In the wake of the Communist Tet Offensive, LBJ’s point man on pacification policy, Robert Komer, saw the opportunity to rebuild the program…if Washington and Saigon acted quickly.
President Lyndon B. Johnson made Robert Komer his special assistant for Vietnam pacification policy in March 1966. “I’m going to put you in charge of the other war in Vietnam” Johnson told him. “I want to have a war to build as well as to destroy.” Komer, known as “Blowtorch” for his abrasive personality and disdain for bureaucratic foot dragging, made several trips to Vietnam in 1966 and reported his findings to the president. “Pacification,” Komer told Johnson, “would critically depend on whether we can set up an at least marginally effective Government of [South] Vietnam.”
By mid-1966 Komer’s ideas would lead to the establishment of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, or CORDS, a civil-military organization to manage U.S. advice and support to the South Vietnamese government. The following year Komer left for Vietnam to assume his duties as the first deputy for CORDS (with ambassadorial rank) under General William Westmoreland, head of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. MACV oversaw all U.S. combat forces in the country. In this excerpt from Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam, and American Cold War Strategy, author Frank Leith Jones describes Komer’s efforts to realign pacification programs after the Tet Offensive.
As January 1968 neared its end, Robert Komer’s attempts to arouse the government of South Vietnam, or GVN as it was known, could be measured only by the number of meaningless meetings with government officials. The end of the month would bring the Vietnamese holiday known as Tet, the Lunar New Year. MACV announced that U.S. forces would honor a 36-hour cease-fire declared by the Saigon government to begin on Monday, January 29. U.S. forces nonetheless remained on alert not only because previous truces had been violated but because there was sporadic but growing intelligence that a Communist offensive was being planned. Saigon took on a festive air on January 29. Businesses and most offices closed, the midnight curfew was lifted and revelers crowded city streets.
At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, January 31, Komer—asleep in his eight-room house a few blocks from the U.S. embassy—awoke to gunfire but assumed it was the sound of fireworks. His housemates, Maj. Gen. George Forsythe and Colonel Robert Montague, appeared in his room with pistols in hand and informed him that the embassy was under attack. Komer asked about actions he should take, but they answered there was nothing for him to do, so he went back to sleep. The three men had little appreciation for what was actually occurring.
The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regulars had attacked Saigon, 38 of the 44 provincial capitals and the U.S. air base at Da Nang. VC Sappers blew a hole in the concrete wall of the U.S. embassy and briefly occupied the compound before they all were overwhelmed and killed or captured. Other VC guerrillas attacked the buildings of the South Vietnamese Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vietnamese navy headquarters, the Philippine embassy and Ton Son Nhut air base. At Independence Palace, where President Nguyen Van Thieu had his offices, there were shell bursts, and one of the buildings caught fire. The fighting persisted beyond sunrise and into daylight. Reports indicated that several provincial capitals had been successfully invaded by VC units. A U.S. military spokesman stressed that the allies were in control of all the cities attacked except for one.
General William Westmoreland stated that the attacks demonstrated that the truce was a “hoax and fraud.” In a statement broadcast over Hanoi Radio, President Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam declared he was “very happy with the victories” of the Viet Cong. He accused the allied forces of breaking the truce and claimed that Viet Cong forces held Hue, Nha Trang and Quang Tri. He described the Viet Cong attacks as an “answer to a speech by President Johnson two weeks ago saying the Americans were winning the war.” The public relations battle began.
Fighting outside Saigon continued for a fourth day. Westmoreland called it a “go-for-broke proposition,” “a maximum effort.” He believed that the enemy was capable of continuing its campaign for several more days but remained confident that further attacks could be blunted.
Within a few days, the allied forces overcame the enemy attacks. Hue remained the exception; fighting in this provincial capital lasted three weeks and left the city in ruin. The attack there had given way not to an urban uprising but to a massacre of innocents: 2,800 South Vietnamese and foreigners were killed; local authorities found their bodies in mass graves on the periphery of the city after the battle ceased.
