WALT WHITMAN ROSTOW
"Whenever we spoke he listened, before taking his turn to speak. I always found that quality amazing, in a man with as much energy, and as many ideas, as he. He fairly bubbled over with ideas and reactions; and it was evident sometimes that he could hardly contain himself waiting for his turn to speak. And yet he always did wait, and he didn't tune you out while he waited for you to finish. Nor did he ever make cutting remarks about students' opinions, or anyone's opinions; he was generous with his courtesy and respect. Clearly he had strong opinions; but never was he intolerant of the opinions of others. He was an old world gentleman, and a scholar. I loved him."
He was destined to become a great American. At least, so his ambitious
parents hoped; the second son of Victor and Lillian Rostow was named
Walt Whitman for a reason. Victor had come to the United States in
1904. As a democratic socialist in Russia, he was trapped between
czarist oppression and ascendant Bolshevism; vociferously against
both, he became a marked man for the czarist police. Lillian, the
eldest daughter of Russian immigrants, was born in America. They
named their three sons after great Americans, Eugene Victor (after
Eugene Debs), Walt Whitman and Ralph Emerson. Walt was born October
7, 1916, in New York City, during turbulent times. The family moved
to New Haven in 1926, partly because Victor and Lillian wanted to
put their sons in a public high school that had a good record of
placing its students at Yale. It worked. Walt completed a B.A. degree
from Yale and won a Rhodes scholarship in 1936. After two years at
Oxford, he returned to Yale to finish a Ph.D. in 1940.
Walt’s Oxford B.Litt. thesis found its way to publication in Economic
History Review (May, 1938) because his advisor, Humphrey Sumner, sent it there without
Walt's knowledge. This publication, "Investment and the Great Depression," was
to launch his academic career. (The "Great Depression" refers to
the period 1873-1896 in the UK.) Walt was fortunate to have another friend,
who for the summer of 1937 urged him to attend a conference sponsored by
the Students' International Union instead of travelling to Russia. In Paris
that meeting. he met Elspeth Davies, who became his wife ten years later.
Walt began his teaching career at Columbia University in 1940. With periodic
interruptions for public service, he held the following academic positions: Harmsworth
Professor of American History at Oxford, 1946-47, Pitt Professor of American
History at Cambridge, 1949-1950, Professor of Economic History at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, 1951-1961. He settled down at The University of Texas
at Austin in 1969 as the Rex G. Baker Professor of Political Economy and professor
of history, where he remained a prolific researcher and dedicated teacher until
his death on February 13, 2003.
Rostow on History and Economic Development
We will not try to comment on each of the thirty-four books listed in Rostow's
vita. We shall limit our attention, for the most part, to four: The Stages
of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960); The Economics
of Take-off into Sustained Growth (edited, 1963); The World Economy:
History and Prospect (1978); and Theorists of Economic Growth
from David Hume to the Present (1990),
with commentary drawn from Economics in the Long View: Essays in Honor
of W. W. Rostow, a festschrift published in 1982. But one should not forget his Essays
on the British Economy in the Nineteenth Century (1948), which gained him recognition
as an economic historian of the first rank, nor his Process of Economic Growth
(1953), which established him as an impressive scholar in economic development,
nor A Proposal: Key to an Effective Foreign Policy (With M. F. Millikan, 1957),
which made his reputation in the field of foreign policy. About fifteen of his
later books dealt with foreign policy.
The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto established him
as one of the most controversial economists of his time. Rostow did not see
as leading growth theorists had modeled it. Growth theory consisted of highly
abstract models focusing on a limited number of variables: output, the production
function, and technology (which was not explained). Models of the day were
characterized by static equilibrium or steady growth paths, and it was presumed
that the theory
applied to all countries regardless of local conditions. According to Stages, the process of economic development passes through five uneven phases: traditional
society, pre-conditions for take-off, take-off, drive to maturity, and the
age of high mass consumption. To identify each stage for each country, it
to delve more deeply into historical details. Rostow thought the key lay
in identifying features common to each stage. He identified "leading sectors" that
first benefited from technical innovation. He examined how production in these
sectors as well as the associated management and work attitudes spilled over
into other sectors. Investment in production processes and changed attitudes
toward borrowing and lending transform the economy, causing changes in prices
and the terms of trade between agriculture and industry. The various stages could
be identified and even dated by close analysis of disaggregated data. Rostow's
identification of and focus on the "take-off," a stage of relatively
short duration in which all the necessary factors are in place for self-sustaining
growth, became a lightning rod for criticism.
