Walt Rostow

Vietnam War super-hawk advising Presidents Kennedy and Johnson

Of "the best and the brightest", who led America into its greatest post-war foreign disaster, Walt Rostow was among the very brightest. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol, who took a PhD from Yale at the age of 24 and taught American history at Oxford and Cambridge, before becoming a brilliant economic historian, who would write more than 30 books.

Walt Whitman Rostow, economist and government official: born New York 7 October 1916; Hon OBE 1945; Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University 1946-47; Special Assistant to Executive Secretary, Economic Commission for Europe 1947-49; Pitt Professor of American History, Cambridge University 1949-50; Professor of Economic History, MIT 1951-60; Deputy Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs 1961; Counsellor (later Chairman), Policy Planning Council, Department of State, 1961-66; Special Assistant to the President 1966-69; Professor of Political Economy, University of Texas 1969-77 (Emeritus), Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Austin Project 1992-2000; married 1947 Elspeth Davies (one son, one daughter); died Austin, Texas 13 February 2003.

Of "the best and the brightest", who led America into its greatest post-war foreign disaster, Walt Rostow was among the very brightest. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol, who took a PhD from Yale at the age of 24 and taught American history at Oxford and Cambridge, before becoming a brilliant economic historian, who would write more than 30 books.

Yet Rostow will be mainly remembered as the super-hawk of the Vietnam War. He was an irrepressible optimist, convinced that his country could achieve any goal it set itself. Until his death he defended his policies, and never did he waver in his view that the real US mistake was not to commit enough men and treasure to the conflict.

He signalled his views early, as new deputy national security adviser to President John Kennedy. In a memo in April 1961 he urged "gearing up the whole Vietnam operation" by boosting aid and sending in more special forces advisers – the advance troops of a force that at its peak would number 500,000-plus, in a venture that cost 58,000 American lives, not to mention hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Vietnamese ones.

In 1964, by now head of policy planning at the State Department, he expounded the so-called "Rostow doctrine", which held that the only way of defeating externally supported insurgencies was to strike ever harder at those external sources of support until they buckled. This was the philosophy which would lead to the bombing of North Vietnam, and the extension of the war into Laos and Cambodia.

But his greatest influence was exerted from the White House, when Rostow was Lyndon Johnson's national security adviser at the height of the war, between 1966 and January 1969. With his dazzling academic background, and foreign policy experience under JFK, he was a perfect choice – in all but one respect.

Johnson liked his advisers to be brief and to the point. Rostow was talkative verging on verbose, and never more so when expounding on the rightness of his cause. Before he started the job, LBJ's close aide Jack Valenti took him aside and told him how to write memos and handle meetings attended by the President. With good grace, Rostow toned down his act, and gave Johnson what he wanted.

But his opinions on Vietnam he did not tone down, and to a large extent they coincided with Johnson's own. Thus the escalation proceeded: more bombings, more troops, but continuing resistance and counterattack, leading to more bombing and more troops committed.

By late 1967, even Robert McNamara at the Pentagon was convinced the war could not be won, and that "Vietnamisation" offered the best hope of extricating the US without excess loss of face. By the time Johnson made his historic 31 March 1968 speech, in which he announced both a bombing pause in the North and his decision not to seek re-election that November, Rostow and William Westmoreland, the commander in Vietnam, were virtually alone in arguing that just one more push could finish the job.

From the start, Walt Rostow was an overachiever. Born in 1916 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in New York, he excelled at school and university, graduating from Yale at the age of 19. In the Second World War, he served as a major in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. For his work with the British he was appointed a military OBE.

From 1950 to 1961 he was Professor of Economic History at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he wrote a highly regarded book, The Stages of Economic Growth: a non-Communist manifesto (1960), which set out another of his core beliefs – that developing countries would, if protected from Communism, generate economic lift-off that would for ever inoculate them against the socialist virus. It was another intellectual underpinning for America's fatal activism in Vietnam.

It was also at MIT that Rostow became involved with the state's young and ambitious Democratic Senator, John F. Kennedy. As a policy adviser, he played a significant part in Kennedy's successful 1960 presidential bid. The catchphrase of "The New Frontier" is said to have been invented by Rostow; he also coined the main campaign slogan, "Let's get this country moving again".

Eight years later, all the promise was in ruins. Johnson had been broken on the wheel of Vietnam, and the Republican Richard Nixon was elected President. Vietnam had cost Rostow too many friends, especially in his natural habitat of East Coast academia. But he found refuge at the University of Texas in Austin, where he taught for many years and lived for the rest of his life. The Vietnam War, he continued to argue, had bought the rest of South-East Asia time – and, outwardly at least, he never let it bother him. "I'm not obsessed with Vietnam and I never was," he said in 1986.

His country, though, did not forget as easily.

Rupert Cornwell

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