The situation in other cities was less horrific but had severe effects. The CORDS staff calculated a week later that there were 13,000 civilians dead, 27,000 wounded and more than 600,000 refugees. Property damage was thought to be approximately $173.5 million.
The attacks had done considerable damage to Komer’s reputation. For the last few months, Komer, the president and his chief advisers had genuinely believed that the United States and the GVN were winning. Komer had claimed major gains in security. Journalist David Halberstam had heard about such predictions upon his arrival in Saigon in November 1967 and asked Barry Zorthian, the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office chief, “What’s all this crap Komer is putting out about the war being over in six months?” As Komer would later remark, “The difference between November —hey, we’re finally winning—and the next thing you know the U.S. embassy in Saigon is under attack—well, that robbed me of all my credibility and that of everybody else, especially the president.”
Komer had little time to sulk. Initial reports indicated that in addition to a severe refugee problem, the South Vietnamese government’s footing in the countryside had been weakened. Nearly one-tenth of the Regional Forces/Popular Forces (RF/ PF) outposts, or about 500 out of 5,000, had been overrun or abandoned as the government moved these local militia units from the rural areas to defend cities and towns.
Don Oberdorfer, reporting for Knight-Ridder newspapers and convinced that Tet had set back pacification, visited several provinces. He saw the large number of local Viet Cong who had been killed. Tet exposed the VC leaders who had discarded their cover in anticipation of a military victory, resulting in heavy losses for their guerrillas, sappers and local force battalions. U.S. figures for casualties during the offensive were estimated at 32,000 killed and 58,000 captured. Oberdorfer calculated that approximately 40 percent of the Viet Cong Infrastructure (the VC “shadow government” that directed the insurgency) were killed or captured by allied counterattacks. It was a striking defeat for Hanoi, which the Central Office of South Vietnam, the Viet Cong headquarters, confirmed on February 1. Its report cited how it failed to seize many of the primary objectives, hold occupied areas and motivate the people to rise up against the GVN.
Komer perceived Tet as a “desperate gamble” by the Viet Cong and a direct result of a growing U.S. military presence as well as a surging pacification program. “[The Viet Cong] had snuffed out the best of the southern cadre by sending them into the cities….After Tet, it really became an NVA war,” said Komer. He was the first in the MACV headquarters to realize that these losses had “changed the whole picture in the countryside.”
Although Komer wanted to take advantage of the Viet Cong losses by reviving the pacification effort immediately, he was forced to wait. On the morning of February 2, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker chaired a Mission Council meeting to examine what urgent actions were needed, especially by the GVN but also by the United States, to surmount the psychological advantage gained by the Viet Cong through their attacks on the urban areas. The council members agreed that the most pressing need was visible and effective GVN leadership to restore confidence and to foster recovery from the attacks. The Americans would have to help, and although Komer thought this was a job for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Bunker and Westmoreland thought otherwise. They told Komer that he was the only person who could “make this thing go, and CORDS the only organization with the drive to boot.”
Komer and his staff now had a new supporting role: Pacification was to turn into a relief effort, with CORDS assisting the GVN with its recovery program. The emphasis would be on security first, so that the roads and airports would be open to commerce and the country’s economic life restored. At a meeting with Bunker and Westmoreland, Thieu agreed to maintain martial law and the curfew until the security threat came under control.
In addition, there would be a vigorous and creative psychological operations campaign to blunt Communist propaganda. Westmoreland added his views about the necessity of restoring health care and sanitation services, refugee care and the rebuilding of schools and houses. He then suggested that South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Van Loc and Komer head a joint task force to plan and execute the measures. They would report to President Thieu but should delegate supervision to Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. The task force would be composed of personnel from the relevant GVN ministries as well as CORDS.
Thieu agreed and at the next meeting, Komer was designated as Ky’s adviser for Project Recovery, the name given to the GVN’s relief efforts. Bunker reported in his weekly cable to Johnson that Komer had established a command post in the presidential palace with a “small group of bottleneck-breakers and problem solvers” who were “working there to pull together civil-military operations on both South Vietnamese and American sides.” Both Bunker and Komer saw the Tet emergency as a means of forcing Thieu to undertake a sweeping overhaul of the GVN bureaucracy and, particularly, its leadership.
