part of implementing the Marshall Plan. He was a big proponent of creating a European community bound together by economic ties and influenced Dean Acheson and other foreign policy leaders in pushing for this type of idea, which became the European Economic Community in 1957 and much later the European Union. He finally settled at MIT in the early 50s and spend the next decade there. He became a fanatical anti-Soviet during the Korean War, blaming the Soviets for North Korea’s actions invading South Korea (unjustified but common). It turned out, oh, a mere 20 years or so later, that American policymakers finally realized that there was not a gigantic plot coming out of Moscow with Stalin, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev controlling the strings of their puppets around the world but rather that the communist world was complicated. Amazing. Anyway, the Korean War changed Rostow’s thinking. Before this, he felt that communism could be managed through diplomatic means. But now he thought only an endless arms race could work. He wanted very high taxes, with all the money going to guns and planes and bombs. He was an obsessive on this issue. He began to work for Eisenhower promoting these ideas, including becoming a speechwriter in 1958. He was horrified when the Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu and wanted the U.S. to step in and take over the French role. He was determined that no one but fanatics could actually like communism and so that no one in Vietnam would like the Viet Minh. Now, did Rostow know anything about Indochina? No, no he did not. But he was operating out of pure ideology as much as any communist did. Facts didn’t matter. He actually yelled at Eisenhower for not using the American military to back up the French or for using tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Yes, that’s right. Rostow wanted to consider the use of nuclear weapons on North Vietnam.

Rostow did see the Global South as a key Cold War battlefield and thus supported a lot of economic development in India, Pakistan, and other key countries. He went so far as to call Acheson and George Kennan racists for not caring about these nations. Rostow also started writing his magnum opus that was supposed to disprove the economic theories of Marxism. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Noncommunist Manifesto (eyeroll), published in 1960, was a treatise dedicated to massive economic aid to Global South nations to promote their development. This was all justified through his own vision about how Marx was wrong about everything, including his understanding of British industrialization and development. The book really wasn’t influential for his critique of Marxism, or at least it does not remain so today, but it was quite influential as a justification for economic developmentalism coming out of wealthy western nations to promote capitalist foreign policy abroad through non-military means. It was particularly influential for the Korean general and strongman president Park-Chung Hee, who used it as a model of development after taking over in a 1961 coup. So that was the kind of nice guy that Rostow promoted.

Kennedy brought Rostow into the government immediately. They had friendly relations for years as JFK was a big fan of Rostow’s work and ideas for promoting international development. Rostow was initially going to get a big job. But then he wrote a paper arguing for more willingness to use nuclear weapons in southeast Asia, which lead Dean Rusk to veto anything too big for the young radical. But Rostow was still a big enough deal that he became McGeorge Bundy‘s underling and in fact a major advisor. The Alliance for Progress was pretty much Rostow’s vision in action, a big investment in Latin American development with the assumption that these governments would do whatever Americans wanted in keeping out the commies, which meant Rostow was totally cool with right-wing dictators such as Trujillo or Somoza. Rostow tried to get Kennedy to send American troops into Laos (he really was obsessed with using American military power in southeast Asia), but JFK had no interest in this. He also continued to promote the idea of bombing North Vietnam, even though they were doing nothing to the U.S. at this time. He was so obsessed by this that Kennedy eventually found him highly annoying on a personal level.

Rostow was a huge fan of the strategic hamlet program, by which the Vietnamese were rounded up and placed in a “secure” area. This was not only for military purposes. He believed the Vietnamese were backwards people and so getting them out of their villages would turn them into modern people. Effectively, there was little difference between a Rostow and the people such as Richard Henry Pratt who forced Native children out of the tribes and into white-run schools. Kennedy isolated Rostow during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Rostow’s advice coming out of it was….wait for it…to bomb North Vietnam!

Well, Johnson liked Rostow a lot more than Kennedy did. Rostow wrote LBJ’s State of the Union speech in 64 and then got the job as National Security Advisor. Rostow was so happy with the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Finally, he could now bomb North Vietnam as much as he wanted. As everyone knows, more bombs were dropped over Vietnam by the U.S. military than were used in the entirety of World War II. And….it did not work. North Vietnam did not cave. They were not bombed into submission. This was Rostow’s great experiment. To his credit, he did get to kill and maim a whole lot of Vietnamese. I’m sure that excited him. Actually, what I’m sure of is that he simply did not see them as human. Many noted at the time, including other Johnson administration officials, that whereas they were actually in World War II and seeing the real life toll of war, Rostow was in an office picking targets to bomb. He never really knew war. He just liked it.

