Original, insightful study of the intellectual eminence grise behind two presidents and their disastrous policies in Vietnam.
Although Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara are usually blamed for the military escalation in Vietnam, this convincing, well-documented study by Milne (American Foreign Policy/Univ. of Nottingham) emphasizes Walt Rostow’s key role in creating the self-justifying rationale that mired America in war for a decade. Having emerged from academia—first Yale, then Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, then MIT as a professor of economic history—Rostow formed his ideological posture while watching the rise of McCarthyism and the Korean War. His magnum opus was a full-throttle repudiation of Marx called The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, in which he extolled the benefits of liberal capitalism predicated on mass consumption and opined that underdeveloped nations needed substantial American assistance to arrive at capitalist rewards. As Milne cogently points out, this sounded positive in theory but did not hold up in practice, a fact Rostow refused to recognize. He caught John Kennedy’s ear with such rousing assertions as, “This country is ready to start moving again” and catchphrases like “New Frontier,” both of which became standards in the candidate’s stump speeches; President Kennedy appointed the rising anticommunist zealot his deputy special assistant for national security affairs. Rostow was able to convince Kennedy (and later LBJ) that capitalism would surely eclipse communism in the battle for economic supremacy. He was isolated by Kennedy’s minions when he advocated attacking North Vietnam and invading Laos, but the more hawkish President Johnson elevated him to national security adviser. Milne demonstrates skillfully that LBJ’s bombing policy came largely from Rostow, while his relentless positive spin kept the besieged president from knowing the full extent of the catastrophe until public opinion had turned against him.
An astute look at the debacle of the Vietnam War through the life and work of the unrepentant prophet of America’s victory over communism.