Robert William "Blowtorch Bob" Komer (February 23, 1922 – April 9, 2000) was a key figure in the pacification effort to win South Vietnamese "hearts and minds" during the Vietnam War, heading Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support.
Early life and education
Born in Chicago, Illinois but raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Komer graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Business School, served in World War II and joined the Central Intelligence Agency in its infancy in 1947.
Komer served on the staff of the National Security Council, which was led by McGeorge Bundy. After Bundy's departure, Komer briefly succeeded Bundy as interim National Security Advisor, before he was assigned to the Vietnam pacification campaign.
While with the NSC, Komer and others negotiated with Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol a memorandum of understanding (MOU) about Israeli nuclear capabilities. The March 10, 1965, MOU, variously interpreted since, said 'Israel would not be the first country to "introduce" nuclear weapons to the Middle East'.
Komer arrived in South Vietnam in May 1967 as the first head of the newly created Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program, the most controversial aspect of which was the Phoenix program, which William Colby later testified resulted in 20,587 deaths. CORDS was an agency with a staff of both civilians and military personnel, but it fell under the authority of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson had sent Komer to South Vietnam to provide impetus to the nation-building efforts of the new organization. Komer was known for his brusque management style, which had endeared him to the president and earned him the nickname "blowtorch Bob" from U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.. As head of CORDS, he commanded all pacification personnel in South Vietnam.
However, the problems CORDS faced were intractable and the results of Komer's work ambiguous. In a revealing discussion with military historians, Komer said "everybody and nobody" was responsible for counter-insurgency against the communist Vietcong guerrillas. He said it "fell between stools which accounted for the prolonged failure to push things on a large scale even though many correctly analyzed the need". Komer focused his work on the expansion of village militias loyal to the South Vietnamese government, believing they could provide local security against guerrillas.
Komer left South Vietnam in 1968 upon being appointed ambassador to Turkey, and he was succeeded as head of CORDS by William E. Colby, who would later become head of the CIA. Komer also later worked as a consultant at the Rand Corporation and in the Jimmy Carter administration as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
Ambassador Komer has left a special mark in Turkish history: on January 6, 1969, at the beginning of his tenure as the US ambassador to Turkey, his car was set on fire in Middle East Technical University by a group of students who then formed the core of the Marxist-Leninist movement in Turkey under the banner of Dev-Genç. Komer was visiting the campus at the invitation of university president Kemal Kurdas, who relied on American donors to finance the building of the modern campus.
In the 1980s, Komer became a vocal critic of "The Maritime Strategy", which was devised by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. Komer argued against spending the resources for 600 ships, part of a controversial plan to deter and contain the Soviet Union.
Robert Komer married Jane and later divorced her. He later married Geraldine.
Awards and honors
On December 23, 1967, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson.
Death and legacy
Komer died on April 9, 2000.