As Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, wrote in his book “Dereliction of Duty,” the early stages of the Vietnam War caught America’s military leaders flat-footed. Having gone through World War II and Korea, they were all ready for a conventional war. But insurgencies and unconventional warfare were something else. As a result, they were inordinately acquiescent to the wishful thinking of their civilian overseers — and no one thought more wishfully about the war than Walt Whitman Rostow.
A Yale Ph.D. and a Rhodes scholar, Rostow left his academic perch at M.I.T. to join the State Department under John F. Kennedy; he was later Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser during the center-cut of American involvement in Vietnam, from April 1966 to January 1969. More than anyone else, he epitomized the overweening confidence of the civilian strategists of the era — he was the best and the brightest of “the best and the brightest.” He could lay distant claim to operational warfighting competence, having selected bombing targets as a major in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. But like many other prominent civilian strategists of the day, he was by training and disposition an economist and a technocrat.
In his 1960 book “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto,” Rostow posited that robust growth was a nation’s best insurance against the political emergence of Communism, and cast growth as a multistage process that depended crucially on a “takeoff” period propelled by rapid expansion in key segments of an economy. Though criticized as tendentiously Western-centric, the book attracted Kennedy’s attention. In a matter of months, Rostow moved from holding forth in the academy to planning America’s strategy in Vietnam, tightly guided by his ideas about economic development.
Most leading civilian strategists, who were so inventive and authoritative on nuclear strategy, steered a safe middle course between withdrawal and escalation in Vietnam, and did not enunciate big strategic concepts to guide the prosecution of the war. Rostow was different. He believed that the Vietcong were impeding South Vietnam’s advancement to the takeoff stage, and that the United States therefore needed to expend all necessary military and diplomatic means to stop the Vietcong’s guerrilla infiltration. This was a neatly packaged but narrow vision that both opened the door to expansive military action but also reduced it to an adjunct of politics and economics.
Along those lines, Rostow reflexively argued for a “flexible response” when it came to military escalation, from ratcheting up the role of military “advisers” — that is, embedded Special Forces — in the early 1960s, to bombing North Vietnam starting in 1965, to steadily increasing the United States’ expeditionary combat presence in the mid- and late 1960s. Directly defeating the enemy was never the goal; military action was just a way to apply pressure, to maximize psychological intimidation — what came to be known as the “Rostow thesis.”
But crucially, Rostow didn’t actually know much about fighting a war. Any soldier could have told him that increased bombing or troop levels were not the same as, say, increasing food aid. Nor could one rely on data in the same way when it came to war. Rostow was one of the most avid followers of the weekly body counts, equating the number of enemy reported killed with military progress, as if he were reading the latest reports on grain production.
In November 1967, an increasingly wary Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, raised the idea of reassessing the war effort, shifting greater combat responsibility to the South Vietnamese — the policy that would become known as “Vietnamization” under President Richard Nixon — and a bombing halt. Rostow agreed to the first two measures, but opposed the third, and President Johnson sided with him.
Despite McNamara’s crisis of confidence — he departed the Pentagon in February 1968 — Rostow continued to comb through intelligence reports looking for reassuring factoids. During the Tet offensive he denied even the possibility that the surprise attacks had provided a psychological shot in the arm to the Vietcong, concentrating instead on the huge casualties American and South Vietnamese forces had inflicted on them. “This is a great victory for our side,” he told a colleague while they sat in the White House Situation Room. The ensuing 24-day battle for Hue, an agonizing engagement that American forces would also tactically win, drove home the strength of the enemy’s determination and staying power. But Rostow never saw the battle that way.
To the end, Rostow remained not just a supporter of the president, but a crutch. As David Halberstam wrote of Rostow in “The Best and the Brightest”:
He became the president’s national security adviser at a time when criticism and opposition to the war were beginning to crystallize, and he eventually served the purpose of shielding the president from criticism and from reality. He deflected others’ pessimism and rewarded those who were optimistic. It was not contrived; it was the way he was.
The upshot was that Rostow’s status as designated administration hawk in chief induced in him a preoccupation with bureaucratic politics and buoying morale that impaired his strategic objectivity as American frustrations in Vietnam mounted. He, more than any of Johnson’s other advisers, was consumed with showing the press and the American public “light at the end of the tunnel.”
The historian David Milne has called Rostow “America’s Rasputin.” He was not alone as an early advocate for flexible response and a deepening commitment in Vietnam. But long after McNamara and others turned against the war, even as evidence mounted against the Rostow thesis, he remained steadfast.
And while in the ensuing decades most of the advisers, including McNamara, admitted that they were wrong, Rostow, who died in 2003, pointedly refused to apologize for the war or second-guess himself.
He remained a Cold Warrior until the end. In 1986 he superficially attributed the fall of Saigon to Congressional budget cuts. And he continued to insist that the war was worthwhile. Joining a wave of historical revisionists, he argued that the war had bought time for other Southeast Asian nations to consolidate Western-leaning governments and subdue Communist influences — in other words, that the domino theory was right. Like many of Kennedy’s brain trust, Rostow was initially praised for his pragmatic, technocratic liberalism — but in his determination to impose his sterile ideas on the complicated realities of Southeast Asia, he proved to be as ideologically committed as the Communists he so adamantly opposed.
Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was the director for political-military affairs, Middle East and North Africa, on the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013.