Concept and Controversy

[ History ]

Concept and Controversy

Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market

By W. W. Rostow

In this thought-provoking memoir, W. W. Rostow takes a retrospective look at eleven key policy problems with which he has been involved to show how ideas flow into concrete action and how actions taken or not taken in the short term actually determine the long run that we call "the future."



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6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 484 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72619-2

A trusted advisor to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson and one of America's leading professors of economic history, W. W. Rostow has helped shape the intellectual debate and governmental policies on major economic, political, and military issues since World War II. In this thought-provoking memoir, he takes a retrospective look at eleven key policy problems with which he has been involved to show how ideas flow into concrete action and how actions taken or not taken in the short term actually determine the long run that we call "the future."

The issues that Rostow discusses are these:

  • The use of air power in Europe in the 1940s
  • Working toward a united Europe during the Cold War
  • The death of Joseph Stalin and early attempts to end the Cold War
  • Eisenhower's Open Skies policy
  • The debate over foreign aid in the 1950s
  • The economic revival of Korea
  • Efforts to control inflation in the 1960s
  • Waiting for democracy in China
  • The Vietnam War and Southeast Asian policy
  • U.S. urban problems in disadvantaged neighborhoods
  • The challenges posed by declining population in the twenty-first century

In discussing how he and others have worked to meet these challenges, Rostow builds a compelling case for including long-term forces in the making of current policy. He concludes his memoir with provocative reflections on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and on how individual actors shape history.

  • Preface
  • 1. A Backward Glance: 1916-1938
  • 2. The Use of Air Power in Europe, 1942-1945: Should the Allies Have Won the War in Europe in 1944?
  • 3. The United States and the Soviet Union, 1945-1999: The Hinge Was Poland
  • 4. The Death of Stalin, 1953: The Timing May Have Been Off
  • 5. Open Skies, 1955: A Useful Failure
  • 6. Eisenhower and Kennedy on Foreign Aid, 1953-1963: The White Hats Triumph after a Fashion
  • 7. The Republic of Korea: My Marginal Association with a Miracle
  • 8. The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Efforts to Control Inflation, 1957-1972: Innovations Should Be Institutionalized
  • 9. China, 1949-: Waiting for a Democratic Revolution
  • 10. Vietnam and Southeast Asia: Should the Ho Chi Minh Trail Have Been Cut?
  • 11. The Urban Problem, 1991-: Prevention versus Damage Control
  • 12. Population, Modern Japan's Fourth Challenge: The Central Problem of the Twenty-first Century
  • 13. The Long and Short Periods: A Possible Binding Thread
  • 14. Two Final Reflections: One about the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, the Other about the Individual and History
  • Appendix A. Draft of Proposed U.S. Plan for a European Settlement: February 1946
  • Appendix B
  • Appendix C. Text of W. W. Rostow's Seoul National University Speech
  • Appendix D. Andrews and Ortega Elementary Schools: Texas Academic Achievement Analysis, 1994-2002
  • Notes
  • Index

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This book is about one man's efforts to relate ideas to action in the last sixty years of the twentieth century. Although it is an eclectic memoir rather than an autobiography, it begins with a section on my early years, when my ideas and convictions took shape through the usual mysterious blend of inheritance, environment, and accident. America's interwar landscape within which I grew up provided the context for my professional life and shaped the manner in which I addressed the dilemmas of the post-World War II world. Let me explain.

I was born six months before America entered World War I and grew up during the brief period of U.S. prosperity in the 1920s. My teenage years, however, were spent in the shadow of the depression. In my twenties, I was involved in the Second World War. Subsequently I embarked upon a career split three ways amongst academia, government service, and a preoccupation with the process of economic growth, as a matter of both thought and action. With a desire to apply theory to concrete circumstances, my career as a development economist took me first to postwar Europe, then to the developing world, and finally, to the disadvantaged sections of my last hometown, Austin, Texas. In all, my triangular activities carried me through forty years of Cold War and into a new century. Behind my three-part life has been a persistent and conscious effort to translate abstract ideas into operational policy by weaving together short-run and long-term forces. This is the central theme of Chapter 13. This is also the link between my academic life and the years I have spent as a public servant.

I should note here a distinctive part of my academic life reflected in Chapter 12. I had for long followed the course of population growth in my work in economic history. As a teacher of economic history I sought to link the rate of increase of population to the stages of growth. I also accepted from the beginning that "trees did not grow to the sky"; and therefore I speculated about the limits to growth, only in the last few years coming to a conviction on how the limits to growth might come about.

In The Stages of Economic Growth, originally delivered as a series of lectures to undergraduates at Cambridge University in 1958, I allowed myself a few pages (90-92) to talk about "Beyond High Mass Consumption." I concluded, in the midst of the Cold War:

For the moment—for this generation and probably the next—there is a quite substantial pair of lions in the path. First, the existence of modern weapons of mass destruction which, if not tamed and controlled, could solve this and all other problems of the human race, once and for all. Second, the fact that the whole southern half of the globe plus China is caught up actively in the stage of preconditions for take-off or in the take-off itself. They have a reasonably long way to go; but their foreseeable maturity raises this question: shall we see, in a little while, a new sequence of political leaders enticed to aggression by their new-found technical maturity; or shall we see a global reconciliation of the human race.

