Title:                      Blowtorch

Author:                  Frank Leith Jones

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

LCCN:    2012044954

UA23.J645 2013


Date Updated:  September 9, 2015

This book is reviewed by James J. Wirtz.[1]

In the literature on the Vietnam War, Robert Komer emerges seemingly out of nowhere as President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s expeditor for pacification. Often depicted as a prickly character, and nicknamed “Blowtorch Bob” who already had a reputation for orchestrating effective action among hidebound bureaucrats, Komer was dispatched to Saigon by Johnson to bring together civilian agencies, military commanders, and a reluctant South Vietnamese government to orchestrate a concerted approach to the “other war,” the effort to wrest control of the Vietnamese countryside from the Vietcong. Komer worked for nearly two years at what was considered a virtually impossible task, making steady progress in developing an increasingly effective pacification campaign, only to see his efforts in Vietnam truncated by the Tet Offensive and Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election in 1968.

In this finely crafted monograph, Frank Leith Jones offers a reassessment of Komer’s successful career as a senior official in the U.S. government and his role as a close advisor and confidant to U.S. Presidents and Secretaries of Defense. Although Komer embraced the analytically­based style of management favored by Robert S. McNamara’s Pentagon, Jones makes a convincing case that Komer was a gifted strategist who was able to devise politically sensitive policies that matched ends to means to achieve realistic objectives that furthered U.S. interests. Jones places Komer’s career and his development as a strategist in the context of ongoing events, while also offering a running commentary of the existing scholarly assessments of Komer’s role as Johnson’s man in Saigon.


Komer had a career before Vietnam, and that career focused on devising, not implementing, policy. A World War II veteran, Komer emerged from over a decade in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to find himself on President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council. While the luminaries in the Kennedy “Camelot” focused on the major issues of the day—the Cuban and Berlin crises, and dealing with the Soviets generally—Komer became the administration’s leading policymaker and strategist when it came to dealing with such less pressing problem areas as India, the Middle East, and the developing world. After Vietnam, Komer went on to a brief stint as U. S. Ambassador to Turkey, and played key roles in crafting U.S. policy vis-à-vis NATO, in setting the objectives of the post-Vietnam defense buildup initiated by the Carter administration and as a leading critic of Navy Secretary John Lehman’s plan to construct a 600-ship navy during the Reagan administration.

Despite these important accomplishments, Komer will forever be associated with the Vietnam War because of the key role he played under General William Westmoreland in the U.S. pacification effort. Most observers believed that Komer would fail miserably in Vietnam. Why they shared this assessment is easy to understand. Even in hindsight, describing the complexity, novelty, and conceptual and strategic uncertainty Komer faced in the effort to pacify the South Vietnamese countryside is no simple matter. For pacification to succeed, both the United States and its South Vietnamese ally would have had to launch a coordinated interagency effort to bring security, humanitarian services, and the first glimmerings of political participation to Vietnamese peasants, a people who were being introduced to the twentieth century in a truly horrific manner. Komer understood that a “whole of government” approach was necessary for pacification to succeed; what he discovered was how difficult coordinating scores of different agency programs was in practice.


By the time Komer arrived in Vietnam, the U.S. military effort focused on conventional military operations against main force Vietcong and North Vietnamese units, operations that occurred along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and the relatively unpopulated Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Because it involved sustained interaction with the peasantry, pacification was largely viewed as a South Vietnamese responsibility, despite the fact that the South Vietnamese military was desperately trying to transform itself into a conventional military that could operate alongside its American counterpart. Most Saigon regimes were also wary of pacification because it implied a process of government reform that threatened elite interests and the integration of the peasantry into the body politic, objectives that were of tertiary interest to South Vietnamese politicians. Although the U.S. Ambassador was nominally in charge of the overall U.S. effort in the country, in reality, the Embassy exerted minimal influence over U.S. military operations or, more importantly, little control over the host of civilian and intelligence agencies that were actually engaged in activities related to pacification. All of these military, civilian, and intelligence agencies had their own programs and desperately fought to retain organizational autonomy to preserve their own agendas.

