America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow & The Vietnam War

Book cover

America's Rasputin as an intellectual biography of Walt Whitman Rostow, a prominent academic theorist of "modernization" and an influential foreign policy adviser to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It explores how Rostow’s work as an economic historian shaped his bellicose advice toward the Vietnam War. It faults Rostow for applying a deterministic theory regarding North Vietnam’s susceptibility to military coercion that was blind to the non-economic forces that motivated North Vietnam’s leadership.


"In his comprehensive examination of Walt Rostow’s role in Vietnam decision making, David Milne adds a valuable and nuanced perspective on the questions of how and why Vietnam became an American war and what went wrong there. America’s Rasputin is a well researched and critical yet sensitive treatment of an exceptional man who wielded significant influence in the Lyndon Johnson Administration during a critical phase of the Vietnam War."
Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, author of Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam

"David Milne has given us an absorbing history of the rise to power of Walt Rostow and his disastrous impact on US foreign policy. The first civilian to advise Kennedy to deploy combat troops to South Vietnam and the first to urge bombing the North, Rostow was a true ideologue who believed an American version of democracy could be exported to other countries—if necessary by force. An American Rasputin—as Averell Harriman described him—who refused to admit the limits of American power, Rostow helped bring about the worst military defeat in American history. The parallels with the present time—when America faces an even worse disaster in Iraq—are clear. A book that vividly illuminates the dangers of ideology in foreign policy, America’s Rasputin could not be more timely."
Professor John Gray, LSE, author of Black Mass

"Finally, a comprehensive and authoritative study of Walt Rostow’s vital contribution to America’s longest war. America’s Rasputin is a splendid book, engrossing and fast-paced and well researched. With Milne as guide we get closer to answering a question that still puzzles: Why did the escalation continue long after the high-level doubts set in?"
Professor Fredrik Logevall, Harvard University, author of Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam

"America’s Rasputin is a splendid book, beautifully written, persuasively argued, and deeply researched. Milne’s cautionary tale of ideas and idealism taken to their extremes is as historically important as it is currently relevant. Our understanding of the Vietnam War—and of American foreign policy in general—is greatly enhanced by this book."
Professor Andrew Preston, University of Cambridge, author of The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC and Vietnam

"[An] original, insightful study of the eminence grise behind two presidents and their disastrous policies in Vietnam... this well-documented study by Milne emphasizes Walt Rostow’s key role in creating the self-justifying rationale that mired America in war for a decade... Milne demonstrates skilfully that LBJ’s bombing policy came largely from Rostow, while his relentless positive spin kept the besieged president from knowing the full extent of the catastrophe until public opinion had turned against him. An astute look at the debacle of the Vietnam War through the life and work of the unrepentant prophet of America’s victory over communism."
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2007

"In this study of Rostow’s sway within the corridors of power, Milne examines the fountain of ideas Rostow produced for winning the war... Although critical intellectually of Rostow, Milne seems impressed by his personal qualities and refusal to give up on Vietnam. [America’s Rasputin] is an asset to well-stocked collections about the war."
Gilbert Taylor, Booklist, February 15, 2008

"[An] exemplary and fresh look at a man once so influential in the shaping of foreign policy... [Rostow’s] myopic certitude, captured so well by Milne, played a major role in an unnecessary war that resulted in the death and maiming of far too many Americans and Asians."
Murray Polner, History News Network, March 5, 2008

"Mr. Milne, a young scholar who was born after the Vietnam War, is a thorough researcher and his readable narrative is full of interest."
Robert Landers, Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2008

"Milne’s intellectual biography of Walt Whitman Rostow is a superb, and fresh, achievement."
Steve Weinberg, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 16, 2008

"[An] engaging biography... David Milne provides an often stinging critique of Rostow that never becomes a diatribe...Milne’s book will appeal to those interested in the intellectual influences of the neoconservatives who designed the Bush administration’s Iraq policy."
Claude R. Marx, Tampa Bay Times, March 19, 2008

"David Milne’s America’s Rasputin [is] a fine dissertation-turned-book that should be added to the reading list of anyone hoping to work in the White House next year."
Ariel Gonzales, Miami Herald, March 23, 2008

"British foreign policy professor David Milne does a fine job sketching Rostow’s life and work in America’s Rasputin. Milne shows us that Rostow was a brilliant man, but that he also suffered from the unbending arrogance that was rampant among too many of those who got us into Vietnam and dictated its strategy."
The Vietnam Veterans of America Magazine, March/April 2008

"Walt Rostow is arguably one of the most interesting Cold War figures in the history of the struggle... David Milne’s study proves both timely and conceptually connective to the Cold War, Vietnam and the current war in Iraq."
Frank DeBenedictis, Cold War Times, May 2008

"America’s Rasputin makes a strong case that Rostow’s advice was a prime negative factor in American foreign policy decisions concerning Vietnam between 1960 and 1969. Milne gives us a good view of Rostow’s background, his strengths, his flaws, and the accidents of fate that transformed an economic expert with no understanding of Southeast Asian political or cultural history into first a voice (from 1960 to 1966) and then, from 1966 to 1969, arguably the voice to which American presidents listened when deciding what to do in Vietnam."
Tom Palaima, Texas Observer, May 30 2008