In The World Economy (twenty years later), I spent more time examining whether diminishing returns would set in and limit growth as foodstuffs and raw materials, water and air became more expensive (Part Six, "The Future of the World Economy," pp. 571-658). Along the way I gave some thought also to whether we were approaching the time growth might be limited by the diminishing marginal utility of money itself by abundance (especially, pp. 154, 796-798). I concluded that the human race was still a long way from the time it would have trouble spending money. In Theorists of Economic Growth from David Hume to the Present in 1990 I spent considerable time on the fact that population growth rates had flattened out markedly in the industrialized countries but were still high in the developing countries. A substantial change of proportions between the two populations was foreshadowed. I concluded:

For the moment it is sufficient to note that the world community is likely to confront simultaneously in the several generations ahead anxieties centered, in different parts of the world, on excessive increase and excessive decrease in population; that the richness of contemporary statistical data is not yet matched by firm knowledge of the determinants of fertility; and it is likely—perhaps certain—that the old unresolved issue of how to define an optimum population level will arise again, if it is not already upon us. (p. 457)

In general, I felt there were ample acute problems of growth immediately ahead, and I again put to one side the limits to growth for a later time.

In the 1990s, however, another two decades had passed. It was not only the rapid fall of fertility in the large developed countries after 1970 but the quite unexpected fall in fertility among many developing countries that caught my attention. And the more I studied the demographic statistics in the 1990s, the more I became convinced that we were entering a time of a clear and present danger. I therefore wrote The Great Population Spike (1998) and continued with the work on population policy reflected in Chapter 12, which presents one of a series of recent policy papers focusing on the immediate and forthcoming problems of the twenty-first century.

I am past eighty and still involved in academic life and community affairs. It seems appropriate for me to take a look back. After all, my idealistic young parents chose to name me after Walt Whitman: I borrow his "Backward Glance o'er Travel'd Roads" as my point of departure.

Six of the eleven episodes chosen for this book fall, in part, within the period when I was either a consultant to the Eisenhower administration (1953-1960) or a public servant (1961-1969) in Washington. The perspective herein is somewhat different than in my previous writing. The reader interested in a more detailed narrative of this period can find it in The United States in the World Arena (1960) and The Diffusion of Power (1972). That latter book also contains a long section on Vietnam and my views as of the end of the 1960s. The short chapter on Vietnam and Southeast Asia (Chapter 10), while consistent with my earlier view, addresses a different question: how most usefully to frame the continuing debate about Vietnam.

In five chapters (2-5, and 7) I have used materials from a series of books that I wrote around the theme of ideas and action, and that were published in the 1980s by the University of Texas Press. These were short works containing primary source material or documents hard to come by. In all cases these chapters now conclude with reflections from the perspective of 2001.

Looking back over these years I found there was something of a difference between working, for example, as an assistant to a president (or elsewhere in a big bureaucracy) and writing a book. In the former case what one learns is the difference between advice and responsibility. As Dean Rusk used to say, if you give advice to a president and it turns out badly, you can resign and disappear from public life. He must live with his decisions before the public and in history. In the reflections that follow at the end of all chapters except the first, I accept the responsibility and freedom of an author.

Most of the book is concerned with foreign and military policy, with a few touching on domestic policy. I have put the chapters in roughly the chronological sequence in which they occurred for this reason: domestic issues (e.g., the balance of payments and domestic inflation) have an important foreign policy effect to be taken into account. From the president's point of view foreign and domestic policy are closely interwoven, and a president is never allowed the luxury of dealing with them separately.

As the dedication of this book—and its text—make clear, I have not been alone in these adventures. But the study of history did teach me that Keynes was wrong when he counseled: "In the long run we'll all be dead." I would hold: "The long run is with us every day of our lives."

A final word about the dedication. I list a good many people. As I wrote about the issues of policy on which I happen to have been engaged it was driven home that on each step of the way I had many comrades. Indeed, the list could have been much longer. It reaches from the presidents of the United States to the two principals of elementary schools with whom we shared hard problems in East Austin. When they went to bed at night they all asked what can I do tomorrow to make things a little better in my domain. They took responsibility for themselves and for others.

I don't think we were unique. In fact, no teacher in an American university—now highly international—can be pessimistic about those coming along. As I recalled in my conversation with Kim Chai Ik (Chapter 7), the American and British young people gave a quite good account of themselves in the Second World War and the Cold War after a not very heroic passage in the interwar years. They had, it is true, great challenges before them. But so will those who will try to make sense of the twenty-first century in Korea, as Chapters 7 and 12 suggest.

In preparing this book, I have been aided by many technical experts, companions in arms, and indeed, opponents of views I have held. Their names are too numerous to report here; but I take this opportunity to thank them collectively.

I have been aided, in particular, by my wife, Elspeth Davies Rostow, and by my friend Herbert Addison of the Oxford University Press. In both cases this book intruded on their urgent professional tasks; and I am greatly in their debt. With great competence and good cheer, Patricia Schaub produced many drafts of each chapter.

W. W. Rostow was Rex G. Baker Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at the University of Texas at Austin. His sixty-year career also included service in the U.S. State Department, and he served as special assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Among his more than thirty previous books are The Stages of Economic Growth, The World Economy: History and Prospect, and Theorists of Economic Growth from David Hume to the Present with a Perspective on the Next Century.

"Rostow can be placed in the category of Dean Rusk and others who pondered difficult issues, made judgments, and had to live with them.... He was part of the establishment, a wise man, one who was very successful.... [His] memoirs are bound to interest many people, scholars and officials alike. They [offer] a fascinating look at several decades of history and scholarship."
—Thomas W. Zeiler, author of Dean Rusk: Defending the American Mission Abroad