Eugene Rostow used to quip that despite his 10 years in the Yale administration, he still believed in reason. He was analytical, judicious, and one of our greatest bipartisan patriots. Rostow died this past Thanksgiving, at age 89.
Born in Brooklyn in 1913, Eugene Victor Rostow — so named after Eugene Victor Debs, the American Socialist leader –graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale at age 19 and went on to King’s College, Cambridge, and the Yale Law School. Rostow was a brilliant legal scholar as well as a moral and courageous man; he condemned the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans when few others did.
Rostow joined the Yale faculty in 1938. He was a Sterling Professor of Law and served as dean of the Law School from 1955 to 1965. Judge Guido Calabresi, a former Sterling professor and law dean, said Rostow was “perhaps the greatest dean the Law School ever had.” Current Law School Dean Anthony Kronman acknowledges that the shape of today’s law school “was built or rebuilt during Gene’s deanship years.”
Rostow served in the State Department and the Lend Lease Administration during the Second World War, and later worked with Dean Acheson to implement the Marshall Plan. From 1966-1969, he was Undersecretary of State in the Johnson administration.
Just as Rostow served this country when our security was threatened by aggressors, he vocally opposed administrations when their policies threatened our security from aggressors. Rostow was not a partisan: He did not refrain from criticizing President Carter because they were both Democrats. On Carter’s appointees, Rostow said, “my views are unprintable.” His complaining was not idle chatter; Rostow founded the Committee on the Present Danger, a group of intellectuals, politicians, and businessmen — Republicans and Democrats — who came together to warn against weakness in the face of Soviet expansionism across the globe.
Rostow was the kind of Democrat this nation sorely misses now. In the Truman and Kennedy tradition, he was a forceful internationalist with a deep commitment to human liberty. As such, like so many Democrats of his mold, he found a place in Republican administrations.
Rostow served for two years under Ronald Reagan and made important contributions toward a safer world. Rostow created the framework for an arms control agreement that actually reduced nuclear weapons instead of merely limiting their growth, the way arms controls had been practiced until then. It was said Rostow’s approach would never work, but he understood Soviet sketchiness. He used the following metaphor to describe negotiating with them: “They would bring a cow into the parlor and then offer to negotiate to take it out.”
President George W. Bush shares Rostow’s skepticism of negotiating with tyrannical regimes. I do not doubt Rostow would support the President today. Ten years ago, Rostow wrote that “certain states cannot be allowed to possess nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.” If such a state does not disarm voluntarily, the “threat of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rulers like those of Iraq, North Korea or Libya is too serious to be dealt with by the methods of peaceful diplomacy.”
President Bush realizes this and even now our military prepares for war. But defeating Saddam is not enough. To use Rostow’s words from 10 years ago: “Military occupation, perhaps United Nations trusteeship, may well be needed in some cases to enforce the emerging rule.” Iraq is such a case. We must dismantle Saddam’s tyranny and we must stay the course, even if the road is bumpy, to foster a new birth of freedom from the Suez Canal to the Persian Gulf.
After Sept. 11, 2001, in the wake of brutal acts of terrorism and war, we questioned what the calling of our generation should be. Let us look to Eugene Rostow’s public service. After the Second World War, he devoted himself to rebuilding a ruined continent, helping our enemies become democracies, and creating an era of prosperity and security. On a different continent, in a different time, this is the calling of our generation. I hope President Bush shares this vision and includes it in his state of the union speech tomorrow night.
One of Rostow’s sons, Victor, said his father “thought of himself first as a teacher and second as a public servant.” Perhaps his greatest act of teaching is the example he set as a public servant. Rostow’s life is a stirring example and a shining legacy. His memory shall be a blessing.
Davi Bernstein is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column appears regularly on alternate Mondays.