In 1960, shortly after the publication of Stages, the International Economic
Association (IEA) invited eighteen distinguished economists to a conference
at Konstanz to discuss Rostow's work. The IEA had never previously convened
solely to discuss the work of one person, and we think that it has not done
so since. Three years later, a book edited by Rostow, Economics of Take-off
Sustained Growth, was published. (At one time it was referred to simply as
Book.") Henry Rosovsky, then a young economic historian, commented in The
Journal of Economic History that the unusual was "not so strange, because
Rostow is without a doubt the most famous economic historian of our age." Fame,
however, does not guarantee consensus, especially in academic debate. Many of
the papers were critical of Rostow's approach to development. The criticisms
can be summarized briefly: Rostow's "theory" was not theory; rather
it was taxonomy and, therefore, had no predictive usefulness. The stages could
not be precisely identified as time intervals. Empirically, the preconditions
for take-off could not be distinguished from take-off proper. Most important,
sustained growth did not always follow the stage identified as "take-off" in
some countries. Some of the critics seem not to have read the first page of Stages, where Rostow wrote: "I cannot emphasize too strongly at the outset,
that the stages of growth are an arbitrary and limited way of looking at
of modern history: and they are, in no absolute sense, a correct way. They
are designed, in fact, to dramatize not merely the uniformities in the sequence
modernization but also--and equally--the uniqueness of each nation's experience."
One further aspect of the “Stages” literature merits mention.
The book attracted widespread interest among development economists and economic
historians, particularly those in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, where it spawned
innumerable symposia, books, lectures, and other commentary. And, it is fair
to say, no other conceptual structure emanating from economists of the developed
world elicited such attention among scholars of all stripes throughout the
Third World itself. Moreover, interest in both worlds jumped disciplinary
political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists all weighed in as
the conversation went forward.
Rostow's response to some of the criticisms in a second edition published
in 1971 did not calm the waters swirling about his work. In 1982, a three-volume
festschrift in his honor was edited by Charles P. Kindleberger and Guido
Tella. In a review, Mancur Olson noted that many of the distinguished contributors
not students who praised and built on Rostow’s work but rather critics
of the idea of take-off. “There is a paradox here,” Olson wrote. “How
can we explain this absence of any consensus in favor of Rostow's main conclusions
and formulations, and at the same time explain the extraordinary amount of attention
and tribute his work has received?” Olson suggested that many economists
held a latent feeling that something was wrong with the inordinate attention
then still paid to static equilibrium models. By contrast, Rostow insisted that
nations develop dynamically and that it is the process of change that must be
studied in development theory. Further, he insisted that the process could not
be explained in single-measure variables such as GDP, as emphasized by Kuznets,
and certainly not as an equilibrium process, as Solow had formulated it, with
technology considered as coming from the outside. Growth was uneven and needed
to be analyzed with disaggregated measures if quantitative measures were to be
used at all. Maybe Rostow didn't get it just exactly right. But he was on the
right track. And he shook up the way that economists thought about development.
Lying just beneath the criticisms were admiration and respect. Henry Rosovsky
had said it well ten years before: “I invariably learn more by disagreeing
with Professor Rostow than I do by agreeing with most other writers.”
Walt Rostow published his World Economy: History and Prospect in 1978. This large
book examines world economic history from 1790 to 1976 in terms of population
dynamics, long term trends, and cyclical fluctuations in production, prices,
and international trade. It has a large section devoted to the dating (and updating)
of the stages of growth in twenty countries. This book contains hundreds of tables
and graphs (and even an index of world growth) that make it useful even to those
who are no fans of Rostow.
Even some severe critics of Stages wrote generally favorable reviews. As
a parody, the Yale economic historian William Parker wrote in The Journal
Economic History: "The
World Economy" shows the drive to maturity realized; it is a book
ripe for high mass consumption." We think that Walt must have especially
appreciated the comment: "He mixes theory, history and statistics in
a way that would have gladdened Schumpeter's heart." Still critical
of the stages of growth and their dating, Phyllis Deane commented in The
Journal of Economic Literature that "no
student of comparative economic development can afford to ignore this book."
Twelve years after World Economy Rostow came out with another weighty tome,
Theorists of Economic Growth from David Hume to the Present: With a Perspective
Next Century. Alec Gee commented in the Economic Journal: "This (very large)
book is more than a history of economic thought, though that is its major theme.
It also embodies a great deal of economic history, it explains the intellectual
and personal background behind Rostow's own views on growth and development processes,
it compares and evaluates alternative growth and development models, and it advocates
growth policies for the future." Robert Dorfman wrote critically that Rostow's
evaluation of past theorists was tainted by his own theory of growth. Perhaps
that was true. But it was in Walt’s nature to marshal the evidence,
massively and relentlessly, in support of the case he thought correct.
