- Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market
The late Walt Rostow describes Concept and Controversy as an "eclectic memoir." Although it conveys the central events of his life and career, it is not a conventional autobiography. It is organized around an analysis of the ebb and flow in debates over significant policy issues in which Rostow had some measure of personal engagement.
His vantage points vary. During World War II, he served as a junior officer in a London-based branch of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. The Enemy Objectives Unit, as it was called, was involved in target selection for the Allied air forces in preparation for D-Day. Immediately after the war, he was a staff member in the State Department, where he worked on policies to promote West European economic reconstruction in the context of the division imposed by the Iron Curtain. He sustained that interest in a two-year stint at the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Europe, headed by Gunnar Myrdal. Rostow returned to academic life in 1950 as a professor of economic history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Center for International Studies, newly created there, provided a pipeline through which policy recommendations could be channeled to the Eisenhower administration. In the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Rostow became a White House insider.
He has something interesting to say about each of the topics addressed. There is, however, an unevenness in the treatment, depending on how distant or how close he was to the point of ultimate policy determination. In his discussion of strategies for aerial bombardment in 1943–44, for example, he clearly sets out the dimensions of the problem: should priority be assigned to targeting railway marshaling yards, on the one hand, or to bridges and synthetic oil refineries, on the other? Rostow and his associates argued forcefully for the latter option—which prevailed—but they were still remote from the counsels in which decisions were made. This part of the narrative relies heavily on archival documents and on the memoirs of the top figures in [End Page 579] the Allied high command, rather than on what Rostow can contribute from first-hand observation. The MIT link (Center for International Studies) with Washington in the Eisenhower years was the vehicle through which Rostow fed position papers to the White House on a number of topics: among them, the potential for terminating the Cold War following the death of Stalin; the merits of challenging the Soviet leadership with an "open skies" initiative; and the case for substantial enlargement of U.S. aid to third world countries. Rostow's account of this period offers an arresting insight into the tensions between two strong personalities in the Eisenhower entourage: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Nelson Rockefeller, special assistant to the president.
Rostow moved much closer to the front lines when joining the Kennedy administration in 1961. He devotes a chapter to his contribution to the effort to reconcile full employment and price stability through the articulation of "guideposts" for socially responsible wage making and price making. (Under the "guidepost" formula, increases in factor incomes should not exceed the average rate of growth in productivity.) This was the issue at stake in Kennedy's vigorous attack on the U.S. Steel Corporation in 1962. The steelworkers' union had accepted a contract consistent with the guideposts, but U.S. Steel's management violated this implicit social contract when it subsequently raised prices. Rostow regrets the nation's failure to institutionalize a mechanism to promote noninflationary behavior by labor and management.
In what was probably the most difficult chapter to write, Rostow takes up his role in the Johnson White House with regard to the war in Vietnam. He begins by asking whether or not the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos should have been cut. His answer—like that of senior military leaders—was "Yes." Johnson did not agree, on grounds that an expansion of the theater of operations...