America's Rasputin Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War By Milne, David Hill and Wang Copyright © 2008 Milne, David
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780374103866
On february 27, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s closest foreign-policy advisers gathered in the White House to discuss a war that had spiraled out of control. A month previously South Vietnam’s major towns and cities had been overrun by communist insurgents dedicated to unifying their nation under North Vietnam’s president, Ho Chi Minh. Johnson had been promised “light at the end of the tunnel” at the end of 1967, and the Tet Offensive (so called because the assault coincided with the eve of Tet, the lunar New Year) devastated his administration’s credibility. Most recognized that while the campaign was a conventional military defeat for the insurgents, their psychological victory had been comprehensive. Who could now believe that the United States was winning the war? The mood in the West Wing was accordingly funereal.
The outgoing secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, spoke first. He reported that General William Westmoreland, America’s ranking field commander, wanted the president to dispatch 206,000 additional U.S. combat troops to Vietnam—bringing total troop levels close to 700,000. To satisfy Westmoreland’s request, McNamara calculated that the president would have to call up 150,000 reserves, extend the draft, and sanction a $15 billion increase in the defense budget. To pay for this, Johnson would be forced toincrease taxes and make swinging cuts to his progressive domestic program—commit electoral suicide, in other words. Aside from the fiscal and political sacrifice required, McNamara wondered how Westmoreland was so certain that 206,000 more troops would do the job where half a million had failed.
McNamara’s successor as defense secretary spoke next. Playing devil’s advocate, Clark Clifford asked the group to consider whether Westmoreland’s request was sufficient. Why not call up a further 500,000 or even a million troops? Why not err on the side of caution to get the job done without fear of further failure? “That and the status quo have the virtue of clarity,” McNamara agreed matter-of-factly. “I do not understand the strategy in putting in 206,000 men. It is neither enough to do the job, nor an indication that our role must change.” McNamara believed that the time was now right to declare that the South Vietnamese government was secure and viable—accomplishing the original American objective—and then swiftly locate an exit strategy.
The president’s national security adviser, Walt Whitman Rostow, regarded McNamara’s assessment as ill-considered and defeatist. The Tet Offensive represented a defeat for the communist insurgents and this was no time to take any backward steps. Rostow explained that captured documents proved that the enemy was “disappointed” and unable to mount heavy attacks on the cities. He wanted to reinforce Westmoreland with the soldiers he required and further recommended that the military should up the ante by intensifying the American bombing campaign. The South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) was in disarray—some forty thousand insurgents had been killed during the assault—and Rostow believed that the Tet Offensive, if exploited correctly, might represent the birth pangs of a sustainable, noncommunist South Vietnam.
The national security adviser’s pugnacity was predictable, but something snapped in McNamara when Rostow finished speaking. The two men had clashed unpleasantly over the past two years, but their relationship was about to hit a new low. While Rostow was unfailingly optimistic about military prospects in Vietnam, McNamara had become disillusioned with the conflict in early 1966, and had henceforth urged LBJ to consider de-escalation. Rostow invariably prevailed in these debates, but it was McNamara’s last day in office and he was not going to miss an opportunity to confront his bureaucratic nemesis. “What then?” the defense secretary demanded of Rostow’s plan. “This goddamned bombing campaign, it’s been worth nothing, it’s done nothing, they’ve dropped more bombs than in all of Europe in all of World War II and it hasn’t done a fucking thing.” Speaking with the intensity of a tortured soul who had helped create an unnecessary war, the defense secretary finished his sentence, broke down, and wept. Rostow could only look on, stunned, as Robert McNamara—once described as an “IBM machine with legs”—melted down in a room filled with Washington’s most powerful men.1
In january 1961 the atmosphere in the nation’s capital could not have been more different. The United States was set to inaugurate a president whose popular appeal exceeded that of any twentieth-century incumbent not born to the name Roosevelt. John F. Kennedy was a cerebral, photogenic Massachusetts liberal with a young family and a glamorous wife. He possessed an energy that contrasted sharply with the staid conservatism of his Republican predecessor. In foreign policy Kennedy’s instincts compelled him to favor action over inaction and internationalism over parochialism. Courage under pressure was a trait that he had cultivated assiduously throughout his career. If Kennedy was clearly for anything, it was for taking the fight to America’s enemies.
