These days I’m reading America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War
, by David Milne. This is a truly frightening book. What’s frightening is that the events depicted occurred, the damage is done and, most frightening of all, its lessons are unlearned. Based on Milne's doctoral dissertation, America’s Rasputin
transmogrifies into well-written history. The underlying research is extensive and evident throughout—30 pages of notes and bibliography with extensive quotes from participants from senior members of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, including Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
What the book shows is the relentless force of a man with ideas, confidence and a pen. Rostow is no shrinking violet; he determines as a young man to refute Karl Marx’ Communist Manifesto. Son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who valued education and initiative, Rostow enters Yale on a scholarship at 15 and pursues a brilliant academic career in America and Britain. He believes in liberal democracy and America’s duty to protect and promote this most important human aspiration.
Therein lies the danger and the lesson unlearned. Because Rostow knows what the world wants and needs, he is determined that America will do its part to ensure that progress even if that effort sometimes requires force. His ideas are formalized in The Stages of Economic Growth, A non-Communist Manifesto, a “refutation” of Marx that is as dialectically deterministic as the original. As a professor at MIT, Rostow meets John Kennedy who enjoys Rostow’s company, wit and ideas. Chief among the ideas is America reaching out to the Third World as former colonies become independent nations. The idea is especially appealing as an alternative to Communism which has a definite attraction for nations emerging from capitalist colonialism.
As an adviser to President Kennedy, Rostow is not only certain of his ideas’ universality; he is also not shy about putting American military force behind them. When Russia and the East Germans threaten to cut American access to West Berlin, Rostow recommends occupying East German territory. His response to North Vietnamese support for the Viet Cong insurgency is to bring the consequences back to North Vietnam with air strikes and ground troops.
Rostow’s willingness to risk war is the frightening part of this book. During the Kennedy administration that risk included nuclear war which Rostow accepted given the stakes. His direct and persistent advocacy of force pretty much led to his exile from the White House. John Kennedy was concerned about losing South Vietnam but not scared enough to risk sending in the Marines or bombing Hanoi. Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, was sufficiently afraid of losing South Vietnam and is very receptive to the one man among his advisors who seems to have a plan. That’s where I am now in the book. You probably know the rest of the story. It gets uglier and deadlier.
Forty-five years on, America still thinks it owns the world. Our armies occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, our bases girdle the planet, we spend more on weapons and military than the rest of the world combines. But if Vietnam taught any lesson, that lesson is that no one country can “own” another country except by the consent of its people. (Actually, America did not require Vietnam to teach us, that lesson is already written in our Declaration of Independence.) The only right any nation or people have is the right to live in peace and security with their neighbors and the right to defend themselves from harm imposed by those neighbors.
The (soon to be late and certainly unlamented) CheneyBush administration not only ignored this lesson but willfully so; their whole thrust was a return of America to those stirring days of yesteryear, when this nation stood astride the world, when America prospered and all nations looked to America for leadership and hope—Rostow’s America. In virtually all respects, CheneyBush was a disciple of Rostow giving the latter the dubious distinction of crashing the American ship of state against the rocks of indigenous nationalism not once but twice.
Here’s the really scary part. America has a new, young and dynamic president who may be willing to write off Iraq but has already indicated that he will persevere in Afghanistan. Of the Kennedy/Camelot comparisons hopefully floating about since Election Day, I’ve not heard this one but reading America’s Rasputin
, I can easily see its specter among the possibilities.
Labels: hair triggers