"Informative and pointed... Milne persuasively argues that Rostow was, in many ways, the first foreign-policy neoconservative, anticipating and formulating many of the illusory arguments that Paul Wolfowitz and others would make during the run-up to the Iraq War about extending the benefits of American hegemony abroad."
Jacob Heilbrunn, The National Interest, July 2, 2008

"British academic David Milne has produced an eloquent and well-researched account of Walt Rostow’s contribution to the evolution of U.S. policy toward Vietnam under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. The book will be required reading for anyone interested in Vietnam policymaking..."
Jonathan Colman, H-Diplo, August 2008.

"America’s Rasputin offers a lively, well-researched read, connecting recent scholarship on the development of American social science to the Vietnam catastrophe. In Milne’s telling, Rostow makes a very effective antihero, an epitome of intellectual hubris whose story casts a vivid light on our early twenty-first-century warmakers."
Mark Mazower, The Nation, October 6, 2008

"David Milne’s America’s Rasputin is a brilliant portrait of a largely forgotten figure in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations... [Rostow's] story, told with great concision by an academic rising star, is a powerful cautionary tale about how theorists can go horribly astray when given a sniff of power – and how people who understand economics are usually particularly ill-suited to understand violence."
Richard Gowan’s book of the year, Global Dashboard, December 30 2008.

"In tracing Rostow’s influence on America’s Vietnam decision-making, Milne offers a cautionary tale, with obvious contemporary relevance, about the dangers of trying to combine ‘aggressive and altruistic interventionism.’ Although structural pressures and bureaucratic imperatives will always play a major role in shaping foreign policy, America’s Rasputin is a valuable reminder that there is no substitute for sound individual judgment."
Louis F. Cooper, New Politics, Winter 2009

"Insightful... Milne skilfully demonstrates that Rostow had very little understanding of Southeast Asian political or cultural history, and was analytically deficient in perceiving the conflict as a nationalist civil war first... Milne’s prose is very readable, and absent of jargon. He takes what could be a complicated subject, and presents it clearly. The work is well documented . . . America’s Rasputin belongs on the shelf of all university libraries, as well as any scholar or instructor of the period, especially those who teach the Vietnam War."
Richard Verrone, H-Net Reviews, March 2009

"Well written, meticulously researched, and robustly argued . . . America’s Rasputin is a signal achievement. Henceforth, it will serve as the starting point for all wishing to do additional study on this man and the Vietnam War, particularly in relation to the air war against North Vietnam."
John M. Carland, The Journal of Military History, April 2009

"David Milne’s absorbing new book puts Walt W. Rostow exactly where he belongs - front and center among the leading architects of the long American War in Vietnam... Milne’s analysis in insightful and compelling... this is an outstanding book."
Michael E. Latham, Journal of American Studies, May 2009

"Illuminating... Milne focuses on the career of a single individual, Walt Whitman Rostow. It is an inspired choice. Alone among the key U.S. participants in the escalation of the war, Rostow has escaped book-length scrutiny... Milne’s narrative contains a good deal of striking evidence. Perhaps most revealing is his discussion of the relationship between Rostow and John F. Kennedy... Milne also provides intriguing evidence about the failure of the Paris Peace negotiations to make progress toward a settlement of the war in the second half of 1968... [America’s Rasputin is] valuable... deeply researched, critical scholarship."
Mark Atwood Lawrence, Diplomatic History, September 2010.

"Milne’s study offers valuable historical lessons down to the present, and the author makes explicit comparisons to the neocons and the current war in Iraq, appropriately in my view. The book is, on the whole, fair and evenhanded, particularly given a biographical subject deserving of a few more jabs... Milne has done a fine job of marrying the man to the historical patterns that transcend him."
James M. Carter, American Historical Review, October 2010.

"Outstanding... Milne writes lucidly and objectively but never shies away from confronting Rostow’s many faults. As Milne so ably shows, perhaps the greatest paradox in Rostow’s life was that this optimism, when combined with his unyielding ideology, was instrumental in creating catastrophe for those he was trying to help."
Andrew Priest, International Affairs, November 2010.

"This book should be read not just by professors and students, but also by policymakers, for Milne provides an important lesson on the danger of allowing one’s ideology to obstruct reality. ‘Consistency,’ he notes, ‘is not a laudable trait if you are consistently wrong.’ One must wonder whether, if those in Washington gave their history a closer read, many of the problems this nation currently faces could have been avoided."
Scott Kaufman, Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2010

"This is a wonderful book... a very good read. I believe it’s David Milne’s first book, and he just knocks it out of the park. Milne does a great job of sketching out how an incredibly bright man can be such a dullard when it comes to the consequences of waging war without listening to people on the ground."
Stephen Glain,, August 2011. America’s Rasputin was chosen as one of his five "must-read" books on American militarism.