restricted access Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam, and American Cold War Strategy by Frank Leith Jones (review)
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Reviewed by
Frank Leith Jones, Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam, and American Cold War Strategy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 416pp. $52.95.

A sizable omission in the historical literature has been rectified. In Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam, and American Cold War Strategy, Frank Leith Jones offers a [End Page 188] well-researched, incisive, compelling interpretation of a critical yet often-overlooked Cold War policymaker.

Robert William Komer has a peculiar standing within the historical literature on Washington’s Cold War. He emerges forcefully in histories of U.S. regional policy in the postcolonial world or of Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam as a dynamic, tireless, often abrasive policymaker (he earned the nickname “Blowtorch” from Henry Cabot Lodge). Yet, until now, he has almost always been relegated to the supporting cast. With few exceptions, his peers in government wrote scarcely anything about him in their own memoirs.

Komer, for his part, did little to help would-be biographers. He left behind no major collection of letters, no diaries, and only a “lifeless” unpublished memoir of his time in government service. Secretive and unreflective, he wrote nothing about his early life in Saint Louis, where he grew up (pp. 6, 10). Documentation on Komer’s personal life is minimal, yet the picture Jones compiles in his first chapter is intriguing. Komer’s restlessness and lack of interest in commerce drove him to escape from the Midwest, his ambition and intelligence secured him a place in the Harvard University class of 1942, and his stoicism helped him survive the deadly beaches of Anzio.

What can reasonably be construed about Komer outside his professional life is limited, however. His copious and expressive memoranda and published works, and the oral histories he contributed to the Kennedy and Johnson presidential libraries provide the basis for this biography. Consequently, Blowtorch offers an intellectual and professional biography of Komer, depicting its subject as an underappreciated strategist. Other facets of the man, notably his political and social views and the role (or absence) of religious faith in his life, remain shrouded.

Komer is most often linked to Johnson’s counterinsurgency policies, and yet, as Jones notes, Komer’s career in government spanned most of the Cold War. During the three-and-a-half decades from 1947 to 1981 he spent only eight years (the Nixon-Ford period) out of government. Nearly alone among his peers from the National Security Council (NSC) staff under McGeorge Bundy, Komer returned to the executive branch in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter, serving at the Defense Department. Blowtorch divides roughly into thirds, examining Komer’s early life and years on the NSC staff, his Vietnam years, and finally his work in the Defense Department and subsequent retirement.

Jones chronicles Komer’s maturation as an intelligence analyst in the early Central Intelligence Agency, noting the influence of his Harvard mentor William Langer and the legendary Sherman Kent. Jones situates Komer as a strategist among managers within the NSC staff (although this point is pushed somewhat far). Successive chapters note Komer’s profound impact on two policy issues: managing the Yemeni proxy conflict between Nasserism and its conservative enemies, and arranging aid to India in the wake of the autumn 1962 Chinese invasion. These are important events, ably chronicled, and illustrative of Komer’s emergence as a major actor in the Kennedy White House. Yet still more remains to be written on myriad other policy questions. [End Page 189]

Naturally, the heart of the book examines Komer’s efforts to craft a coherent, effective pacification strategy in Vietnam. First from Washington, then from an office in Saigon, Komer battled recalcitrant bureaucracies, worsening domestic opinion, and a few equally strong personalities in the army and Saigon embassy. Like George Herring, Jones is inclined to credit Komer with improving a bad situation, and he debunks the image of Komer fixating solely on illusory statistical measures. Nevertheless, Blowtorch does not quite enter the realm of Vietnam revisionism. Komer himself perceived a need to show progress before the 1968 election; the Tet Offensive undercut him entirely. His commitment to the war was professional, not theological. Pondering his efforts in 1971, he mused: “Maybe [the policy] couldn...