We are struck by the dedication in this book: "To the Economists of the
Next Generation in the hope that, without abandoning modern tools of analysis,
they may bridge the chasm of 1870 and reestablish continuity with the humane,
spacious, principled tradition of classical political economy." Part I is
devoted to the humane, spacious, and principled economists with whom Rostow most
identified: David Hume, Adam Smith, T. R. Malthus, David Ricardo, J. S. Mill
and Karl Marx (of all people!). Each of these was concerned with the "dynamics
of whole societies as they moved through history. Moreover, [they] saw economic
growth as a powerful agent in social, political, and cultural change" (pp.
31-32). Like Rostow, these men were social scientists who understood that human
beings mattered. The rest of the book, starting with Alfred Marshall, going through
A.C. Pigou, John Maynard Keynes, lesser luminaries, and some who participated
in a "three ring circus" after 1945, deals with those economists
who were insufficiently concerned with dynamics and with historical analysis
too much so with static partial and general equilibrium. Apart from Marshall
and Schumpeter, Rostow had little use for the neoclassical school.
Rostow’s early academic career was interrupted frequently by calls
to duty. Indeed, distinguished though his academic career was, he became
adviser to presidents and a prime mover of world affairs. Outside of the
academy, Walt was best known for his service as National Security Advisor
Johnson. No doubt, most Americans will associate his name with that high-visibility
position and with his service during the hard years of the Vietnam war.
Walt began his public service in the U.S. Army, for which he volunteered in 1942.
He joined a select group of young academics in the predecessor organization of
the Office for Strategic Services (OSS). He spent most of his wartime in London
as a member of the Enemy Objectives Unit (EOU) in the Economic Warfare Division
of the U.S. Embassy. His group did essential work on targeting of German installations
for U.S. and British bombers. For his wartime service, Major Rostow was awarded
the Order of the British Empire and the U. S. Legion of Merit.
Upon release from the army in 1945, Rostow accepted a brief assignment in the
State Department as assistant chief of the German-Austrian Economic Division.
There he began to understand why good policy does not always win out. Having
always planned to return to academic life, he accepted appointment as associate
professor at Harvard University to become effective for the fall semester, 1946.
In the interim, he drafted a plan for a unified reconstruction of Europe, but
it fell on deaf ears in the State Department at that time. Harvard gave him a
one-year delay so that he could take a position at Oxford as Harmsworth Professor
of American History. However, public service intervened again. Impressed by his
draft, Gunnar Myrdal asked him to join the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE)
as his special assistant. Walt resigned from Harvard to spend two years in Geneva.
His work there on European reconstruction permitted him to travel throughout
Eastern Europe, and this experience with the newly communist states helped to
form views of communism that he never abandoned.
The urge to return to academics was ever present. Walt and Elspeth next spent
a year teaching at Cambridge University and then both settled at MIT where they
spent the next decade. However, public policy questions were never far from his
In the 1950s, Rostow was an occasional adviser to the Eisenhower Administration;
he also became increasingly influential in the circle around Senator John
F. Kennedy. He had a close association with Nelson Rockefeller, then serving
a special assistant to Eisenhower, which opened a channel to the White House.
Rockefeller asked Rostow to be chairman of an important meeting at Quantico
in June of 1955 consisting mainly of prominent academicians outside the bureaucratic
mainstream. The issue was disarmament. This group proposed what later came
be called the "Open Skies" initiative, introduced by President
Eisenhower at a Big Four meeting in Geneva in July of 1955 -- over the objection
of State John Foster Dulles.
Walt's association with Kennedy was much closer. Senator Kennedy knew and
admired Walt's work on foreign aid and development and asked him to join
the 1960 presidential
campaign. There, Walt's influence extended well beyond foreign aid. He even
came up with the campaign’s slogan, "Let's get this country moving again." His
first assignment in the new administration was as deputy special assistant
to McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's chief advisor for National Security Affairs.
asked him to go to South Vietnam with General Maxwell Taylor in October 1961
to assess the situation there and to make recommendations. They returned
with the recommendation that the U.S. send a limited number of combat troops
Vietnam. Although the president did not accept that advice, he eventually
the number of military advisers. At the end of the year, Walt went to the
State Department as chairman of the Policy Planning Council, where he stayed
At the State Department he worked on projects related primarily to Inter-American
affairs. President Johnson gave him the duty of U.S. Member of the Inter-American
Committee on the Alliance for Progress. Although important, it was not a high
profile position; nevertheless LBJ frequently consulted with him on policy for
South Vietnam. In March 1966, he came back to the White House as Special Advisor
for National Security Affairs, back in the loop in a very high-profile position.
