David Milne. America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008. 336 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-374-10386-6.
Reviewed by Richard Verrone (Texas Tech University)
Published on H-War (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Janet G. Valentine
JFK's and LBJ’s True Believer
Of all the advisors that graced the West Wing of the White House during the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson years, Walt Whitman Rostow was, according to author David Milne, the truest and most fervent hawk. He was also a reverent Cold War ideologue who believed in the power of the U.S. military in spreading American-style democracy. Milne, a lecturer in American politics and foreign policy at the University of East Anglia, casts longtime national security advisor to JFK and LBJ, Walt Rostow, as a man of great intellect and powerful persuasiveness who was able to gain the ear of his boss, the president of the United States, particularly LBJ. Because of this, Rostow had his version of how to counter the Soviet Union, defeat the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and win the war in Vietnam implemented. In the insightful America’s Rasputin, Milne explains Rostow's diplomatic and military ideology when it came to fighting communism around the world, particularly in the third world, and lays at his feet much of the direct responsibility for the U.S. debacle in Southeast Asia..
America’s Rasputin is essentially a brief biography of Rostow that traces his roots from Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York to Washington, D.C. The book is organized into eight chapters and an epilogue, and presents a chronological rendering of Rostow's life. The majority of the book is dedicated to his Washington and White House years, first as Kennedy's deputy assistant for national security affairs (1961-62), and then as Johnson's national security advisor from 1966 to 1969 (replacing McGeorge Bundy and Robert Komer). In between, Rostow did time as a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council, but still had immediate access to the president.
The title of Milne's book comes from a comment made about Rostow by Averell Harriman, one of America's most celebrated diplomats. Harriman described Rostow as "America's Rasputin," comparing him to the Russian mystic who advised Russian czar Nicholas II, for the powerful and sometimes unsavory influence Rostow exerted on JFK and LBJ's presidential decision making. Despite this label, Rostow brought to the table tremendous intellectual capability. He was a product of the best of academia--Yale, Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and MIT (as a professor of economic history). But, Rostow also brought a strict, immovable ideology of anti-communism that was honed through his early years in academia and the McCarthy era, the Korean War, and the Eisenhower administration. He believed that capitalism would eclipse communism in the battle for economic supremacy, and that the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Union would begin from the successful battle for the third world, although not necessarily in a direct confrontation between the two powers. Rostow's 1960 book, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, was to him a complete refutation of Marxian ideology. In it, he stated that underdeveloped nations needed significant assistance from the United States to reach a prosperous and effective capitalist democracy. That assistance could come in the economic form, as well as the diplomatic and military form. The emphasis, however, was on economic aid. After Kennedy's assassination, and Johnson's ascendency to the presidency, Rostow became increasingly influential in national security policymaking, particularly in decisions about the Vietnam War.
Milne leaves the reader with the distinct impression that Rostow not only had far too much influence on West Wing decisions, but that the influence he exerted came from beliefs about how the United States should interact with the Cold War world that were far from a consensus ideology. As "the most hawkish civilian member of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations," Rostow was the first to advise Kennedy to send U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, and the first to recommend the bombing of North Vietnam (p. 6). This was but one example put forth by Milne of Rostow as a man full of contradictions. His work outside of government before becoming a member of Kennedy’s national security team argued that the United States needed to assist developing nations economically, not militarily, and that this was the best path to eventual democracy and alliance with the United States. To this end, Kennedy formed two large-scale aid programs which were in line with the Rostowian ideology of American assistance to developing nations, the Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Alliance for Progress (directed at Latin America). Yet,over time, he became the framer of the largest American military escalation in a developing country (Vietnam) which the United States hoped to bring to its side in the Cold War. To Rostow, if a country (or part of one in Vietnam's case) was communist, then that country would be shown no mercy if it engaged the U.S. militarily. He believed that eliminating the enemy's capability to wage war by destroying factories, power plants, and logistical networks was the best avenue to victory. Thus, he championed massive escalatory strategic bombing of North Vietnam, much like the bombing of the Axis powers in World War II, to bring quicker resolution to the conflict. In Kennedy, Rostow did not have a president who would fully unleash the American arsenal on its enemies, but in Johnson, he had a president who put most all options on the table, and who ultimately endorsed Rostow's strategy. In order to get that accomplished, Milne states that because of his ability to persuade as well as his extreme confidence in himself and his beliefs, Rostow had Johnson’s ear. Rostow said what Johnson wanted to hear, and said it at the right time. According to the author, Rostow's two biggest contributions to the war in Vietnam, were: first, that he persuaded LBJ to implement, and then continue, the graduated bombing of North Vietnam; and second, that he advised LBJ against pursuing a compromise peace with North Vietnam, thus extending the war's duration
Milne gives the reader a good view of Rostow's strengths (his intelligence, persuasiveness, and governmental experience) and weaknesses (his overconfidence and refusal to compromise). Rostow's unwavering belief in his own polemics and his incredible overconfidence, coupled with his refusal to modify his ideas based on alternative perspectives, were, in Milne's estimation, not just self-deluding, but reckless at best, and outright dangerous at worst. Milne skillfully demonstrates that Rostow had very little understanding of Southeast Asian political or cultural history, and was analytically deficient in perceiving the conflict as a nationalist civil war first, and a war between communism and a fledgling democracy second. The fact that Rostow could consistently convince LBJ to follow a certain policy path, when others could not, made Rostow one of the most important individuals associated with the Vietnam War and the ultimate American defeat. His influence and contribution, the author believes, was easily as important as that of McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, or Dean Rusk. As for being "America's Rasputin," Milne ultimately finds that Harriman's view on Rostow was correct, that his advice was an overwhelmingly negative factor in American foreign policy decisions concerning Vietnam between 1960 and 1969. However, one also has to fault LBJ for allowing a person with Rostow's personality to have so much sway in policy making. By the same token, Milne contends in chapter 6 that LBJ appointed Rostow as national security advisor in 1966 partly because he wanted to send an unambiguous message, both at home and abroad, that a harder American military approach was necessary in Vietnam, and that the United States intended to win in Southeast Asia
Milne's prose is very readable, and absent of jargon. He takes what could be a complicated subject, and presents it clearly. The work is well documented; Milne's 33 pages of notes complement 256 pages of text. The notes are divided equally between primary sources (mainly personal papers from the JFK and LBJ Presidential Libraries) and secondary sources (primarily monographs and memoirs written by the key players in Washington). One of the notable strengths of the work is the author's use of no fewer than thirty-one oral history interviews conducted with a variety of people who had access to, or knew Rostow. Milne's bibliography is thorough, and demonstrates a good knowledge of the existing literature on Rostow, Washington, and American foreign policy in the 1960s, as well as the important individuals who made, or influenced, American policy in Southeast Asia. America's Rasputin belongs on the shelf of all university libraries, as well as any scholar or instructor of the period, especially those who teach the Vietnam War.
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Richard Verrone. Review of Milne, David, America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War.
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