Walt Rostow’s Development Theory Shows That Capitalism Relies on Brutal Violence

Economist Walt Rostow advanced an influential development theory while working as an adviser to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Rostow’s advocacy of murderous violence in Vietnam flowed directly from his theory of how to promote capitalist growth.

Walt Whitman Rostow appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on his nomination to be Counselor of the State Dept. and Chairman of the Policy Planning Council. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Commonsense notions of development associate it with capitalist modernization. Such notions assume that cumulative economic growth enables poor countries to become more like rich ones.

To facilitate such growth, policymakers, international institutions, and many academics urge poor countries and their populations to adopt modern ways of thought and action, dispensing with familial or communal loyalties and embracing the benefits of capitalist markets and impersonal bureaucracies.

Those who adopt this perspective insist that such modernization will be beneficial for developing societies in the long run, even though there will always be those who lose out and seek to resist the process. However, since the benefits of economic growth and cultural change outweigh the losses, it is legitimate to forcefully suppress such opposition.

No thinker was more influential in theorizing and popularizing such notions of development underpinned by violent coercion than Walt Whitman Rostow (1916–2003).

Rostow’s Theory of Development

Rostow was a US academic who became world famous for his contribution to development theory. He was also an advisor to President John F. Kennedy and rose to become national security advisor under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, in the mid 1960s.

Rostow was writing during a time of Cold War and widespread decolonization. He embodied concerns in the West about the menace of Communism to new postcolonial states. Fears of a “domino effect,” whereby if one country fell under communist influence, others would surely follow, were widespread in Washington and beyond, especially following Mao Zedong’s 1949 Revolution in China. Rostow pitched his development theory as a cogent response to this threat.

It was in his advisory positions that Rostow popularized his notion of development and went on to justify murderous US military escalation in Vietnam. Most academic treatments of Rostow disassociate these two moments of his career, either by ignoring his role in the Vietnam War or by portraying it as incidental to his theoretical views. In reality, a core element of his theory involved the advocacy of mass violence to eliminate opposition to his vision of development.

His book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, first published in 1960, caught the imagination of those who favored the capitalist development of poor countries. Rostow’s skill was to conceptually associate development with capitalist modernization. From this starting point, any threat to capitalist modernization could be seen as a threat to development as such.

Rostow argued that while the United States was currently the richest and most developed country in the world, all other countries could become like the United States so long as they implemented the right policies. While there are many different understandings of human development, Rostow’s version, based on capitalist modernization through economic growth and cultural change, was foundational to the development common sense of his own day as well as ours.

Rostow’s conception of socioeconomic change is still taught widely across development studies degrees. It guides and is used to justify the policies advocated by mainstream development institutions, such as the World Bank, and by political leaders and ruling classes in rich and poor countries alike. These actors refer to the purported benefits of economic growth to justify pain today for gain tomorrow.

Most of the discussion about Rostow’s development theory overlooks the fact that it was predicated upon mass violence. For Rostow, pro-capitalist elites in poor countries should ally with the United States to physically eliminate threats to capitalist modernization. His role in escalating the US war on Vietnam flowed logically from his development theory. As historian David Milne put it: “Rostow was not the sole reason why America bombed North Vietnam, but his contribution was of fundamental importance.”

From Tradition to Modernity

In The Stages of Economic Growth, Rostow sought to answer two overlapping questions. Firstly, how could newly independent states in the emerging postcolonial context transform their economies to become like the United States, the most developed country at that time? Secondly, how could newly established postcolonial elites eliminate the threat posed by Communist movements to capitalist modernization?

Rostow insisted that all countries could pass through five stages of economic growth, culminating in a US-style age of high mass-consumption. In order to do so, they would need to adopt the correct, pro-capitalist cultural orientation as well as an anti-communist political-economic commitment, under military guidance from national elites in concert with the United States.

As Rostow put it:

It is possible to identify all societies, in their economic dimensions, as lying within one of five categories: the traditional society, the preconditions for take-off, the take-off, the drive to maturity, and the age of high mass-consumption.

For Rostow, economic change was “the consequence of political and social as well as narrowly economic forces.” It was the combination of economic growth with the transformation of ideas and norms — from “traditional” to “modern” — that would propel countries through these stages. Crucially, he argued that the modernizing impulse tended to come from outside traditional society — in his own words, “not endogenously but from some external intrusion by more advanced societies.”

This emphasis on the external impulse to modernize enabled Rostow to identify the United States as the key ally for the elites of developing nations in two important ways. Firstly, it would assist them in their attempts to attract foreign investment and technological transfers and integrate their economies into global markets. Secondly, the world’s hegemonic state would forge necessary alliances with the new national elites as they sought to eliminate the Communist menace to capitalist modernization.

Diseases of the Transition

Rostow assumed that most national elites in the emerging Third World wanted to achieve American-style Fordist capitalism. However, such economic modernization would only be possible if they successfully deal with the communist menace. He argued that the rapid process of modernization was highly disruptive, presenting opportunities during this period for communist movements across the Third World to seize power and thwart the potential for capitalist development.

According to Rostow, communism was a “disease of the transition,” with communists playing the role of “scavengers” in the modernization process. He insisted that such movements would have to be eliminated by force and described pro-capitalist military forces as “an absolutely crucial figure of the transition.” According to his perspective, coalitions of postcolonial elites and the US military should be “prepared to deal with the enemies” of capitalist modernization.

