It was apt of President Bush to invoke the specter of the Vietnam War in his recent comments on Iraq, because his ill-fated activism in the Middle East is so clearly reminiscent of U.S. policy in the 1960s, when taking the good fight to America’s “Third World” enemies was all the rage.
Then, as now, self-assured foreign policy intellectuals played a crucial role in driving the United States toward intervention in an intractable conflict thousands of miles from Washington. One of the key members of John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s inner circle was Walt Rostow, whose contributions to the making of the Vietnam War bear striking similarities to the role played by Paul Wolfowitz in strategizing the American invasion of Iraq.
Possessed of a brilliant mind, a Yale PhD, noble intentions and an unwavering belief in himself, Rostow was a decorated OSS agent during World War II who established a global reputation as an economic development theorist at MIT in the 1950s. As a speechwriter for President Eisenhower, he worked tirelessly to convince him that increasing America’s foreign aid budget was morally imperative in a time of economic abundance -- not to mention tactically essential in an age of a global Cold War.
Although Eisenhower was unmoved by Rostow’s call for a global New Deal, his successor was not. When Kennedy took office, he appointed Rostow as his deputy national security advisor, hoping that the 44-year-old economist would help ensure that the poor nations in the developing world stuck with Washington and avoided flirtation with Moscow or Beijing. Rostow’s appointment was celebrated by liberals and mourned by fiscal conservatives, who were concerned that combating communism through the eradication of poverty would not come cheap. His friends joked that Rostow envisioned “a TV set in every thatched hut.”
Rostow was adamant that the United States had a duty to help modernize the Third World, but he was equally determined to eradicate what he described as the “disease” of communism wherever it threatened the liberal societal progress he viewed as morally superior and historically preordained. The ultimate “Cold War liberal,” Rostow was the most hawkish civilian member of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations with respect to the unfolding conflict in Vietnam.
In the summer of 1961, he became the first civilian to advise Kennedy to deploy U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam and the first to recommend the bombing of the North. Rostow reasoned that airborne destruction would crush Hanoi’s resolve because “Ho Chi Minh has an industrial complex to protect; he is no longer a guerrilla fighter with nothing to lose.” Rather than serving his country primarily as a catalyst for Third World development, Rostow ended up recommending the brutal bombing of a developing nation and was a chief architect of America’s worst-ever military defeat.
Enamored of the quality of his own counsel -- he was serene in argument because he was so certain he was right -- Rostow framed a policy of military escalation, manipulated CIA field reports to provide Johnson with a more positive spin on U.S. military prospects and then, through 1967 and 1968, advised Johnson against pursuing a compromise peace with North Vietnam. An irrepressible Pollyanna, Rostow utterly failed to visualize the possibility of defeat even when it became imminent. A true ideologue, he believed that it was beholden on the United States to democratize other nations and do “good” no matter the cost.
The man charged by Johnson with the task of negotiating an end to the Vietnam War was W. Averell Harriman -- a former governor of New York, ambassador to the Soviet Union and one of American history’s most celebrated diplomats. While Harriman urged the president to stop bombing North Vietnam to facilitate an open dialogue, Rostow, by his own admission, could see “no link between bombing and negotiations.” Appalled by the hypnotic effect that Rostow’s hard-edged advice exerted on an increasingly beleaguered Johnson, Harriman described LBJ’s national security advisor as “America’s Rasputin.”
In recent times, the Bush administration has taken up Rostow’s internationalist, crusading mantle and has run with it to potent effect. Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives have been identifiably Rostovian with respect to their reading of international relations: that it is the responsibility of the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, to democratize and do “good” -- at the point of a bayonet, if necessary. All seem influenced by the Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s illiberal injunction that freedom does not necessarily arise from free will: “Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be forced to be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free.”
Yet the path that the ancient Greeks charted from hubris to nemesis remains as seamless as ever; those individuals who have absolute confidence in the efficacy of their ideas -- who fail to account for real-world contingencies -- invariably lead U.S. foreign policy down blind alleys.
To be fair, Rostow, and today’s neoconservatives as well, have been proved right on some of the great issues of the 20th century. Marxism-Leninism was indeed a morally abhorrent system that extinguished liberty, stifled creativity and failed to provide adequate benefits to its people. Liberal capitalism “won” the Cold War, and democracy has indeed proved itself worthier than any other form of government.
Yet the policy of intervening abroad to instill these values in others has produced decidedly mixed results. Rostow, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and others believe in the redemptive powers of liberal capitalism in the same way evangelical Christians believe in God; they act as if their value system is divinely authored and view deviations from the righteous path as heresy. But might not the heretics come around to the West more enthusiastically if the United States acted as an exemplar, rather than a militarized agent for change? Tin-pot dictators often lose their mystique when they do not have an enemy to confront.
Rostow vacated his office in the White House on Jan. 28, 1969, and President Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, moved in the following day. The two intellectuals were similar in many respects. Both hailed from humble Jewish backgrounds, and both attained success at the pinnacle of American academia. Kissinger nonetheless took U.S. diplomacy down a very different path.
While Rostow stressed the opportunities for doing good that came with international preeminence, Kissinger focused on the limitations of America’s vast though finite resources. While Rostow thought that the American people should pay higher taxes to finance the nation’s global mission, Kissinger believed, as a classic foreign policy “realist,” that dishing out money to advance “values” was no substitute for nuanced diplomacy.
What happens next in U.S. diplomacy is anyone’s guess, but there is a distinct possibility that history will repeat itself and America will move toward a more modest role in the world. After a period of frenetic activism on the international stage, it appears highly probable that President Obama, Clinton, Giuliani or Romney will look to a pragmatist -- a George Kennan or a Kissinger -- rather than an ideologue like Rostow or Wolfowitz for foreign policy advice. Spreading good is an exhausting business, and America’s exertions in Iraq are having serious political repercussions in the homeland.
David Milne is a lecturer in foreign policy at the University of Nottingham. His book, “America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War,” will be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.