Blowtorch by Frank Leith Jones

Robert Komer earned the colorful nickname “Blowtorch” for his decidedly unwarm personality. Komer was “prickly, irascible, and abrasive, but always in command, always willing to speak without reservation, his thoughts expressed directly, interlaced with curses and profanity,” Frank Leith Jones writes in his admiring biography, Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam and American Cold War Strategy (Naval Institute Press, 416 pp., $52.95).

Although he had a long career as a high-level national security expert under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Reagan, the book includes an in-depth look at Komer’s work in Vietnam, primarily as the head of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program. He arrived in Vietnam in May of 1967 to put the program in motion. As CORDS director, Komer, a CIA man who held ambassadorial rank, was in charge of a diverse counterinsurgency program operated by the military, the State Department, AID, and the CIA.

And then there is the controversial Phoenix Program, which Komer ran. That effort sent thousands of military-civilian pacification teams into every district of South Vietnam with orders to root out the Viet Cong. Phoenix led to the deaths of some 20,000 Viet Cong and suspected Viet Cong after Komer left Vietnam in November of 1968 to become U.S. Ambassador to Turkey.

Robert “Blowtorch” Komer

Jones’s book covers Komer’s early life, goes on to look at his work as a National Security Council staff member during the Kennedy administration, and then bores in on his impact on the Vietnam War, where he was a staunch exponent of “hearts and minds” pacification programs. Komer later worked with Carter administration Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, specializing on re-energizing NATO, as well as with the Reagan administration.

—Marc Leepson