Walt Whitman Rostow ’36 GRD ’40, an economic historian and an engineer of American policy in the Vietnam war, died Thursday. He was 86.
Known for his unwavering hawkish stance in the Vietnam War, Rostow served as special assistant for national security under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He was influential among the group of intellectuals Kennedy called to Washington, D.C., to help shape the policies of his administration, and persistently advocated increased military intervention in Vietnam during Johnson’s administration.
After graduating from Yale, Rostow won a Rhodes Scholarship and later served in the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA, during World War II. Before working in Washington, D.C., he taught economics and history at Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the end of Johnson’s presidency, he began teaching in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas-Austin and remained there until his death.
“Walt Rostow was one of the best ever to move from the academic world to a high policy-making position in government,” political science professor Charles Hill said in an e-mail. “His concern for international security and economic development in the third world was unsurpassed. He tried especially hard to urge our European allies to recognize that fear of war is not a sufficient argument in deciding how to deal with a dangerous enemy.”
History professor John Gaddis described Rostow as one of the key figures in Cold War history.
“The really striking thing about him was that he never had second thoughts about Vietnam,” Gaddis said. “He stuck to his view that his decisions were wise despite the beliefs of the American public and the American Congress. He never caved in.”
Gaddis said Rostow was motivated by his belief that American action in Vietnam gave Southeast Asian countries time to develop and to avert communist takeover.
History professor Seth Fein, who attended graduate school at the University of Texas-Austin while Rostow taught there, described Rostow as self-assured, bold and consistent. He recalled watching Rostow argue vigorously, always remaining sure of his position.
But Rostow was also known for being “respectful of good work even if it challenged his work,” Fein said.
Fein said he knew many graduate students who took courses from Rostow. Some of the students strongly disagreed with Rostow politically and intellectually, but they still worked well with Rostow, Fein said.
After leaving Washington, D.C., in 1969, Rostow shifted his attention to teaching, social causes, writing and speaking. He was a member of the Elizabethan Club of Yale, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. In addition to teaching, he spoke at conferences regularly and continued to publish editorials and articles. Rostow also authored 30 books. His latest book, “Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market,” will be published in June 2003.
In 1992, he and his wife Elspeth, along with other community members, founded The Austin Project with the goal of collecting reliable data about the community and alleviating the disproportionately high poverty, unemployment and school dropout rates in parts of a community that was otherwise flourishing economically.
Besides his wife, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Austin, Rostow is survived by a brother, Ralph Emerson, a son, Peter, a daughter, Ann, and one grandchild. His other brother, Eugene V. Rostow ’37, former dean of Yale Law School, died last November.
–The Associated Press contributed to this report.