To move pacification forward, Komer devised an integrated strategy to enhance village security, bring services to the countryside and coordinate competing agencies to provide the logistical support and transportation services to facilitate pacification activities. Komer gave priority to equipping and supporting South Vietnamese paramilitary units that provided security at the village level—he understood that the first step in increasing government influence in the countryside was to protect villagers from Viet Cong harassment. He identified administrative and logistical bottlenecks that often stymied progress in the field. Komer gave civilian agencies the objective of undertaking at least one service project in every hamlet and village targeted in the countrywide pacification plan and he relentlessly harangued them until they took that objective seriously. He also devised a series of metrics and assessment activities that offered the first tenuous method to measure progress towards planned objectives.

Although Komer’s approach to pacification was relatively straight­forward, implementation of the pacification strategy proved to be controversial and tedious. Pacification strained civil-military relations as senior officers chafed under orders to respond to requirements leveled by a civilian that sometimes interfered with military priorities. Inter-agency battles erupted in Washington as civilian and intelligence agencies resisted Komer’s effort to coordinate U.S. efforts by fighting rear guard actions to protect organizational autonomy. Embassy personnel remained leery of Komer’s effort to engage the Saigon government, while they worried about the contents of Komer’s direct reporting to Lyndon Johnson.

Jones is careful to point out, however, that Komer was not just some “bull in a china shop” when dealing with South Vietnamese or U. S. agencies. He was also more than an obsessed technocrat when it came to pacification. Jones highlights the fact that Komer realized that every facet of pacification was profoundly political. Komer recognized that time was not an ally of the U.S. effort in Vietnam; indeed, he was initially sent to Vietnam with unrealistic orders to turn things around in a matter of weeks. The Johnson administration had to demonstrate that at least a plan was in place that would eventually produce tangible progress towards pacification, and Komer had a keen awareness of this political constraint. More than many of his colleagues in Vietnam, Komer understood that the United States had literally only months, not years, to demonstrate significant progress towards achieving its objectives. Ironically, he understood that the longer he stayed in Saigon as the expeditor of a struggling pacification program, the grimmer the prospects were for U.S. success in Southeast Asia.


In the wake of the Tet offensive, Komer departed his post in Saigon and generally refused to comment publicly about his Vietnam experiences. Thus, the result that most scholars identify Komer’s two brilliant commentaries on organizational behavior, the RAND study titled Bureaucracy Does Its Thing, and the short mono graph Bureaucracy at War, as his greatest post-Vietnam achievements, is ironic.[2] These studies explore the U.S. failure in Vietnam by focusing on the limits of bureaucracy. In these works, Komer explored how bureaucracy acts as an important constraint on strategy—organizational preferences and routines generally trump the demands of the situation, precluding innovative responses to novel circumstances. In other words, just because a strategist identifies appropriate policies does not mean that these orders will be effectively communicated to the bureaucracies in question, or will actually be carried out. Komer, the strategist, highlights the inherent limitations of bureaucracy as an important handicap when it comes to devising ways of using resources to achieve national objectives.

Frank Leith Jones has written a brilliant book that not only documents Komer’s contributions as a strategist, but also explains how he fashioned disjointed bureaucratic routines and preferences into purposive action. Blowtorch details not only how the U.S. defense and intelligence establishments work, but how a determined individual can, and did, actually go about “working” the bureaucracy. Jones illustrates how Komer maintained the political sources of organizational power that allowed him to cajole field commanders, civilian managers, and allied leaders to do his bidding. He always made sure that those around him remembered that he had the support of the White House, while he catered to Lyndon Johnson’s penchant for “eyes-only” cables that provided insights and information about the situation in Saigon.


Today’s intelligence analysts and policymakers would benefit by learning about Komer’s experiences. They would do well to contemplate how bureaucracy, that “flawed instrument of our chosen policy,” to borrow one of Komer’s famous phrases, separates the realm of the possible from the realm of the probable when it comes to world events. Many contemporary problems require a “whole of government” effort, and the United States has made only modes t progress since Komer’s day in developing the institutional capacity and inter-agency coordination needed to undertake this type of activity. From an intelligence perspective, analysts should thus be on the lookout for problems that require responses that are beyond existing organizational preferences and standard operating procedures. In essence, it might be helpful if warning and threat assessments were influenced by an awareness of just how well prepared government agencies are equipped to deal with some novel development. At a minimum, theoretical and conceptual efforts should be undertaken to better understand the role of intelligence organizations in a whole of government approach to contemporary foreign and defense policies.

