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ASHINGTON, Feb. 14 Walt W. Rostow, an economic historian who became one of the principal architects and passionate defenders of the Vietnam War as an adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died on Thursday night at a hospital in Austin, Tex., where he lived. He was 86.
The son of a Socialist immigrant who named him for the poet Walt Whitman, Mr. Rostow graduated from Yale at 19, won a Rhodes scholarship, served as a major in the Army's covert Office of Strategic Services in World War II, then pursued a brilliant career as a scholar of economic modernization and an adviser to politicians. He coined Kennedy's 1960 campaign slogan, "Let's Get This Country Moving Again."
But it was his relentless support of American military intervention in Southeast Asia, first as a White House and State Department official in the Kennedy administration and then as Johnson's national security adviser at the height of the Vietnam War, that marked him for life.
"He became the president's national security adviser at a time when criticism and opposition to the war were beginning to crystallize, and he eventually served the purpose of shielding the president from criticism and from reality," wrote David Halberstam in "The Best and the Brightest," his 1972 study of the war's origins. "He deflected others' pessimism and rewarded those who were optimistic. It was not contrived; it was the way he was."
Friends and foes alike described Mr. Rostow as a perpetual optimist, easygoing and ebullient, unfailingly polite, a "sheep in wolf's clothing," as the writer Townsend Hoopes once put it. Scorned by much of the academic world after his White House service, he taught at the newly established Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, where he was an emeritus professor of political economy. The author of more than 30 books, Mr. Rostow remained active in school and civic affairs until his death.
Kennedy, in a not entirely flattering comment, once declared, "Walt can write faster than I can read."
Mr. Rostow was also, colleagues recalled, a whirlwind of supreme self-confidence, talkative to the point of verbosity, certain of the moral rectitude of his positions and unwavering in the face of criticism, even as doubts about the wisdom of the Vietnam War grew in Johnson's inner circle.
"I finally understand the difference between Walt and me," Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who was Johnson's under secretary of state and attorney general, once remarked after an argument about bombing. "I was the navigator who was shot down and spent two years in a German prison camp, and Walt was the guy picking my targets."
But in the beginning, Mr. Rostow's optimism about Vietnam was widely shared. He came to it by way of his academic work, mostly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on economic development. In his best-known book, "The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto" (1960), he argued that economic growth was a multistaged process, stimulated by desire for improvement of life, as well as profits. He said modernization was characterized by a crucial "takeoff" period of rapid growth stimulated by expansion in a few crucial segments of the economy.
He argued that the United States should speed this process of modernization in places like Southeast Asia, and that until such takeoff could be achieved, it should make efforts by all diplomatic or military means to stop guerrilla infiltration that threatened Communist takeover.
In a memorandum to Kennedy on April 12, 1961, Mr. Rostow, alarmed at the Communist insurgency in Southeast Asia, urged "gearing up the whole Vietnam operation," by appointing a fulltime policy coordinator, increasing aid and sending Special Forces advisers. Many of the recommendations were eventually accepted.
Later, Mr. Rostow was among the first officials to urge the bombing of North Vietnam, and he was the principal author of a November 1961 report recommending an increase in United States military aid and advisers at all levels to the South Vietnamese government, shifting the relationship from purely advisory to one of "limited partnership."
In December 1963, Mr. Rostow, by then chairman of the State Department's Policy Planning Council, wrote what later became known as the Rostow thesis. First circulated in the summer of 1964, it held that externally supported insurgencies could be stopped only by military action against the sources of external support, through a series of escalating measures intended to impart maximum psychological blows.
In 1964 and 1965, Mr. Rostow argued for a broad American troop presence in the Pacific region, some ground forces in Laos and South Vietnam and an intensive naval blockade of North Vietnam. Though the initial White House response was milder, Johnson eventually adopted all of those measures.
At almost every turn, Mr. Rostow argued for an escalation of the war. Sustained American bombing of North Vietnam began in March 1965, but on limited targets. By May 1966, he was advocating "systemic and sustained bombing" intended to destroy petroleum installations in Hanoi and Haiphong as a way to cut off supplies to forces in South Vietnam.
On Nov. 1, 1967, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, increasingly skeptical, called for "stabilizing" the war effort by re-examining American ground efforts and shifting a greater burden to the South Vietnamese and calling a bombing halt by the end of the year. Mr. Rostow supported the first two goals, but opposed an unconditional bombing halt, and Johnson soon took a similar position.
"Walt was up to his elbows in raw intelligence, looking for information to support his very strongly held view that we were winning, that we would win over the long haul," Richard Moose, an aide at the time, recalled today. "The morning of the Tet offensive, in the Situation Room in the very early morning hours, Walt was sure that while all the rest of the world was looking at the pictures of the Saigon Embassy and so forth, Walt said, 'This is a great victory for our side.' "
"Walt was thinking in terms of the casualties that had been inflicted on the North Vietnamese and Vietcong," Mr. Moose added. "Years later, we learned that in fact their losses had been horrendous. But Lyndon Johnson's losses in terms of image were very much greater."
Walt Whitman Rostow was born Oct. 7, 1916, in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents who gave their three sons proud and distinctive American names. Mr. Rostow's older brother, Eugene Victor, named for the Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, became dean of the Yale Law School and Johnson's under secretary of defense for political affairs. A third brother, Ralph Waldo, was named for Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Walt was a standout from the start, earning his Ph.D. from Yale in 1940 and starting his career as an economics instructor at Columbia University. After his wartime service, for which he received the Order of the British Empire, he joined the State Department as assistant chief of the German-Austrian Economic Division, later returning to England to teach American history, first at Oxford, then Cambridge.
From 1950 to 1961, he was professor of economic history at M.I.T. and also a staff member of its C.I.A.-supported Center for International Studies. He did occasional consulting work for the Eisenhower administration and became a policy adviser to Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, in 1958.
He is credited by some sources with giving the Kennedy the phrase "the New Frontier," a theme that appeared in "Stages of Economic Growth" and was used by the candidate in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1960.
In January 1961, Kennedy named Mr. Rostow as deputy special assistant to the president for national security affairs. That fall, in a staff shuffle, he went to the State Department, returning to the White House in early 1966 as Johnson's special assistant for national security affairs, the post now known as national security adviser, where he remained until Richard M. Nixon was sworn in.
"He and Westmoreland were tried and true for the war to the end," said Robert Dallek, the author of a two-volume biography of Johnson who came to known Mr. Rostow during his years of research at the Johnson Library in Austin. "He argued that the war did make a positive difference, in the sense that it gave those Southeast Asian nations time to develop and ward off the possible consequences of Communist takeover. It gave them space and time to develop and stabilize themselves. Whether it was true or not, he believed it and it may have been a kind of comfort to him and the thousands of Americans who lost relatives in that war."
Because of his hawkish stance, Mr. Rostow was a pariah in many academic quarters, but he flourished at the University of Texas. His wife of 55 years, the former Elspeth Davies, a political scientist, joined him on the faculty there. In the early 1990's, Mr. Rostow became head of the Austin Project, an organization dedicated to expanding public and private programs providing prenatal care and aid to disadvantaged children.
Besides his wife and his brother Ralph, of Sarasota, Fla., Mr. Rostow is survived by a son, Peter, of Del Rio, Calif., a daughter, Ann, of Austin, and one grandchild. His other brother, Eugene, died last November.
To the end of his life, he expressed no public regrets about his position on the war, contending in a 1986 interview that Congressional cuts in military aid had caused the fall of South Vietnam.
"I'm not obsessed with Vietnam, and I never was," he said then. "I don't spend much time worrying about that period."
Still, he knew that for many members of the Vietnam generation, he would forever be identified with what they saw as a hugely failed policy.
"I remember the first time I met Tom Hayden," he said, referring to the antiwar activist who later became a state senator in California. "He couldn't believe it. He said out loud: 'Just think of it. I'm talking to Walt Rostow.' "