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Robert Komer

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Robert W. Komer (1922-2000) is best known for heading U.S. pacification efforts, in the Vietnam War, under Lyndon Johnson. Born in Chicago, he grew up in St. Louis, and received his undergraduate education at Harvard. During World War II, he served in Army intelligence in Europe and was awarded the Bronze Star.After serving in the U.S. Army in the Second World War, he graduated from the Harvard Business School, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency, and then served in a variety of government positions in CIA, the White House, and the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as a joint civilian-military role in the United States Mission to the Republic of Vietnam. [1]

Nicknamed "Blowtorch Bob" by Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., because "arguing with Mr. Komer was like having a flamethrower aimed at the seat of one's pants," [2] he was known for being aggressive, but willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.

White House

Assigned to the National Security Council staff, he became a protege of Lyndon Johnson, who used him as a general foreign policy troubleshooter, and then acting Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs after McGeorge Bundy left. Johnson then selected him to break the pacification logjam in South Vietnam.

Initially, he was appointed as a special presidential assistant in the White House. Johnson then told him, "Bob," Johnson drawled when they sat together, "I'm going to put you in charge of the other war in Vietnam." Komer was unfamiliar with the term "the other war." "Mr. President, what's the other war in Vietnam? I thought we only had one." "Well," the President replied, "that's part of the problem. I want to have a war to build as well as to destroy. So I want to put you in charge of generating a massive effort to do more for the people of South Vietnam, particularly the farmers in the rural areas, and your mandate will be an extensive one. In fact, I wrote it myself." Komer declared that he was no expert in Southeast Asia. The President parried his feeble protest. "I've got too many people who claim to be long-standing experts. What we need is some fresh blood."[3]

On taking the Vietnam assignment, he kept direct access to the President, the ultimate Washington status symbol. He had removed himself from the NSC staff and created his own small team, to include Ambassador William Leonhart and a young diplomat named Richard Holbrooke.

Pacification and CORDS

Komer was sensitive to Johnson's need for quantification, and, like Robert McNamara, was a heavy user of statistics, sometimes of questionable validity. No longer believing that pacification could be managed remotely, Johnson sent him to Vietnam to head Civil Operational and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), a fundamentally different U.S. pacification operation. Komer, with advice from John Paul Vann and Daniel Ellsberg, created it over objections from GEN William Westmoreland. Johnson personally authorized it in NSAM 362.[4]On his first day on duty, he insisted on having an insignia, on his official car, that gave him the authority of a four-star general. A MACV general sent to the scene argued that only four-star military officers were entitled to our star plates, to which Komer responded, "Those regulations were written before anyone ever thought we'd be fighting a war like this. Put four stars on my car." Westmoreland felt it a battle not worth fighting.[5] CORDS redefined the organizational structure of U.S. advice to the South Vietnamese, but did not change the advisory relationship. While it consolidated most, but not all, U.S. military and civilian activities, it sought, but did not necessarily obtain, improved intelligence, more U.S. control over the GVN's operations, and better GVN performance.[6]

CORDS included the controversial Phoenix Program. A military intelligence officer, K. Barton Osborne, challenged the assumption that the Phoenix body count were all VCI. Marilyn Young puts this into the context that Komer had set a figure of "neutralizing" 3,000 VCI per month, and the field personnel needed to meet that numerical objective.[7] William Colby, his deputy, called him "brash, abrasive, statistics-crazy and aggressively optimistic." Colby also called him "He was about the best thing that had happened to the Vietnam war at that date." [8]


After Vietnam, he was named Ambassador to Turkey, but left the post after the election of Richard Nixon. He then worked for the RAND Corporation, served as undersecretary of defense during the Carter Administration, and returned to RAND. His staff gave him with a bronzed blowtorch, a symbol of his past battles.[1]

In retrospect, he said of Vietnam, "I would have done a lot of things differently and been more cautious about getting us involved." The war, according to Komer, was "a strategic disaster which cost us 57,000 lives and a half trillion dollars." [1]

He held the National Medal of Freedom.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Robert William Komer; Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army; Foreign Service Officer, Arlington Cemetery Website
  2. Tim Weiner (April 12, 2000), Robert Komer, 78, Figure in Vietnam, Dies
  3. Frank L. Jones (Autumn, 2005), "Blowtorch: Robert Komer and the making of Vietnam pacification policy", Parameters
  4. Lyndon B. Johnson (May 9, 1967), National Security Action Memorandum 362: Responsibility for U.S. Role in Pacification (Revolutionary Development)
  5. Sheehan, Neil (1988), A bright shining lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New Random House, pp. 653-647
  6. , Volume 2, Chapter 2, Chapter 6, "The Advisory Build-Up, 1961-1967," Section 1, pp. 408-457, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition
  7. Marilyn B. Young (1991), The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, HarperCollins, p. 213
  8. William Colby, Lost Victory, Beaverbooks, Ltd.