Blowtorch Bob: An Instrument of the Cold War State

September 11, 2013

Frank Leith Jones, Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam, and American Cold War Strategy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2013)

 

Robert W. Komer is probably best remembered today as the principal architect of the Johnson administration’s pacification campaign in South Vietnam, the so-called “other war.” Komer—whose abrasive personality, constantly blazing tobacco pipe, and ability to motivate sluggish bureaucracies earned him the nickname “Blowtorch Bob”—served as a deputy to General William Westmoreland , the commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV).  As Westmoreland’s deputy, Komer directed Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), a hybrid civil-military organization that post-Vietnam theorists and practitioners have frequently promoted as a model of counterinsurgency organization.

Frank Leith Jones, a professor of security studies at the U.S. Army War College, has written the first monograph treatment of Komer. Jones correctly highlights a significant gap in the historiography of U.S. policymaking during the Vietnam War: the under-treatment of those “second-echelon” officials who had considerable impact on policymaking. The author’s impressive command of archival material, his trenchant analysis, and his fluid prose make Blowtorch essential reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Vietnam decision-making.

Like David Milne’s superb 2008 portrait of Komer’s formidable White House colleague Walt W. Rostow (America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War), Jones’s book is a study of a mandarin in action.  In Jones’s account, Komer emerges as a driven patriot—a loyal and dedicated public servant who offered sensible organizational prescriptions for countering armed rebellion in the Vietnamese countryside. But, Blowtorch is not a hagiography. Unlike some contemporary counterinsurgency enthusiasts, Jones does not portray Komer as a nimble visionary, who grasped the true nature of America’s revolutionary adversaries and what was required to defeat them, in contrast to the supposedly hidebound and operationally oafish U.S. military leadership. For this reader at least, a miasma of failure permeates Jones’s account of Komer’s Vietnam War. Whatever successes Komer enjoyed were overshadowed by the harrowing consequences of the generation-long U.S. commitment in Southeast Asia.

Throughout Komer’s upbringing and education, his service in the Second World War and later in the Central Intelligence Agency, and his time as a jack-of-all-trades staff member of Kennedy’s National Security Council (NSC) staff, he emerges as a slightly Zelig-like figure who pops up in presidential-level decisionmaking on subjects as diverse as U.S. police assistance to the “underdeveloped areas,” U.S. policy toward India, and Egyptian military intervention in Yemen.  Blowtorch provides fascinating new details on Kennedy’s inner circle. Jones describes a perfervid atmosphere permeated by a crisis mentality, marked by “misguided emotions, a fountainhead of heroics,” machismo, and adrenaline-saturated posturing. Along the way, he offers delightful asides and aperçus, noting for example that JFK’s ludicrously self-important ambassador in New Delhi, John Kenneth Galbraith, “had difficulty sleeping despite his heavy use of narcotics.”

The center of the book focuses on Komer’s role as the brains behind Lyndon Johnson’s “other war.” Jones, who in an earlier incarnation was a senior civil servant in the Pentagon, masterfully depicts the political intrigues within MACV, the Saigon embassy and, to a lesser degree, the South Vietnamese government. Although the focus of Blowtorch is justifiably U.S.-centric, the book would have benefited from a deeper consideration of decision-making among Komer’s Vietnamese counterparts.

Komer’s post-Vietnam career included a brief ambassadorship in Turkey and service as undersecretary of defense for policy during the Carter administration. This portion of his tale is drier and slower. Komer played a pivotal part in Middle East security policy, but his bureaucratic afterlife as a RAND analyst and academic commands little interest.

Jones argues forcefully for Komer’s contributions as a Cold War strategist. Ultimately, however, Komer is better understood as a rebarbative but highly skilled national security manager—a truculent instrument of the Cold War state. Jones makes clear the extent to which Komer absorbed the prevailing managerial ethos while a student at Harvard Business School after World War II. Komer, he writes, was “a diviner of statistics and always a reverent practitioner of scientific management.” Komer’s fascination with organizational machinery and structure reached its climax in Vietnam with the creation of CORDS. McGeorge Bundy, Komer’s NSC superior during the Kennedy administration, captured his subordinate’s essence when he described him as “a marvelous staff man.” Komer would almost certainly have taken this as a compliment.

 

William Rosenau is a senior analyst at CNA Strategic Studies in Alexandria, Virginia. 

 

Photo Credit: exlibber, Flickr