Komer looked for expedient measures to quicken the recovery effort, and CORDS devised the ten/ten/five program. Every refugee head of family received 10 bags of cement, 10 sheets of roofing, and 5,000 piasters to build housing. CORDS also pushed the South Vietnamese government to establish a multibillion-piaster special recovery fund administered by the prime minister. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam provided logistical support, primarily transportation, and ferried South Vietnamese officials throughout the country to assess the situation. CORDS took the lead for planning and program development, while the GVN was responsible for execution. Komer attended Thieu’s cabinet meetings, during which he sat at the table with the president. Operation Recovery was having an unanticipated benefit: strengthening relations between CORDS and the South Vietnamese government.
The South Vietnamese believed that the capture of the ancient royal city of Hue and the massacre of its civilians presaged what would occur if the North Vietnamese won the war. Tet made clear the once faint perception that South Vietnam was in a struggle in which everyone was a stakeholder.
Thieu now recognized that Komer’s insistence that the rural population be able to defend itself was sensible and necessary. The GVN was able to overcome its fears that weapons provided to the people would end up in enemy hands. Consequently, Thieu signed the new General Mobilization Law, which made all Vietnamese men, ages 18 to 38, liable for military service. Further, the GVN armed villagers and organized them into the People’s Self-Defense Forces. By arming all the able-bodied villagers, male and female, Saigon sent a message of trust and confidence in the people’s ability to counter the Communists.
The American public had little interest in such events, particularly after the country’s most revered newsman, Walter Cronkite, presented his assessment of the war in Vietnam at the end of a CBS News special on February 27. “It seems now,” he intoned, “more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate….To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in a bloody stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
On February 20, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, while visiting with the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO in Bal Harbour, Florida, conceded to reporters that pacification efforts had stopped. Acknowledging that the Tet Offensive had “wreaked great havoc” in terms of life and property, he quickly reminded the press that the Viet Cong and North Vietnam’s military objectives had been frustrated by an effective response from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He claimed as well that the offensive “may have left the Saigon government stronger than before.” However, Vice President Ky and Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duc Thang undermined Humphrey’s optimistic remarks the next day when they resigned from the Central Recovery Committee. The U.S. press reported this development as a major setback for the Johnson administration, since Ky and Thang had been held up by U.S. officials as examples of Saigon power brokers working together to overcome the devastation of Tet.
Komer traveled to Washington at the end of February. On the evening of March 7, he sat with the presi- dent in the Oval Office and confirmed that Tet had sidetracked the pacification program. Intimates of the president leaked to columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that Johnson’s interest in pacification was now in decline. “In long Johnsonesque monologues,” the two columnists reported, he had taken to “emphasizing the shooting war and de-emphasizing pacification” since the January offensive. The days when the president would discuss the progress of pacification, citing Komer’s statistics, were no more.
On Komer’s return to Saigon, Bunker took him to report privately and candidly to Thieu on his Washington trip. Komer hammered heavily on the deep discouragement of the U.S. press, public and a sizable portion of Congress by the success of the Viet Cong offensive and the GVN’s slow response in ridding itself of corrupt and incompetent leaders, recovering the countryside, attacking the enemy and rebuilding the cities—factors that intensified antiwar sentiment and hardened attitudes against the Johnson administration. Komer emphasized that the president and his top advisers remained resolute and unflustered. Nonetheless, how the GVN acted in the next few months was critical; the South Vietnamese government had to demonstrate that it could conduct a full-scale counteroffensive to eliminate the threat to the cities and reclaim control of the countryside.
In response, Thieu at first offered excuses about how difficult it was to persuade the GVN to act together, but then he asked guilelessly, “Should I have a change of government?” When Bunker asked what he meant, Thieu said he wanted to know whether he should dismiss Loc or any other ministers. Bunker replied that he realized the difficulty of forcing Loc out, but he gave no indication that Thieu should replace the prime minister. Komer was equally noncommittal, suggesting only that Thieu must take charge, as Loc was indecisive. He then added that the president should give Loc a few months to sweep out the corruption; if he could not, then he should be replaced. Thieu smiled but did not respond.