The United States faced a clear enemy in 1960 and, unlike today, schoolchildren could find it on a map. The Soviet Union existed not just as America’s tactical and strategic competitor, but it also propagated a universal value system that was dedicated to replacing the liberal capitalist worldview championed by the United States. The McCarthyite era had convinced many Americans of the relentless, insidious nature of their enemy. And while the hysteria had passed—Joseph McCarthy had died in lonely ignominy in 1957—the nation still bore the scars that are inflicted when paranoiac bullying goes unchallenged by a fearful Congress. The pragmatic Nikita Khrushchev had succeeded the tyrant Josef Stalin, but the Soviet Union still instilled fear. Yet Kennedy was aware that communism’s danger lay not only in its potential to damage the United States and Western Europe. The so-called Third World was the arena in which the United States and the Soviet Union would battle for ascendancy. Who would find communism’s utopian promise of absolute equality most appealing? The answer: those people living in nations newly liberated from European colonialism and driven to despair by the inequities of daily life.
A day prior to his glittering inauguration, Kennedy announced that Walt Rostow would serve as his deputy assistant for national security affairs. Rostow’s appointment was greeted enthusiastically by the media, academia, and the Democratic Party. As a distinguished professor of economic history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rostow had established a reputation as an articulate champion of Third World development. Through the 1950s Rostow had worked tirelessly to convince President Dwight D. Eisenhower that increasing America’s foreign-aid provision was morally unavoidable in a time of economic abundance and tactically essential in an age of global cold war. While Eisenhower was unmoved by Rostow’s campaign for an international New Deal, Kennedy found the young professor’s rationale compelling. If the Cold War was essentially a high-stakes geopolitical chess game—as defense intellectuals opined—then the pawns were surely critical to any winning strategy. If the United States continued to ignore the world’s failing nations, what was to stop them from seeking an ideological alliance with the Soviet Union? Kennedy hired Rostow to help ensure that the developing world stuck with Washington and avoided flirtation with Moscow or Beijing. Rostow’s rise to a position of influence was celebrated by activist liberals and mourned by fiscal conservatives, who were concerned that saving the world from both poverty and communism would not come cheap.
All changed in the eight years that followed. Rostow’s exalted reputation among liberals sank rapidly as the Vietnam War rumbled on inconclusively, polarizing American society and critically undermining the Democratic Party. Rostow was the most hawkish civilian member of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations with respect to the unfolding conflict in Vietnam. He was the first to advise Kennedy to deploy U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, and the first to provide a rationale for the bombing campaign against North Vietnam that Johnson later implemented. Rather than serving his country as a catalyst for Third World development—as his academic background appeared to portend—Rostow recommended the brutal bombing of a developing nation and was a chief architect of America’s worst-ever military defeat. In 1961 Rostow’s colleagues were sad to see one of their brightest stars leave the ivory tower but delighted that the social sciences had one of its best operating at the highest echelons of government. In 1969 Rostow’s notoriety was such that none of America’s elite universities were willing to offer him a job. His contribution to the making of the Vietnam War made him a pariah in the very quarters that had celebrated him ten years earlier. The former undersecretary of the Air Force Townsend Hoopes described Rostow as “a fanatic in sheep’s clothing.”2 W. Averell Harriman, one of America’s most celebrated diplomats, castigated him as “America’s Rasputin.”3
What had happened in the intervening years to effect this shift in reputation from liberal, cerebral development theorist to belligerent aficionado of tactical bombing? From Rostow’s perspective the answer was nothing at all—one can champion foreign aid and the bombing of communist-infected nations at the same time. Through the 1960s Rostow had surely satisfied the liberals’ aspirations in the field of international development. The Kennedy administration launched the Agency for International Development (USAID) in March 1961 to usher in what the president described in Rostovian terms as a “Decade of Development.” Rostow provided not just Kennedy’s rhetoric, but the agency’s guiding rationale. Another large-scale aid program, the Alliance for Progress, was created to facilitate rapid economic growth in Latin America. Rostow provided seven of the twelve enumerated goals of the Alliance, and his economic theories were the intellectual scaffolding for the entire program. Rostow was loyal to the altruistic causes that drove his academic career. His egalitarianism was pronounced and his concern for disadvantaged nations was manifested on the grand stage of international relations.
It was what accompanied Rostow’s proselytizing for an activist foreign-aid policy that irked his former friends and colleagues on the center and left. Rostow’s anticommunism was more deeply held than that of any American foreign-policy adviser in the twentieth century. This intellectual revulsion at the Marxist-Leninist project led to his advocating the escalation of the Vietnam War more aggressively than any other individual through the 1960s. Rostow was an ideologue and his unerring self-confidence was evident from an early age. As a sophomore at Yale University in the 1930s, he determined that his life’s calling was to “answer” Karl Marx and provide an alternative explanation of the course of world history. For the twenty-five years that followed, Rostow devoted his substantial energies to meeting this formidable intellectual challenge.