A strong backer of bombing and of the pursuit of military victory at a time when
the Vietnam war began to fall out of favor with the American public, Walt became
a prime target in the anti-war protest movement of the period.
Johnson had reasons for wanting Walt by his side. In a conversation with
a Kennedy intimate, Johnson gave a reason. "I'm getting Walt Rostow as my intellectual.
He's not your intellectual. He's not Bundy's intellectual. He's not Galbraith's
intellectual. He's not Schlesinger's intellectual. He's going to be my goddam
intellectual." (David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. 627) This
was not a high point in Washington-Cambridge relations, but cooperation was still
possible when necessary. On one occasion in 1967, it became clear that the junta
in Greece was close to executing Andreas Papandreou, a former economics professor
and friend. Galbraith called in; Rostow took the case to the President. “What
do you know about him?” Johnson asked. Walt mentioned a history of women
and gambling debts, and Johnson fixed him with a stare: “That’s not
a reason to kill a man.” Johnson called the junta leader and Papandreou's
life was spared.
After Washington, after Vietnam--a lesser man might not have recovered. But this
man of extreme intelligence and iron will took the criticism and went back to
his academic work as if he had never left it in the first place. Walt Whitman
Rostow came with Elspeth Davies Rostow to The University of Texas at Austin in
1969. He was appointed as the Rex G. Baker Professor of Economics and History.
He settled down to be an incredibly productive scholar and teacher for the next
thirty-four years. Also, in 1969, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
By his seventy-fifth year, Walt Rostow had achieved dual distinctions, as
a scholar of economic history and as a principal in world affairs. What heights
for him to scale? Of course, the books were never to stop. But Walt also
a role for himself as a practitioner of economic and human development here
at home. With Elspeth, he launched an effort to turn the vision of a good
community into a reality in Austin, Texas, a city they had come to love.
In 1992, The Austin Project (TAP) was founded. It brought together political,
and religious leaders in a task force to coordinate and improve the delivery
of services of some thirty agencies to needy children in East Austin. Walt
choice before Austin is to invest now in our young and their future or pay
a great deal more in the future."
The idea was not just to measure benefits against costs. Wayne Holtzman,
president of TAP at the time of Walt's death put it this way: "Walt Rostow had faith
in humanity's desire to do what is right and good for society. He was distressed
by the huge inequalities among neighborhoods in education, employment, health,
income, and available resources for children. He challenges us to work together
-- first, to adopt a bold vision of human development, and second, to realize
a community in which all children and families may achieve their fullest potential." Walt’s
vision of the possible, his can-do attitude, and his conviction gave him
the energy to pursue objectives both grand and small.
Along with TAP, Walt wrote two more books. The Great Population Spike:
Reflections on the 21st Century revealed his long-standing fascination with population
dynamics and his fixation on the future. Here he concerned himself with the
fertility rates on every continent of the world and with the implications
of this decline for economic growth and welfare. Population declines, in
raised the question whether economic progress would continue in the long
run. Were there limits to growth after all? Walt thought that growth would
as it were, by future industrial and technological revolutions. Progress
could be impeded, however, by conflicts brought about due to population dynamics.
Always looking ahead, he saw a role for the United States: to serve as a "critical
margin" to avoid major conflicts among nations. This essential role,
he thought, must not be undercut due to a worsening of domestic tensions
by racial and urban unrest. Thus, the search for economic justice and development
at home merged with the pursuit of security and peace in the wider world.
The civil man
A student who knew him well had much to say. This intelligent undergraduate
at The University of Texas had been advised to avoid Rostow’s Plan II seminar
because of Johnson and Vietnam. He ignored the advice. "It turned out to
be the best enrollment decision of my life," he stated in a long letter. “Imagine
my surprise," he wrote, "to discover that Walt Rostow regarded the
economic events that dominated my conscious memory as a mere blip on the radar
screen." Everett Upshaw went on to get a Ph.D. under Rostow’s
supervision, to become a college teacher and then a lawyer. His memory of
Did his students see something in him that others did not? Consider this remark by David Halberstam. "In contrast to Bundy's cold, haughty style, Rostow was warm, pleasant, almost angelic, eager to share his enthusiasm, his optimism, with all around. He had time for everyone, he was polite to everyone, there was no element of put-down to him." Halberstam thought that these traits came easily to Walt because "he was a true believer, so sure of himself, so sure of the rectitude of his ideas that he could afford to be generous to his enemies."As an academic colleague, Walt was ideal. He never failed in courtesy or duty. Send him an article--or better still the entire manuscript of a book--and focused, constructive comments would flow back in a few days. Invite a seminar speaker on a topic in his area, and he would come. Ask him a question on a historical topic--no matter how sensitive--and he would reply with utmost candor.