It was clear that a race for the countryside was now in progress. As Komer and Bunker maintained, the essential, immediate tasks were to push supplies to the provinces, settle the internally displaced in camps and push the security forces back into specific local areas to re-establish security. Knowledgeable observers concluded that there was now a “greater feeling of unity and more willingness to contribute to the common cause than has ever been witnessed before in this country.” However, as both men understood, such nationalist fervor was fleeting, and stimulating the GVN to act on it was always problematic given its political fragmentation and bureaucratic battlegrounds.
The shock of Tet, however, could neither be wished away nor compensated for by leadership made more evident or by superb emergency response. The press now considered Komer and the administration delusional about the future of pacification and, because of limited access to the countryside, resorted to conjecture. Walter Cronkite asserted without evidence that pacification had been “set back by years, certainly by months.” Sir Robert Thompson, the famous British counterinsurgency expert, writing in the Washington Post, claimed that nation building and pacification were “now in ruins.”
When William Colby, chief of the CIA’s Far East Division, arrived in Saigon in early March to begin his new role as assistant chief of staff for CORDS, he knew he had better be prepared to offer Komer some ideas about how to quicken the pace of pacification and obtain concrete accomplishments in the field.
After a week at MACV headquarters, Colby paid a visit to John Paul Vann, who ran the CORDS program in the III Corps Tactical Zone—an area that consisted of the 12 provinces north and west of Saigon, considered to be the most important part of South Vietnam. Vann had Colby meet with one of the village chiefs and his men, whom Colby found brandishing crude swords made from automobile springs. The message was not lost on Colby. The village chiefs and their militias needed weapons to fight off the Viet Cong insurgents, who were armed with AK-47s. But that was not the only signal Colby received. He and Vann came to an understanding that it was essential for the war to be fought by building communities and gradually pushing the Communists away from the population.
In March Vann proposed a new approach to pacification to Komer. Vann argued that “the first basic requirement, security,” was still unmet. “You cannot expose the population to the inroads of the enemy every night and expect them to willingly cooperate with the government or overtly reject the Viet Cong.” The focus must be on village security rather than the hamlet, and a Regional Force company needed to be assigned to each village on a continuing basis, with a Popular Forces platoon posted permanently in each hamlet. Colby recognized that Komer had already established the groundwork for this approach when the previous year he had moved responsibility for U.S. support of the RF/PF under CORDS.
Komer directed that the IV Corps Tactical Zone, in the Mekong Delta, be the focus of immediate pacification attention, and Thieu agreed in principle, showing he was committed to moving more quickly and asserting his control of the program. Then Lyndon Johnson made a commitment of his own.
On March 31, during his televised address to the American people, the commander in chief came to the end of his prepared speech and announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” In Saigon, at a meeting of the U.S. Mission Council, Bunker, Westmoreland, Komer, Barry Zorthian and George Jacobson, the mission coordinator, listened to the broadcast on Armed Forces Radio.
When Johnson finished speaking, there was silence in the room. As reporter Don Oberdorfer wrote, “The men just sat there looking at one another, measuring each other’s surprise and wondering about the future of the war the President had led and the future of those whose careers had been tied to his.”
Within a few days, Komer regained his balance. Success in pacification depended solely on Thieu, and now the leader knew that the South Vietnamese had to “shoulder the burdens of the war,” as Bunker phrased it. Komer reminded the ambassador that the United States still had not capitalized on the enemy’s defeat at Tet and the greater determination of the GVN. “Our bargaining position is a lot stronger than Washington seems to think,” he said. He added that this favorable situation would erode if the relationship between Saigon and Washington soured. “If we can’t convince Washington, we’ll be in a descending spiral out here.” A day later Bunker conveyed the message to LBJ and his advisers at a meeting at Camp David, but it had little effect. The discussion drifted to other topics.
Frank L. Jones is professor of security studies at the U.S. Army War College. He held several high-level policy and strategy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.