Was an economic theory behind the Vietnam war?

Keynes had famously quoted:

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”

Just that influence is beyond economics and extends to even warfare…

Prof. Peter Hilsenrath of University of the Pacific has piece on how W.W. Rostow’s economic idea was key to US taking on Vietnam:

Questions of how the U.S. got mired in the Vietnam War and whether it was ultimately winnable have fascinated historians for half a century – most recently in Ken Burns’ new 18-hour documentary.

A little-remembered aspect of the debacle is the important role played by a prominent economic historian named Walt Whitman Rostow, whose theories on economic development helped persuade Americans – and two presidents – that the fight in Vietnam was right and that we must prevail.

The Burns documentary, from what I have seen, does not dwell much on economics, my area of expertise. But this was an important part of why Americans were there.

Rostow came to prominence in the 1960s after his theories on economic development caught the eye of the Democratic Party and John F. Kennedy, who was campaigning for president.

In 1960, Rostow, then a professor at MIT, published an influential book called “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto.” The book describes how an economy transitions through five distinct stages of development, from basic (little use of technology, like much of central Africa and South Asia in the mid 20th century) to advanced (characterized by high levels of mass consumption, such as the U.S. or France).

Rostow believed economic development was a universal process that would generally occur in all countries albeit with unique national characteristics – that is, except under communism, where he believed the process would be much inhibited. He described communism as a “cancer” of economic development.

Communism, therefore, had to be forcefully resisted to protect a given country’s economic prosperity and freedoms and, ultimately, American national security and well-being as well.

Rostow’s view that economic development could be used to resist the spread of communism attracted Kennedy, who brought the professor to the White House as an adviser on national security.

Rostow, who left the White House in 1969 after serving three years as national security adviser, viewed the American loss in Vietnam as a military failure rather than one of political judgment. Even many years after the war, he believed the U.S. could have prevailed in South Vietnam with just a little more determinationThroughout his time in government, Rostow was one of both Kennedy’s and then Johnson’s most hawkish advisers. From the start he urged a prominent American role in Vietnam to thwart the spread of communism, and he remained steadfast even as others, such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, increasingly saw the war as unwinnable.


He goes onto show how communist countries like China managed to grow thereafter, an example which was not available to  US authorities in 1960s.

As had little idea about this, just searched and came up with quite a few links:

One is not sure and there are continuous debates about the positive role econs play in the society but there are some worrying examples of negative roles…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: