Robert Komer, 78, Figure in Vietnam, Dies
By Tim Weiner,, April 12, 2000
Robert W. Komer, a point man in the United States' star-crossed campaign to win hearts and minds in Vietnam, died on Sunday after a stroke. He was 78 and lived in Arlington, Va.
During the war and after, Komer was known as Blowtorch Bob, a name given to him by Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador in South Vietnam who had said (in so many words) that arguing with Komer was like having a flamethrower aimed at the seat of one's pants.
Komer was indeed a man with a fierce mind behind a mild mien. With his owlish eyeglasses and briar pipe and his 15 years at the CIA, he came to President Kennedy's National Security Council in 1961 as the model of what the novelist John le Carre calls an intellocrat.
In Washington, where information is power, secret information can be the means to great power. He wielded it like a weapon in Vietnam, where his job was to help win the war without firing a shot through a program known as pacification.
The idea of pacification was that the war could not be won solely with bombs and bullets. Control of the people of South Vietnam would be won from the Communists of the north village by village, hut by hut, by social and political means, with information and propoganda and the selective use of force, by South Vietnamese soldiers backed by American civilians.
In 1966, as the battle intensified, he became President Johnson's special assistant for Vietnam, in charge of the political side of the war. He later told an interviewer that he had warned Johnson that he had no experience in such matters. "Well," the president replied, "maybe what we need is some fresh meat."
"That's what he said," Komer recalled. "Not fresh blood, but fresh meat."
In 1967, Komer arrived in Saigon with the rank of ambassador and the title of chief of pacification, on paper the No. 2 American civilian in Vietnam, second only in rank to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. He reinforced his reputation as a man with a take-no-prisoners attitude, a deathless optimism that the war would be won, and a near-religious faith in the power of facts and statistics to help win it.
An aide to Johnson, John P. Roche, later noted that if Komer had been asked how many Vietnamese had not been influenced by Vietcong propaganda, he would have replied "in 13 hours and 20 minutes" with a top-secret cable for the president's eyes only, "definitively stating: 2,634,201.11."
Komer's "sensitive antennae were tuned to Johnson's desires," said a leading historian of the war, Stanley Karnow, and Komer produced a steady stream of statistics-laden reports that supported the Johnson's' vision of a light at the end of the tunnel.
In one study, he stated with confidence that precisely 68 percent of South Vietnam's 17.4 million people were "relatively secure." In another, he said that as "slow, painful and incredibly expensive though it may be, we're beginning to 'win' the war."
Working closely with William E. Colby, the top man for the CIA in Vietnam, Komer led a village-by-village effort to win hearts and minds. The pacification program evolved into a more tough-minded project called Operation Phoenix. Conceived by the White House and supported by the CIA, Phoenix sought to expose Vietcong agents who were working in South Vietnam. Colby later testified that Phoenix killed 20,587 Vietnamese.
In October 1968, Johnson named Komer ambassador to Turkey. His tenure was short. President Nixon took office in January 1969 and replaced him.
Komer then worked as a consultant with the Rand Corp., writing classified studies on NATO and on the need for a rapid-deployment force for the Persian Gulf, until the next Democratic administration.
He became undersecretary of defense for policy under President Carter and put many of those ideas into effect. His staff presented him with a bronzed blowtorch, a symbol of his past battles.
Komer was born in Chicago. He graduated from Harvard in 1942, served in the Army in World War II and, after having graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Business in 1947, joined the new CIA. He became a senior intelligence analyst, peering into nations from Morocco to Malaysia.
After leaving the Pentagon and in the clear light of hindsight, he waxed bittersweet about Vietnam. "I would have done a lot of things differently and been more cautious about getting us involved," he said. He called the war "a strategic disaster which cost us 57,000 lives and a half trillion dollars."
Komer's first marriage, to Jane Komer, ended in divorce. His second wife, Geraldine, died in 1996. Survivors include three children from the first marriage, Doug, of Annandale, Va.; Dick, of Falls Church, Va.; and Anne, of Boston; a sister; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov