Sometime during the 80’s I wandered into the Baptist Church located on “The Drag” of UT Austin. I was a stranger, but two gentlemen in suit and tie warmly greeted me. One of them I instantly recognized as Walt Rostow, a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Rostow had been Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Adviser, in which capacity he advocated for the bombing of North Vietnam and even floated the idea of invading the country with U.S. troops. How was it possible that a nice guy like Rostow could imagine using the A-bomb against China if that country were to retaliate against invading American forces? He was “a sheep in wolf’s clothing” (Townsend Hoopes).
I must have grimaced or said something unkind when I met Rostow. I turned away from him for five or ten seconds; and when I looked back, he had disappeared. The normal assumption would be that he hurried away out of a sense of guilt. In fact, whether in his books or lectures, Rostow never apologized for his role in Vietnam policy. He even argued that the United States had “won” the war—that our intervention had saved the rest of Southeast Asia from communist domination.
In his magnum opus, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, written in 1960, Rostow had argued that massive U.S. aid was necessary to jump start economic development in the Third World. America had a special responsibility to the poor and downtrodden of the world. Much later, in the 1990’s, Rostow had personally thought up and led the Austin Project, designed to coordinate public and private agencies toward the goals of prenatal care and the education of Austin’s disadvantaged children. Rostow was a paradoxical character. He wanted to help the poor but supported a war policy that resulted in the deaths of more than three million Vietnamese peasants.
Walt Rostow’s great failing was his inflexibility and his inability to admit that he had been wrong. Although we Quakers have some bedrock principles like the Peace Testimony, we must beware of applying those principles inflexibly. Thus, I’m not prepared to condemn those Quakers who fought for the North in the American Civil War nor those Friends who took up arms against Hitler.
The concept of God is another example. I believe in God; and, for a time, was ill-disposed toward non-theistic Friends. I now realize that it’s possible to be deeply spiritual without being a theist. I would regret a Society in which most Quakers were non-theists, but actions speak louder than words or theological concepts. Love supersedes any belief or creed. It is, indeed, God at work in the world.
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