We would say it differently. If Walt ever considered anyone to be an enemy, on a personal level, he never let on. When famous development economists with whom Walt disagreed came to campus, Peter Bauer is an example, they made a beeline to his office on the eighth floor of the LBJ library. They knew that their visits would be warmly welcomed.
In a separate piece, James Galbraith wrote:
And still, family came first. Rostow’s fifty-six year marriage to another highly independent and successful scholar was a marvel to their many friends. A frequent visitor to their home in Austin remarked, "More important perhaps than any couple of our time, the Rostows needed to be experienced as a pair. The combination of Walt's warmth and Elspeth's cool--her dry eye and sometimes acerbic, always understated insight--made private conversations at the Rostows' endlessly interesting and delightful."
Some concluding remarks
Finally, we mention Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas
in press at the time of Walt’s death. It deals with encounters with history: World War II, the rebuilding of Europe, the Korean War, the death of Stalin, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War, inflation, the gap between rich and poor countries, urban unrest, and racial tensions at home. Concept
is an autobiographical sketch of the roles that Walt played in each of these events and problems, an "eclectic memoir," in his own words. The book concludes with Professor Rostow's reflection on "the individual and history," on the gap between the individual and his environment (society). This gap could be overcome, Rostow decided, if Adam Smith had it right in The
Theory of Moral Sentiments
: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interests him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he deserves nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it." That is Walt Rostow himself, to a “t.”
Walt Rostow lived a full life, with concepts and controversy, optimism and humanity, an idea man to the last. The
Great Population Spike
closes with these words: "I would like to think that we will meet that challenge--that we will leave for those who come after us a world more secure both abroad and at home. The challenge is, at once, international and domestic. It is held together by the perspective in the following lines from Walt Whitman's Leaves
to which I have often been drawn:"
||One thought ever at the fore--
That in the Devine Ship, the World, breasting Time and Space
All people of the globe together sail, sail the same voyage,
Are bound to the same destination.
Walt Whitman Rostow was more than a famous economist, a tireless worker
for good causes and a civil man. He was a great American who served his
country with devotion in war and peace.
Books by Walt Whitman Rostow Arranged by Date of Publication*
The American Diplomatic Revolution,
Essays on the British Economy of the Nineteenth Century,
The Growth and Fluctuation of the British Economy, 1790-1850,
1953, 2d ed., 1975
The Process of Economic Growth,
1953, 2d. ed., 1960 (with A. D. Gayer and A.
The Dynamics of Soviet Society,
1953 (with others)
The Prospects of Communist China,
An American Policy in Asia,
1955 (with R. W. Hatch)
A Proposal: Key to an Effective Foreign Policy,
1957 (with M. F. Millikan)
The United States in the World Arena,
The Stages of Economic Growth,
1960, 2d ed., 1971, 3d ed., 1990
The Economics of Take-Off into Sustained Growth,
A View from the Seventh Floor,
A Design for Asian Development,
East-West Relations: Is Détente Possible?,
1969 (with William E. Griffith)
Politics and the Stages of Growth,
The Diffusion of Power,
How It All Began,
The World Economy: History and Prospect,
Getting from Here to There,
Why the Poor Get Poorer and the Rich Slow Down,
Pre-Invasion Bombing Strategy: General Eisenhower's Decision of March 25,1944,
British Trade Fluctuations, 1868-1896: A Chronicle and Commentary,
The Division of Europe after World War II: 1946,
Europe after Stalin: Eisenhower's Three Decisions of March 11, 1946,
Open Skies: Eisenhower's Proposal of July 21, 1955,
The Barbaric Counter-Revolution: Cause and Cure,
Eisenhower, Kennedy and Foreign Aid,
The United States and the Regional Organization of Asia and the Pacific:
Rich Countries and Poor Countries,
Essays on a Half Century: Ideas, Policies and Action,
History, Policy and Economic Theory,
Theorists of Economic Growth from David Hume to the Present with a Perspective
on the Next Century,
The Great Population Spike and After: Reflections on the 21st Century,
Concept and Controversy Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market,
*Professor Rostow published many articles in professional journals and other
outlets. Forty-two of these papers are reproduced in Essays on a Half Century:
Ideas, Policies and Action and History, Policy and Economic Theory
Larry R. Faulkner, President
The University of Texas at Austin
Sue Alexander Greninger, Secretary
The General Faculty
This memorial resolution was prepared by a special committee consisting of
Professors Douglas C. Dacy (Chair), James K. Galbraith, and Bobby R. Inman