Academic journal article Parameters

Blowtorch: Robert Komer and the Making of Vietnam Pacification Policy

Academic journal article Parameters

Blowtorch: Robert Komer and the Making of Vietnam Pacification Policy

Article excerpt

Lyndon Johnson loved an audience, especially a captive one, which is what he had. The White House press corps waited in an uneven arc before him in the Oval Office. Some reporters sat in the cream-fabric settees. Others stood beneath the fixed gaze of Henry Clay's and Andrew Jackson's dark portraits. No one dared intrude beyond the presidential seal woven into the center of the pale green rug that lay before the President's mahogany desk: the proscenium of the stage.

The fragrance of cut flowers and the tension and a ragged silence hung heavy in the air. The time had not yet come for words, but the President sat behind his desk preparing for that moment, looking up occasionally to scrutinize the spectators. "Reporters are puppets," he once remarked. "They simply respond to the pull of the most powerful strings." (1) Then, at precisely 4:15 p.m., on Tuesday, 22 March 1966, with his aides in their places, the White House stenographers with their pencils and notepads at the ready, and all preparations complete, Lyndon Johnson pulled the strings and began the 60th press conference of his presidency: "I am ready if you have any questions." (2)

Balding and bespectacled with a booming voice, 44-year-old Robert Komer felt the tug of the string as well. Appointed Johnson's interim National Security Adviser when McGeorge Bundy left a few weeks before to head the Ford Foundation, Komer later recalled that period as "the most painful six weeks of my life." (3) Now, after responding to several reporters' questions, Johnson announced that Komer would assume a new position on the White House staff.

Johnson had earlier summoned Komer to the Oval Office to discuss his new role. "Bob," Johnson drawled when they sat together, "I'm going to put you in charge of the other war in Vietnam." Komer was unfamiliar with the term "the other war." "Mr. President, what's the other war in Vietnam? I thought we only had one." "Well," the President replied, "that's part of the problem. I want to have a war to build as well as to destroy. So I want to put you in charge of generating a massive effort to do more for the people of South Vietnam, particularly the farmers in the rural areas, and your mandate will be an extensive one. In fact, I wrote it myself." Komer declared that he was no expert in Southeast Asia. The President parried his feeble protest. "I've got too many people who claim to be long-standing experts. What we need is some fresh blood." (4) Komer knew that there was no argument he could muster to dissuade Johnson. Johnson's leadership style was simple: pick the right man for the job and the rest would take care of itself. Johnson had decided that Bob Komer was the right man; he got things done.

Under this order, Robert Komer set out to implement the President's goals for the "other war" in Vietnam, goals that were staggeringly different and complex from the large-unit war being conducted there. In essence, to fight the other war, he had to redirect and harness the activities of civilian agencies as well as military efforts to provide security and defeat the Viet Cong guerrillas, as part of a better-coordinated US effort to support the government of South Vietnam through a nation-building program known as pacification. This term had become a substitute for "counterinsurgency" in 1964-1965. (5) The story is edifying in terms of such significant contemporary issues as the influence of bureaucratic politics, institutional bargaining, the role of presidential staff, the formulation and conduct of foreign policy, and the use of nonmilitary instruments to wage war, especially counterinsurgency, as is occurring in Iraq today. Moreover, it is instructive as to the sway a single person can have on national security policy by understanding and using the levers of power. This is no small point. Richard Falkenrath, President George W. Bush's Deputy Homeland Security Adviser until May 2004, in speaking about the senior leaders of the Department of Homeland Security, remarked: "Many officials at the department were so inexperienced in grasping the levers of power in Washington, and so bashful about trying, that they failed to make progress on some fronts. …

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