Robert William "Blowtorch Bob" Komer was a key figure in the pacification effort to win South Vietnamese "hearts and minds" during the Vietnam War, heading Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support.
He was born in Chicago, but raised in St. Louis. A graduate of Harvard, he served in World War II and joined the CIA in 1947.
Before his service in Vietnam, Komer served on the staff of the National Security Council, which was led by McGeorge Bundy. After Bundy's departure, Komer briefly succeeded Bundy as interim National Security Advisor, before he was assigned to the pacification campaign.
While in Vietnam, Komer was to head up the Phoenix program, a CIA inspired operation which Komer testified resulted in 20,587 deaths. Noam Chomsky argues that the Phoenix program's death toll should be estimated at 60,000 dead during the Komer period. Chomsky also considers Komer a legendary "Cold Warrior," of "a particularly vicious stripe."
Komer also had a hand in South Vietnam's Strategic Hamlet Program, a program of forced resettlement of peasants into what amounted to concentration camps.
As the first civilian head of the "new model" pacification in Vietnam, beginning in 1966, Komer believed that "sustained local security" was the first and primary objective. Though he initially reported directly to President Lyndon B. Johnson, he was happy to fit his program under the structure of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), then headed by Gen. William Westmoreland, because he felt the military was less bureaucratic and more action-oriented than civilian agencies, and also it had most of the resources, whether U.S. or Vietnamese.
In a revealing discussion with military historians, Komer said: "Everybody and nobody" was responsible for counter-insurgency against the Communist Vietcong guerrillas. He said it "fell between stools which accounted for the prolonged failure to push things on a large scale even though many correctly analyzed the need."
Following his Vietnam service, he served as ambassador to Turkey, in the Rand Corporation, and in the Jimmy Carter administration as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
In 1968, when Komer was named ambassador to Turkey, he was succeeded as pacification chief by William E. Colby, who later became head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Ambassador Komer has left a special mark in the Turkish history. In the beginning of his tenure as the US Ambassador to Turkey, his car was set on fire in Middle East Technical University by a group of students who then formed the core of the Marxist-Leninist movement in Turkey under the banner of Dev Genç. Speculation goes that the car was torched by Taylan Ozgur, a close of friend of leftist leader Deniz Gezmiş, who was then killed by the police during a demonstration. It is also speculated that the scarf used to set the car on fire belonged to Sinan Cemgil, another famous leftist student of the time.
The torching, often referred to as the "Komer incident", is an integral part of an era in Turkish social history.