Homo Neoconus

Homo Neoconus

Mini Teaser: Everyone knows about Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan. But what about their intellectual godfather? A look at the original democracy-promoting liberal defense hawk, JFK and LBJ advisor Walt Rostow.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

David Milne, America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008), 336 pp., $26.00.

Andrew Preston, The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 334 pp., $49.95.


THOUGH IT has been over for decades, the Vietnam War continues, more often than not, to loom large in American presidential campaigns. In 1980 Ronald Reagan promised to end the Vietnam syndrome and raised liberal hackles by calling the war a "noble cause." Bill Clinton was pummeled by the conservative press in 1992 for being a draft dodger. Dan Quayle and George W. Bush were fiercely questioned about their war records, or lack of one. John F. Kerry, who actually saw combat and declared that he was "reporting for duty" at the Democratic convention in 2004, was Swift-boated as a traitor. Now, as the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, Vietnam promises to be the subject of contention once more.

President Bush declared before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 2007 that defeat in Iraq would amount to a new Vietnam, but the GOP's nomination of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who endured five years of torture in Hanoi, has substantially raised the stakes. At outlets such as the Weekly Standard and elsewhere, McCain's neoconservative bedfellows are contending that Iraq offers a unique opportunity to redress America's humiliation in Vietnam, when liberal elites allegedly betrayed the troops, just as they are intent on doing today. In this telling, McCain's rise has become synonymous with the rebirth of Iraq itself. In the January 22, 2008, Wall Street Journal, for example, Bret Stephens observed:

There is another kind of honor, however, which is uniquely bestowed by one's adversaries and enemies. . . . It is the honor many Americans feel they lost in Vietnam, and which, through Mr. McCain's not-so-improbable resurgence, they now seek to regain and make their own.

David Milne's America's Rasputin and Andrew Preston's The War Council thus arrive opportunely. At a moment when new myths about Vietnam are being purveyed, they offer two important reminders. The first is of the dangers posed by warrior intellectuals who propagate seductive illusions about America's ability to rebuild distant societies in its own image. The second is that Vietnam was not a conservative war. It was a liberal one that was doomed to failure.

Few liberal intellectuals and government officials championed the Vietnam War more ardently than Walt Rostow, the subject of Milne's informative and pointed biography. An advisor to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Rostow was a fervent liberal hawk, who believed that America had to avoid a new "Munich" and that it was its duty to democratize other nations, no matter what the cost. Though Kennedy was fascinated by Rostow's intellectual fireworks, he became wary of him. Rostow's faith in strategic bombing prompted Kennedy to dub him "Air Marshal." Under Johnson, however, Rostow rebounded to become national-security advisor and the most-fervent proponent of the Vietnam War, shielding Johnson, as far as possible, from its realities, to the extent, as he later admitted, of actively concealing official government information from the president.

Rostow's boundless confidence in America's ability to triumph in Vietnam stemmed from the sunny belief that capitalism and liberty represented the inexorable wave of the future for the third world. With just a little nudge from the American military, he believed, history could be accelerated, Communism defeated and freedom expanded abroad. If Rostow's idealistic views sound eerily reminiscent of the current neoconservative crusade, it's because they are.

Rostow, who was born in Brooklyn in 1916, inherited his idealism from his parents. His mother Lillian was the child of Russian émigrés; his father Victor, a Ukrainian metallurgical chemist who had fled czarist Russia, met her at a socialist Sunday school. Like most struggling New York Jews, they were stalwart progressives, naming their first son Eugene, after the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. (Eugene would himself become a prominent lawyer and neoconservative, denouncing arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union and helping to lead the Committee on the Present Danger in the 1970s.) A precocious child, Walt entered Yale as a freshman in 1932, where he focused on economics, deciding that he would provide an alternative to Marx's theory of history. According to Milne, "Rostow wanted to humanize capitalism: to save it from itself and the false prophet that was Karl Marx." Rostow's drive and industry made him a standout student, earning him a Rhodes Scholarship, then a post at Columbia University as an instructor in economics.

