Walt Whitman Rostow (born 1916) was an educator, economist, and government official.
Born in New York City on October 7, 1916, Walt Whitman Rostow was the son of Russian immigrants Victor Aaron and Lillian (Helman) Rostow. He attended Yale University, receiving a B.A. in 1936. Following graduation, Rostow continued his studies, first as a Rhodes scholar at Baillol College, Oxford University, 1936-1938, and then as a graduate student at Yale University, 1938-1940. After receiving a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University in 1940, Rostow taught for one year as an instructor in economics at Columbia University.
With the outbreak of World War II Rostow joined the Office of Strategic Services, soon achieving the rank of major. Stationed in London, one of his primary responsibilities was to recommend enemy targets to the U.S. Air Forces. For his additional work with the British Air Ministry in 1945 he was awarded the Legion of Merit and was made an honorary member of the Order of the British Empire.
Following the war he entered the Department of State as assistant chief of the German-Austrian Economic Division. In 1946-1947 Rostow was named the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University. After a two year stint in Geneva as assistant to the executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Europe, an organ of the United Nations, he took another academic position in England serving as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University, 1949-1950. His first book, The American Diplomatic Revolution based on his inaugural lecture at Oxford University in November 1946, was published in 1947. The next year saw the publication of another book, Essays on the British Economy of the Nineteenth Century.
In 1950 Rostow was appointed professor of economic history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The following year he was also named a staff member of the Center for International Studies at that university. Rostow continued in both posts until 1961. During those years Rostow wrote an impressive number of books, articles, and reviews on a wide range of topics. Among those works are: The Process of Economic Growth (1953, 2nd ed. 1960); The Growth and Fluctuation of the British Economy, 1790-1850 (with others, 1953, 2nd ed. 1975); The Dynamics of Soviet Society (with others, 1953); The Prospects for Communist China (with others, 1954); An American Policy in Asia (with R. W. Hatch, 1955); A Proposal: Key to an Effective Foreign Policy (with M. F. Millikan, 1957); The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960); The United States in the World Arena (1960); Rich Countries and Poor Countries: Reflections from the Past, Lessons for the Future (1987); and Theorists of Economic Growth from David Hume to the Present (1990). These works helped establish Rostow's reputation as an original and influential economic theorist as well as an astute observer of contemporary international affairs.
In The Stages of Economic Growth, perhaps his most influential work, Rostow advanced a theory that sought "to generalize the pattern of modern economic history in the form of a series of stages of economic growth": 1) traditional society, 2) the preconditions for take-off, 3) take-off, 4) the drive to maturity, and 5) the age of high mass consumption. As its subtitle—"a non-communist manifesto"—indicated, Rostow's book argued for the efficacy of the capitalist development model, an argument aimed especially at the newly developing nations of the Third World.
After serving as an aide to John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, Rostow was appointed deputy special assistant for national security affairs by the president-elect in 1961. Later that year he moved to the Department of State, where he remained until 1966 as chairman of the Policy Planning Council. From 1964 to 1966 he also served as a U.S. member of the Inter-American Committee for the Alliance for Progress with the rank of ambassador. In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson named Rostow to replace McGeorge Bundy as special assistant to the president for national security affairs. In that post Rostow became one of Johnson's principal foreign policy advisers, especially with regard to the Vietnam War. Beginning with a special mission that he undertook for President Kennedy in late 1961, Rostow had paid close attention to the deepening American involvement in Southeast Asia. His optimistic projections about the U.S. war effort and his consistent support for the use of air power to accomplish U.S. objectives embroiled him in much controversy. Even in later writings he continued to defend the American war effort as well as his own policy positions.
In 1969 Rostow returned to teaching, accepting an appointment at the University of Texas at Austin. In the 1980s he was Rex G. Baker Professor of Political Economy in the Departments of Economics and History at that university. He received the Association of American Publishers Award for outstanding book on social sciences in 1990. In 1992 Rostow was named Chairman of the Board and CEO of the Austin Project. This group's goal was to solve the problems of urban America, starting with the city of Austin, Texas. The idea of the project was to start with the expansion of public and private programs that are aimed at prenatal care and aiding disadvantaged children. Rostow's philosophy was to invest in the young people. He compared the problems of today's cities to Vietnam: "The way we fought the Vietnam War reminds me of the way we are trying to deal with the cities, running after all the symptoms and putting Band-Aids on them instead of going for the cause."
Rostow continued his prolific scholarship, writing a series of books during this period on history, economics, and international affairs. Among these are: East-West Relations: Is Detente Possible? (with William E.Griffith, 1969); Politics and the Stages of Growth (1971); The Diffusion of Power (1972); How It All Began: Origins of the Modern Economy (1975); The World Economy: History and Prospect (1978); Getting from Here to There (1978); Why the Poor Get Richer and the Rich Slow Down (1980); Pre-Invasion Bombing Strategy: General Eisenhower's Decision of March 25, 1944 (1981); The Division of Europe After World War II: 1946 (1981); Europe After Stalin: Eisenhower's Three Decisions of March 11, 1953 (1982); Open Skies: Eisenhower's Proposal of July 21, 1955 (1982); The Barbaric Counter-Revolution: Cause and Cure (1983); The United States and the Regional Organization of Asia and the Pacific, 1965-1985 (1986); and Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1991).
Further Reading on Walt Whitman Rostow
There is no full-length biography of Rostow, but references to his work can be found in numerous studies of economic development theory. In addition, Rostow's role within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations has been treated in a series of general studies of American foreign policy during those years, many focused specifically on the Vietnam War. Of the latter, David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest (1972) contains a brief biographical sketch.