Much of the writing about economic development presents Rostow’s theory in benign terms and overlooks his advocacy of war as a development tool. One of the most influential textbooks in the field, Economic Development by Michael Todaro and Stephen Smith, sums up his argument as follows:

One of the principal strategies of development necessary for any take-off was the mobilization of domestic and foreign saving in order to generate sufficient investment to accelerate economic growth.

Adam Szirmai’s book Socio-Economic Development also leaves out the role of state violence in Rostow’s schema:

An important policy recommendation deriving from Rostovian analysis is the requirement of large-scale investment in industry in the take-off stage. Foreign investment, loans and development aid can help compensate for the shortfalls in domestic savings and foreign currency requirements, compared to investment needs. Development aid, training and education can also help surmount the traditional obstacles to growth and contribute to the realization of the preconditions for take-off.

Such interpretations represent the commonsense understanding of Rostow’s theory both within and beyond development economics. The reality of what he advocated was much uglier.

Preventive Medicine

In The Stages of Economic Growth, whose subtitle describes it as a “non-communist manifesto,” Rostow did not bother to discuss the differences between communist movements across the Third World. His broad-brush definition of communism as a “disease of the transition” dovetailed with the legacy of McCarthyism in the United States. The use of such all-encompassing terminology to describe working-class politics of various kinds, both at home and abroad, served to legitimate the repression of such movements by the US state and its allies.

Once Rostow had identified communist and other left-wing movements as a “disease,” it was a short logical step to proclaim that he could identify a cure. In a talk with the title “Countering Guerrilla Warfare,” Rostow addressed the following message to US soldiers at Fort Bragg in 1961:

I salute you as I would a group of doctors, teachers, economic planners, agricultural experts, civil servants, or those others who are now leading the way in the whole southern half of the globe in fashioning new nations and societies that will stand up straight and assume in time their rightful place of dignity and responsibility in the world community; for this is our common mission.

Rostow identified Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and the Congo as four countries where the international communist movement had managed to “exploit the inherent instabilities of the underdeveloped areas of the non-Communist world,” making it necessary for the United States to intervene. He repeatedly demonstrated the violent logic of his political-economic analysis over the years that followed.

In 1965–66, a US-backed military coup by the Indonesian army resulted in a genocidal massacre of more than one million suspected communists and left-wingers as well as members of Indonesia’s Chinese minority. The CIA supplied its own lists to assist with the killings, which paved the way for General Suharto to institute what he called the New Order — an anti-communist, pro-US, free-market regime. Rostow welcomed this turn of events effusively, telling Lyndon Johnson in August 1967 that Suharto was “making a hard try at making something of Indonesia which could be very good for us and the world.”

After the Bolivian army executed Che Guevara in October 1967, with a CIA officer in attendance, Rostow offered another variation on the theme of the US military as a developmental doctor tending to the needs of the Third World. He wrote to Johnson describing Guevara’s death as an example of such generosity:

It shows the soundness of our “preventive medicine” assistance to countries facing incipient insurgency — it was the Bolivian Second Ranger Battalion, trained by our Green Berets from June-September of this year, that cornered him and got him.

Hearts and Minds

Johnson appointed Rostow as his national security advisor after Kennedy’s assassination largely so he could contribute to the US war effort in Vietnam. This was Rostow’s “thesis” of how the United States could win the war through the coercion of North Vietnam:

By applying limited, graduated military actions reinforced by political and economic pressures on a nation providing external support for insurgency, we should be able to cause that nation to decide to reduce greatly or eliminate altogether support for the insurgency.

Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, Rostow wrote to Johnson’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, with the following advice: “We should seek to guide the forces set in motion by the communist attacks to the maximum extent possible.”

The US troop presence in the region rose from sixteen thousand in 1963 to more than half a million by 1968. Rostow argued that increased bombing of the North — known as Operation Rolling Thunder — would lead to victory. In October 1967, he warned the defense secretary Robert McNamara not to take his foot off the pedal: “If we stop the bombing it will bring them back up and permit them to increase their commitment in the South.”

As the tide of the war turned ever more against the US military, Rostow advocated further escalation through the use of nuclear weapons to secure victory. He deployed the language of his development theory to legitimize such moves, railing against communist “scavengers” of the modernization process. Although the United States held back from exercising the nuclear option, its use of conventional weapons on a massive scale in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia caused the deaths of more than a million people and left those countries in ruins.

Rostow never expressed any regret at the human cost of the Vietnam war. In a 1986 interview, he said that he was “not obsessed with Vietnam, and I never was . . . I don’t spend much time worrying about that period.”

Development and Dystopia

The German-born sociologist Andre Gunder Frank was a contemporary of Rostow’s who wrote about development from a radically different perspective. He offered a scathing summary of Rostow’s intellectual agenda and his work for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations:

As to the efficacy of the policy recommended by Rostow, it speaks for itself: no country, once underdeveloped, ever managed to develop by Rostow’s stages. Is that why Rostow is now trying to help the people of Vietnam, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, and other underdeveloped countries to overcome the empirical, theoretical, and policy shortcomings of his manifestly non-communist intellectual aid to economic development and cultural change by bombs, napalm, chemical and biological weapons, and military occupation?

For anyone really interested in studying the history of development, it should be clear that Rostow advocated mass killing to promote American-style capitalism. However, the way that universities have taught and disseminated his work has often concealed this reality. As one of the most influential theorists of capitalist development, Rostow is an outstanding example of how ruthless violence underpins capitalist development, both in theory and practice.