In this regard, Jones offers a troubling observation: no matter how driven, even the best expediter will have difficulty salvaging programs that are based on faulty intelligence or flawed strategy. Intelligence analysts and strategists face diminishing opportunities to influence outcomes once a battle is joined. Robert W. Komer, whether viewed as a strategist or as “The Blowtorch,” would surely agree.

Compiled and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[3]

Robert Komer grew up in St. Louis and went to Harvard to avoid working for his father. An Army in telligence combat historian during WWII, he received a battlefield commission for his work in Italy. After the war, he completed Harvard Business School, married in St. Louis, and then a “wartime intelligence col-league” (p. 18) told him about the newly-formed Central Intelligence Group. He applied and by the time he was hired, Central Intelligence Group had become the Central Intelligence Agency, and he joined as an analyst. He didn’t have a nickname then, but he was already prickly, irascible, and abrasive-character traits that would further develop throughout his career. But it was the combination of his keen analytic skills and his intense passion for the strategic arts that quickly gained command attention. These qualities, coupled with the ability to articulate concepts clearly, quickly-both verbally and in writing-and his talent for speaking truth to power and surviving, led to rapid promotion. In Blowtorch, Army War College security studies professor Jones adds particulars to a colorful though relatively unknown CIA analyst who became an advisor to four presidents.

While· serving with Sherman Kent in the Office of National Estimates, Komer became an expert in South Asia, attended the National War College, and then headed the Soviet estimates group; a year later, he was made the CIA representative to the NSC. In less than 10 years he became a GS-16. When the Kennedy administration came to power, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy brought in a new staff of Kennedy associates. Jones tells how Komer survived the changes and became one of the Kennedy·in-crowd, working with Walt Rostow on South Asia policy matters and later with Gen. Maxwell Taylor on counterinsurgency issues.

But it was under President Johnson that Komer reached the height of his analytic and bureaucratic powers. In 1966, Johnson sent him to Vietnam to assess the situation there. It was then that the US ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, gave Komer the nickname Blowtorch for his “resolute determination.” (p. 3) Not all descriptions of Komer were even obliquely flattering, however. Journalist David Halberstam later found him “bumptious and audacious,” and something of a presidential sycophant for his persistently positive judgments that the war was at least not getting any worse.[4]

Jones devotes considerable attention to Komer’s development of and bureaucratic maneuvering for Johnson’s Vietnam pacification policies. For Komer, the result was his assignment to Vietnam—with the rank ofambassador—to establish the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) group and to rejuvenate the pacification program under the military. After nearly 20 months, progress was in dispute, the Phoenix Program was drawing criticism, and his relationship with the new US commander in South Vietnam, Gen. Creighton Abrams, was not going well. The president nominated Komer as ambassador to Turkey, and, as he later admitted, he left “with his tail between his legs,” (p. 216) Jones concludes that “Vietnam haunted Robert Komer.” (267)

The Turkey ambassadorship lasted only a few months after President Nixon was elected; Komer left government to work at the RAND Corporation. He returned during the Carter administration, working in the Defense Department, but left for the last time after Reagan was elected.

Jones concludes that Korner’s historical reputation was “linked to the folly of Vietnam,” (p. 283) despite the small portion of his career spent there. His passion for and contribution to strategic issues and national policy have received insufficient attention. Blowtorch adjusts the balance.

[1] James J. Wirtz, “The Bureaucrat as Strategist,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterlntelligence, 27, 3 (Winter 2014), pp. 840-845. Dr. James J. Wirtz is Dean of the School of International Graduate Studies and former Chairman of the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. A former Chairman of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association, he was President of the International Security and Arms Control Section of the American Political Science Association. A graduate of the University of Delaware, with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, New York City, Dr. Wirtz is the author and co-editor of several books on intelligence and arms control.

[2] Robert W. Komer (1972). Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: Institutional Constraints on U.S.­GVN Performance in Vietnam. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1972); and Robert W. Komer (1986). Bureaucracy at War: U.S. Performance in the Vietnam Conflict. Boulder, CO: Westview Press

[3] Hayden Peake, “Intelligence Officer Bookshelf,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Stuidies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 120-121)Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of his reviews cited have appeared in recent unclassified editions of ClA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

[4] Halberstam, David (1972). The Best and the Brightest. New York: Modern Library [LCCN: 2001031261], p. 648


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