In 1960 Rostow published The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto to critical and public acclaim. Just twelve months before entering the Kennedy administration, Rostow, in the minds of many, had buried Karl Marx and charted the world’s true destiny—an impressive feat that discouraged modesty. In his eight years of service as a foreign-policy adviser to Kennedy and Johnson, Rostow dispensed advice that sought to crush Third World communism not just intellectually, but through the overwhelming force of America’s military machine. The passion with which Rostow pursued his academic lifework made him impervious to the force of countervailing reason. He was a zealot on the Vietnam War and the story that follows is one that will be familiar to any student of the history of international relations. Individuals who hold absolute confidence in the efficacy of their ideas—who fail to account for real-world contingencies—invariably lead American foreign policy down blind alleys. “America’s Rasputin” is an emotive term, and Harriman’s description leads one to visualize a conniving, sinister character in possession of preternatural powers of persuasion. While Rostow was convincing in argument, it is important to note that he also inspired loyalty and respect from those who worked with him. He accumulated countless strategic adversaries throughout his career but few clear-cut enemies. Rostow’s likeability was indeed a key strength that facilitated his rise through the byzantine machinations of the elite academy and Washington, D.C. Undersecretary of State George Ball and Secretary of Defense McNamara had some significant spats with Johnson’s national security adviser, but both spoke warmly of “Walt” as a human being. Those who knew Rostow personally will find Harriman’s “Rasputin” barb difficult to accept. He was a considerate, gregarious individual who took great care in cultivating and maintaining close personal friendships and working relationships. When it came to the Vietnam War, however, Rostow was not averse to deploying questionable tactics to achieve his aims.
Any individual’s ability to influence foreign-policy decisions is of course predicated on the relationship he forms with the incumbent president. Through the 1950s Senator Kennedy was impressed by Rostow’s intellectual ability, his productivity, and the originality with which he approached the then politically charged question of U.S. foreign aid. In the 1960 election campaign, Rostow coined phrases—“Let’s get this country moving again” and the “New Frontier”—that deftly contrasted Kennedy’s activism with Eisenhower’s atavistic conservatism. The newly elected president appreciated Rostow’s contribution, and rewarded him appropriately by appointing him his deputy special adviser for national security affairs. Kennedy accorded Rostow unprecedented authority and access in what was hitherto a relatively junior position. Rostow assumed White House responsibility for U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia and, indeed, for most of the world east of Suez.
Through 1961 Rostow worked hard to convince Kennedy that the communist insurgency in South Vietnam was his most pressing foreign-policy concern of the day. Given that the president faced grave crises in Cuba, Berlin, and Laos, Rostow’s role in bringing Vietnam to the limelight was significant. As the historian David Kaiser observes, “Rostow’s energetic pursuit of new solutions gave Vietnam a higher profile for the rest of the year.”4 In going so far as to recommend the deployment of U.S. combat troops and the bombing of North Vietnam, however, Rostow’s energy and rigid belief put him at odds with a president who was skeptical about those who claimed to possess clear-cut solutions to complex problems. Kennedy’s reputation as a sophisticated manager of foreign affairs had been significantly dented by the debacle at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Henceforth the president was more circumspect when considering options for military escalation. In arguing loudly for an American-led response to the crisis in South Vietnam, Rostow exhausted the personal capital he had accrued with Kennedy through the 1950s.
Kennedy shifted Rostow to the Policy Planning Council at the State Department but still he continued his Vietnam crusade with unchecked determination. On paper the move to the State Department was a move sideways, but in reality it was a slight. Even as new barriers were constructed to impede access to the president, however, Rostow did not lose hope. Kennedy and Rostow saw little of each other in 1962 and 1963, yet their infrequent meetings were uncomplicated and warm. Kennedy remained fond of his erstwhile mentor, but his nickname for him, “Air Marshal Rostow,” explains succinctly why the relationship broke down. Ever the optimist, Rostow rationalized this shift in foreign-policy responsibilities as an opportunity. With less firefighting to do at the White House, Rostow dedicated himself to addressing the facets of U.S. foreign policy he had neglected in his crusade to wage war on Vietnamese communism. In the summer of 1962, Rostow completed the administration’s clearest written expression of its diplomatic strategy with a massive blueprint paper for U.S. foreign policy. But while Rostow’s productivity remained impressive, he lacked a receptive audience. This situation changed abruptly with Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s assumption of the presidency.