Many of Kennedy and Johnson’s allies thought Rostow was full of it. His unquestioned faith in strategic bombing as military strategy ran up against the facts that it didn’t work. People such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger particularly became enemies of Rostow. But Johnson loved him as a son. Part of this is that the Kennedy boys didn’t like him. That alone was enough to endear him LBJ. Johnson said, “I’m getting Walt Rostow as my intellectual. He’s not your intellectual. He’s not Bundy’s intellectual. He’s not Schlesinger’s intellectual. He’s not Galbraith’s intellectual. He’s going to be my Goddamn intellectual.” OK then.

Rostow constantly encouraged Johnson to not come to any peace with Vietnam. That would be capitulation. He fed Johnson’s fear of being the next Truman who “lost” China. So they coexisted, feeding each other’s anxieties and obsessions. Rostow had moved away from the idea of nuking Vietnam at least and in fact when William Westmoreland considered it, Rostow told Johnson who put the kibosh on that fast. But strategic bombing, whatever that even meant in terms of bombing a bunch of impoverished people in Hanoi? That was still his bread and butter. Rostow wanted a full invasion of North Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, which led Robert McNamara to note that might well cause China to get directly involved and lead to a nuclear war. Well, Rostow could live with that. Anytime someone, American or European, suggested and even opened initial peace talks, Rostow did everything he could to sabotage them. Rostow hated McNamara for being too much of a dove (!!!!!!!) and so was glad when he finally left. He hoped Clark Clifford would be more hawkish at Defense but he turned out not to be insane like Rostow. So ol’Walt was disappointed.

After Tet, Rostow advocated for more bombing and more direct invasions, including of Laos. But Johnson could read the writing on the wall. Rostow had gone far to destroy his presidency. By the fall of 68, after Johnson had dropped out, Rostow ended up preferring Nixon to Humphrey because Nixon would keep killing the Vietnamese and maybe Humphrey wouldn’t.

Rostow left public service, if that is what we call being directly responsible for so many deaths, upon Nixon’s ascension. He went back with Johnson to Texas, where he was one of the key professors in the establishment of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. He taught there for the rest of his career, along with his wife Elspeth Rostow. A moment about her. Like most talented women of her generation, she gave up her successful career to support her husband. She was a professor at Barnard in the late 30s and helped come up with the field of American Studies. She was very interested in economic development like her husband and in 1948, wrote the book European Economic Reconstruction. She also worked for the OSS in World War II, where she was involved in support for the French resistance. She then became the first tenured women at MIT in the early 50s. So she was a big deal too. They taught together at the LBJ School and helped establish that as one of the premier public policy schools in the U.S.

Walt spent his later years as a huge defender of neoliberalism as part of his economic development programs. Of course this meant giving huge concessions to American and European corporations, but hey everyone wins! In 1986, he published The United States and the Regional Organization of Asia and the Pacific, 1965–1985, in which he argued that the U.S. had won the Vietnam War!!!!!!!!! This was because the Domino Theory had not happened which must me he had stopped it personally. Nevermind that the Domino Theory was bogus from Day One. Unlike McNamara, Rostow never wavered from his love of war and bombing. When McNamara wrote his memoir repudiating the entire war, Rostow savaged the book in the page of the New York Times, saying McNamara had insulted all the family members of the dead in Vietnam (the gall of Walt here) and repeating that the U.S. had in fact won the war.

The nation finally purged Rostow from its bowels in 2003, when he died in Austin at the age of 86.

So on this Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks to Walt Rostow. Without him, how would all of those Vietnamese orphans developed such pluck in surviving? How would all of the Vietnamese amputees have experienced the freedom of losing body parts? They’d raise a toast to Walt, but they don’t have arms. How would all the families of dead Americans have learned the value of losing a son? What a great guy. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that bombing campaigns can never fail. They can only be failed by weak politicians and sleazy journalists who care about what happens on the ground.

Walt Rostow is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other architects of the horrible American war in Vietnam, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jack Valenti, the movie exec and Johnson advisor who recommended to the president that he promote Rostow, is in Arlington, as is Maxwell Taylor, the general who wanted to fight on until the end. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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