Published by EH.NET (July 2003)

W. W. Rostow, Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. xii + 454 pp. $60 (cloth), ISBN: 0-292-77124-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Louis P. Cain, Loyola University Chicago and Northwestern University.

Walt Whitman Rostow’s Concept and Controversy is an autobiographical account of his life as an adviser. That he was an economist and a historian in addition to being a foreign policy adviser to three presidents means that his chosen topics will be of more interest to economic historians than if the book were strictly a political memoir.

Rostow, who died earlier this year at age 86 while still a member of the University of Texas faculty, addresses eleven policy issues in more-or-less chronological order. They are: the use of air power in Europe during World War II, the US and the USSR (1945-1989), the death of Stalin, “Open Skies,” the use of foreign aid, Korea, the Kennedy-Johnson guideposts, China, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, the US urban problem, and the world population problem. Each topic is given a chapter. In the penultimate chapter, Rostow notes that the “binding thread” in the ideas he “took to market” is the desirability of “introducing long run factors into the making of current policy” (p. 346). This follows from his proposition that “what economists call the long period is, in fact, the sum of what we do or fail to do over short periods of time” (p. 346). Inasmuch as these issues span a period of sixty years, there has been ample time for him to test the veracity of this proposition.

It should be noted that the first five chapters are three times longer than the remaining six. The material in these chapters builds to the discussion of the use of foreign aid, but the discussion becomes relatively disjoint thereafter. The first chapter touches on his background, particularly his undergraduate years at Yale and those as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. The second chapter begins with the work he did on the Gayer project, but it is most concerned with his work in the Enemy Objectives Unit during World War II (his chief, beginning in March 1943, was Charles Kindleberger). The main debate presented in the chapter is the appropriate target for air attacks before D-Day. The specifics are non-economic, but Rostow reaches a very general conclusion: “the saga is a remarkable demonstration of the power of abstract intellectual concepts over the emotions of men and the behavior of institutions” (p. 58).

The next three chapters analyze the Cold War from Potsdam to perestroika (including his crusade within the State Department for a united Europe beginning in 1946), the death of Stalin, and Eisenhower’s proposal for mutual aerial inspections via “Open Skies.” These chapters lead to what for many economic historians will be the pivotal chapter in the book, Rostow’s discussion of the debate over foreign aid. All four chapters provide ample evidence why the subtitle of his much-debated The Stages of Economic Growth (1960) was A Non-Communist Manifesto.

The chapter on foreign aid begins with the Kennedy-Cooper initiative to provide economic development aid to India. The debate quickly expanded beyond a single country to become “whether tax resources should be explicitly set aside in support of economic development in countries not allied with the United States in military pacts” (p. 220). The debate raged internally over the first five years of the Eisenhower administration, but, in 1958, those like Rostow who believed “the destiny of the developing world mattered to the West” (p. 200) began to see progress. With the coming of the Kennedy administration in 1960, support for foreign aid could advance through executive initiatives. Among the first conclusion of this section was what Rostow terms “a chastening fact:”

The pathbreaking victories won … did not come about because, at last, we persuaded the opposition that our long-term arguments were right. They came about because a series of short-term crises emerged in the developing regions, which forced on responsible politicians an acute awareness of the political and strategic danger of not assisting the process of development in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (pp. 245-46).

He ends the chapter by trying to answer two important questions. First, was the Soviet Union’s development effort a significant challenge? His answer is yes, but, after 1958, it is hard to know how much Soviet aid was offensive as opposed to defensive. In the context of the U.S., he notes that “the fact that the United States did commit itself seriously to programs of development aid did not increase the number of U.S. military and political allies; but it probably did create a better balance between U.S. and Soviet political influence than would have otherwise existed” (p. 250). The second question is whether this aid bettered the human condition? Rostow does not answer this directly, but he does note that “sustained economic growth in the third quarter of the twentieth century was not a statistical artifact nor a process insulated from the life of the average citizen” (p. 251).

As noted, from this point onward, the chapters get shorter. The subtitle of the chapter on Korea is “My Marginal Association with a Miracle.” His emphasis in the inflation chapter is his concern for tying policy to productivity. His discussions of China, economic development in his adopted home (Austin, TX), and the world’s population problem are similarly constrained.

Given that the current book is about “taking ideas to market,” one is surprised by the short shrift the Vietnam period receives. Rostow notes that he has written on these issues elsewhere (Diffusion of Power in 1972 and a 1994 review of Robert McNamara’s book in the Times Literary Supplement). Here he writes on the “central issues,” but the question in the subtitle of this chapter (Should the Ho Chi Minh Trail Have Been Cut?) suggests his focus. His answer is yes. The key to Rostow was President Johnson’s decision that U.S. forces would remain within the borders of South Vietnam; the strategic cut Rostow and others proposed in the Ho Chi Minh Trail would have been inside Laos. Johnson held to his “rules of engagement” because he feared causing a larger, possibly nuclear, war.

I owed him [Johnson] my best prayerful advice. But I did not owe him my public opposition. I agreed on the whole with the domestic and foreign policies of the president. So I stayed with Johnson to the last day, while steadily but quietly opposed to the way the war was being fought (pp. 302-03).

This book will prove an important resource to economic historians of the Cold War, particularly those looking for details of the political economy of economic development. I suspect other economic historians will be attracted to this book only if they have an interest in the political history.

Louis P. Cain is Professor of Economics at Loyola University Chicago and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Northwestern University. With the late Jonathan Hughes, he is author of American Economic History (2003).