The closeness and mutual respect that characterized the LBJ-Rostow relationship aided Rostow’s resurrection as a foreign-policy force. But the profundity of Rostow’s contribution to making the Vietnam War owed as much to the force of his ideas as to the key relationship he cultivated. The “Rostow Thesis”—which claimed certainty that the United States could defeat the southern insurgency through bombing North Vietnam—brought Rostow to Johnson’s attention as someone with original ideas and absolute commitment to the cause of defeating Southeast Asian communism. Across the pantheon of Kennedy’s “best and the brightest,” Walt Rostow possessed the character traits to which Johnson was most amenable. He was collegial, hardworking, and loyal, and he believed in the necessity of America’s Vietnam mission. Rostow’s predecessor as national security adviser, the dry, world-weary McGeorge Bundy, had antagonized the president for reasons he could hardly avoid: his haughty, northeastern mannerisms aroused Johnson’s deep-rooted sense of intellectual inferiority. But more than that, Bundy was willing to question a military strategy after it had been decided upon. Less emotional than both Rostow and Johnson, Bundy struck the president as coldly professorial, and insufficiently instinctual.5
Walt Rostow’s intellectual makeup, while honed at universities that ordinarily brought out the Texan’s baser prejudices, made sense to LBJ. 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 the president respected above all others—indeed, he demanded it of all who worked with him. Johnson resented those who rocked the boat. Rostow disapproved of the fact that the president would escalate only to an insufficiently coercive point, but did not push his views to the degree that they annoyed Johnson. While the president refused to implement Rostow’s more radical suggestions, such as bombing the North Vietnamese dikes, invading Laos and North Vietnam, and bombing the centers of Hanoi and Haiphong, he admired the hard-edged nature of Rostow’s counsel. The Vietnam War cast the blackest shadow on Johnson’s presidency, but the national security adviser’s bullish advice and optimism represented a clear chink of light. It is hardly surprising that LBJ was partial to a man who compared him directly to Lincoln and claimed, like 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 defined his character.
As Rostow established this bond of trust and familial intimacy with the president, his views came to guide U.S. policy toward the Vietnam War. The “graduated” bombing of North Vietnam, Rostow’s most significant contribution to military strategy, heightened sharply in intensity 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 1966.6 This sharp increase in bombing is not solely attributable to Rostow’s ascension in influence vis-à-vis Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, but his contribution helped allay doubts and gave a critical boost to the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s case for escalation. Bundy, Rusk, and McNamara were all present at the escalatory meetings of the Vietnam War and each put forward a forceful case for Americanizing the conflict. But these men were managers, not creators. Rostow provided both a compelling rationale for escalating the Vietnam War and the most influential blueprint for “victory.” The historian John Prados writes, “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.”7 In that spirit this book intends to share a little more responsibility, not necessarily foist it all on Rostow’s shoulders.
Beyond this fateful story of military escalation, Rostow contributed to extending the conflict’s duration through his hostility to peace negotiations with North Vietnam—particularly those led by third-party intermediaries. The British prime minister, Harold Wilson, held high hopes that his discussions with the Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, in February 1967 might produce a Vietnam breakthrough. Convinced that Wilson held little sympathy for South Vietnam’s plight, however, 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 later months Rostow again cast doubts on another significant third party: Henry Kissinger. Doubtful that the “Pennsylvania” negotiating channel was ever going to amount to anything, Rostow worried that the Harvard professor of government was likely to “go a little soft when you get down to the crunch.”8 Both Wilson and Kissinger rued the fact that Rostow had the president’s ear.
Averell Harriman provided the fiercest denunciation of the mesmerizing effect that Rostow exerted on Johnson’s decision making. The contempt was reciprocal. While Harriman viewed Rostow as a Rasputin-like figure, Rostow thought Harriman was wholly contemptuous of South Vietnam, and hence willing to achieve peace at an inappropriate price to American credibility. Harriman’s allegations contained a great deal of truth. The Harriman-led Paris peace negotiations failed to bring on board South Vietnam, and failed to convince North Vietnam of Johnson’s sincerity. In both instances Rostow played a key role in ensuring the negotiations were wedded to stringent terms and worked hard to convince Johnson not to order a unilateral bombing cessation. Rostow’s contribution to this fateful chapter of the conflict is hugely significant. The journalist Christopher Hitchens has alleged that Henry Kissinger, for short-term political gain, helped scupper the Paris peace negotiations in the summer of 1968.9 It appears that Rostow carried out this task from within the White House. He did so not for reasons of career progression or political expediency, but because he was appalled at the prospect of any peace that failed to provide an inviolable security guarantee to South Vietnam.
Excerpted from America’s Rasputin by David Milne. Copyright © 2008 by David Milne. Published in March 2008 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. Continues...
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