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Walt Whitman Rostow | The Cold War Era Thinker

Walt Whitman Rostow is popularly known in development thought as the author of the book Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Rostow’s stages of economic growth attempts to find a common pattern in societies, and lays out a foundation for economic growth in liberal-democratic capitalist states, as an archetype for the process of modernization in these societies. The book however, is criticized by many for extracting a unified Anglo-centric model of economic modernization based on its genesis in 18th Century Britain and the US.

Rostow’s Stages of Growth post its publication came under attack from many historians and economists whose criticism was chiefly focused on its universalist, and historicist foundations, presently rejected in both rightist and leftist thought. Godfrey Hodgson in the Guardian, UK claims that Rostow had in his book conceded many non-typical cases, creating ambiguity in the cases that could be said to exemplify his theory. The theories in the book however, found appeal with the Kennedy Administration and Cold War liberals (G. Hodgson, 2003), in an age of conservatism that had a wide acceptance of anti-communist ideas.

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Walt Whitman Rostow: Life

Rostow was named Walt Whitman Rostow after the celebrated American poet Walt Whitman by his Jewish immigrant parents, who had a socialist background. Rostow however, grew up deeply anti-communist. At the age of fifteen, Rostow gained admission to Yale, where he graduated with a B.A. Subsequent to being a Rhodes scholar, he moved to Oxford University, finally returning to Yale again in 1938 to study economics, earning a PhD two years later. He began work as an instructor in the economics department at Columbia University.

The onset of World War II led Rostow to join the Office of Strategic Services in 1942, which was the functional intelligence body before the CIA was formed. Posted in London, he was assigned the task of identifying suitable targets for allied bombing missions. The British Government awarded him with a Legion of Merit for his tenure. He returned to academics after the war in 1946-47 as the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University. His inaugural lecture here was published as a the book The American Diplomatic Revolution (1946), after which he shifted to Geneva, Switzerland where he began work for the Economic Commission for Europe that lasted two years. In 1948, Rostow published his second book – British Economy of the Nineteenth Century (American Council of Learned Societies, 2008).

After a teaching tenure as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University in 1949-50, Rostow returned to the US and joined as professor of economic history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) a period during which Rostow published numerous books on economics, foreign policy and communist countries. Already earning a distinctive reputation in academic circles, Rostow published The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto in 1960 (American Council of Learned Societies, 2008), which sought to provide an alternative to the widely popular communist ideologies of the time.

Due to Rostow’s proximity to John F. Kennedy before his nomination for president, Rostow became one of Kennedy’s closest advisors. Following Kennedy’s presidential victory in 1960, Rostow was offered the position of deputy special assistant for national security affairs. In 1961, he was appointed chairman of the Policy Planning Council in the State Department. Rostow soon became among the leading foreign policy advisors for the Democrats in government.

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This was also the period of the Vietnam War, and Rostow was a stern advocate of military involvement in Vietnam as he did not want communist North Vietnam to over-run non-communist South Vietnam. Despite the casualties and protests over the Vietnam War, Rostow’s advocacy of the Vietnam War led to a lot of controversy. Rostow became a prime target of the anti-war movement, and remained a trenchant advocate even after the Republican Party under Nixon came to power.

After government service, Rostow returned in 1968 to academics but was refused a teaching appointment at MIT, his former employer. He joined the economics department at the University of Texas in Austin in 1969. In his tenure at Austin, Texas, Rostow continued to publish texts on economics and foreign policy. Rostow published his last book in his lifetime in 1998, titled, The Great Population Spike and After: Reflections on the 21st Century. His final book Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of taking Ideas to Market was published posthumously after his death in 2003 (American Council of Learned Societies, 2008).

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Walt Whitman Rostow: Work and Landmark Book

In his book Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, Rostow provides a technocratic growth model in that he sees the common developmental model transit from traditional society, where agriculture and localized trade is dominant, that necessarily must modernize according to a fixed pattern of stages.

Fig: Rostow’s Stages of Growth,  Source: Development Thinking,

The passing of the dominant traditional society in Rostow’s Stages of Growth comes with the end of its isolation and the creation of demands external to it, which are driven by the technological progress of the society. Here, one can refer to Andy Marshall’s observation of technology as America’s strategy after World War II (R. Rumelt, 2011), in how it offered America a competitive advantage over other powers. It was also a method for America’s military-industrial estate to impose a massive incentive for other nations to develop technology in their development plans or get left behind, such that a technocratic approach was preferred over plans such as those involving improving the agricultural infrastructure consonant with traditional techniques. The post-World War period in America was one with a trend towards technological sophistication, and Rostow’s Stages of Growth is reflective of this.

Fernand Braudel was the first to devise the concept that capitalism and its dynamics existed in a container. This container is a reference to a social, political and economic unit that allows for organizing and containing the interrelated functioning of capitalism, such as finance, production and marketing. While the internal dynamics of the functioning of capitalism is purely economic, operational efficiency requires a secure environment and this necessitates the agency of other units as well, such as politics and the military. The growth of this container has in the recent past, been accelerated by the advent of technology as each new development in technology enlarges the minimum economic scale of production (P.S. Jha, 2006). Thus the minimum scope of an efficient self-sustaining network of economic relations has expanded with each cycle of capitalism’s expansion reflecting technological development.

The passing of the traditional society brings forth the pre-conditions for take-off and the take-off that witnesses changes in social dynamics and modes of economic production that sees the engagement of society in producing secondary goods and not just subsistence, or primary goods. Here societies are polarized, rationalized and bureaucratized, where the division of labour changes from a structural base to that of an organic and functional base, moving from the primacy of social structures to that of social functions (E. Durkheim, 1893). This is followed by the drive to maturity phase that is infrastructure-intensive followed by the age of high mass consumption where luxury goods are normatively consumed and consumers tend to have disposable incomes.

The latter part of Rostow’s Stages of Growth criticized Marxist theories of economic development, and puts forward the concept of a post-industrial society ending with consumer diffusion. Part of Cold War literature, many critics claim that Rostow’s Stages of Growth is a classificatory system on the basis of data from the more developed economies, which affords a secondary or tertiary space to the poorer, less-developed countries.

Although a very well known theory, there is a huge amount of ambiguity over the validity of Rostow’s model for today’s economies. There are questions over whether the theory, taking the development of Britain since the 18th Century as archetype, is applicable as a general pattern or structure of development that can be empirically observed or followed. Rostow’s empirical base is too narrow, and he does not undertake a detailed analysis of economies all over the world, but instead sticks to citing a handful of countries as examples.

Simon Kuznets, the celebrated American development economist, in his criticism of Rostow’s Stages of Growth, says that the leading sectors of an economy such as those concerning technological development develop as an autonomous impulse based on pre-existing conditions, and not as Rostow claimed, as based on its impact on other sectors of the economy. He also says that there is no clear distinction between the pre-conditions for take off and the take off stages and both reflect the negligence of the unique historical heritage of the country. Kuznets also criticizes Rostow’s assertion that the take off stage implies self-sustained growth, as no contemporary economy is completely self-sustaining, developed or not. He also counters what he calls Rostow’s implied reference to traditional agricultural societies as poverty-ridden societies with Denmark and New Zealand, that are primarily agricultural economies. Another example could be the Indian state of Punjab, with its affluent agricultural society. Kuznets concludes that Rostow’s stages of growth reflects poor historical underpinnings, and that no such uniformity is present in all of the world’s economies.

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