During World War II, Rostow earned prominence as a member of the Office of Strategic Services. Rostow was posted to London, where he worked on selecting German bombing targets. (Milne might have noted that Robert McNamara, who served as defense secretary to Kennedy and Johnson, performed similar work on Japanese targets as a statistical control officer, reporting to General Curtis E. LeMay, who later boasted that he wanted to bomb Vietnam "back into the Stone Age.") Rostow identified oil supplies as the key target rather than Germany's overall transport infrastructure. But his advice wasn't heeded quickly enough to Rostow's taste: Rostow claimed that had Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower only followed it, the war might have ended sooner and Stalin would not have been able to establish his East European empire. This was absurd. Eisenhower's key decision had little to do with bombing and everything with deciding not to embark on a race to Berlin with the Soviets, allowing Stalin's forces to bear the brunt of the fighting. "Rostow's affinity for grand counterfactual posturing," Milne writes, "would crop up repeatedly throughout his academic and government career." Indeed, the bombing of Germany was mostly ineffective, even counterproductive, as it stiffened morale and freed up more civilians for military service. But Rostow-unlike George Ball, John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.-declined to participate in the postwar U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which concluded that "continuous heavy bombing of the same communities did not produce decreases in morale proportional to the amount of bombing." It was a lesson that would go unheeded by America in Vietnam, where even more munitions were dropped than during World War II.

In the 1950s, Rostow's focus wasn't on bombs, but on economic progress to stymie Communist advances. Milne shows that Rostow believed that an accommodation with Stalin over German reunification might be possible. He was seen as somewhat soft by his peers on the issue of anti-Communism. Rostow, who joined the Economic Commission for Europe, pushed for economic integration on the continent. It was as a professor at MIT, however, that Rostow made his name. He was part of the younger generation of cold-war liberals, who succeeded to the mantle of Dean Acheson, George F. Kennan and other establishment figures from the Truman era. Rostow, as Milne shows, became a fervent anti-Communist crusader after North Korea's invasion of the South, which he seemed to take as something of a personal affront. According to Milne, "Rostow felt duped and embarrassed by the Korean onslaught, after being so hopeful in earlier years." Rostow's response was to redouble his efforts to disprove Marx. Rostow became what was known as a "development theorist."

As decolonialization took place during the 1950s, the new theater of combat between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to be the third world. At its nineteenth party conference in 1952, the Soviet Union announced that it would expand its influence in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America through trade, loans and technical assistance. As a professor at MIT, Rostow espoused a program for foreign aid and development. And in 1957 the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite seemed to prove that Nikita Khrushchev's Soviet Union was, in fact, stealing a technological march on America.

As Andrew Preston shows in his impressively researched study, the belief in modernization as a key to confronting the Reds was hardly confined to Rostow. McGeorge Bundy, too, believed in nation building, as did a host of other liberal cold warriors. They were dismayed by Eisenhower's lack of interest in foreign-aid programs. Eisenhower refused to give lavish handouts to the third world and focused on security issues related to Western Europe. Kennedy was different. Eager to portray the Eisenhower administration as negligent in countering the Soviet threat, he signed onto Rostow's program, which included denouncing Eisenhower for having allowed a supposed "missile gap" to emerge between Moscow and Washington. Rostow also had a gift for catchy sound bites, coming up with the slogan "A New Frontier" that became Kennedy's mantra.

Above all, Rostow, you could say, provided Kennedy with a unified field theory of foreign policy, a high-toned intellectual justification for bearing any burden and paying any price. In his book, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, published in 1960, Rostow argued that liberal capitalism was the inevitable destination point that all societies were marching toward. Communist regimes were viewed as inconvenient deviations from the advance of liberal capitalism. Rostow was convinced that political leaders, no matter what society they headed, would never sacrifice economic growth for ideological goals. Milne observes that Rostow had produced

Essay Types: Book Review