Making CORDS Work

Carrying out President Johnson's decision to reorganize the American pacification support program involved much more than issuing directives and setting up a viable organization. If CORDS were to survive, it had to demonstrate its ability to get results from the South Vietnamese whom the organization advised and supported, for getting results from the South Vietnamese was the fundamental factor behind the president's decision. Although the president imposed no time limit on CORDS, the new organization was functioning in far less than the ninety days allotted to the Office of Civil Operations. Yet influencing the South Vietnamese people and government and making progress in the war were long-range matters in which tangible results could be expected only slowly over the next several years.

Despite lessening of pressure from Washington, Ambassador Komer was sensitive to any interference by Washington officials. Having changed from the pacification man in Washington to the pacification man in the field, he quickly adopted what he would later call the "Westmoreland view": "We are the field commanders; give us the resources; we'll do the job."1 He was soon showing some of the same resentment toward Washington agencies and officials that Taylor, Lodge, and Westmoreland had shown before him.

Yet Komer still took pains to maintain his old contacts in Washington in order to make sure that those with power in the executive branch understood what he was doing. Not only did he personally brief Secretary McNamara during a July visit to Saigon on the new CORDS organization and plans for it, he also flew back to Washington with the secretary to make sure his viewpoint was understood. He also made sure when he reached Washington to see the president.

An important source of Komer's strength was an implicit recognition that he was the president's man. That he was close to the president was hardly to be lost on his associates in Saigon. This was a mixed blessing, for the permanent power of CORDS depended less on faraway presiden­


tial ties than on its relationships in the field. Unless it was a matter of survival of the new organization or the policies it was designed to implement, too much presidential involvement on Komer's behalf would have been a hindrance, giving the impression that Komer was not part of the "team" on the ground in Vietnam. Although having no wish to dispense completely with the aura of the White House, Komer tried from the first to become an integral part of the U.S. mission and of Westmoreland's headquarters. Not only did that attitude help his working relationships with Bunker and Westmoreland, but it would help CORDS survive later changes in leadership, particularly a new president.

One of the early major problems that Komer faced was the relationship of CORDS with the Agency for International Development. Hardly was the new organization established before AID attempted to lessen CORDS' authority and retrieve some of its own programs. Much of the financing for the Office of Civil Operations had come from the Agency for International Development, but the agency's contributions to the new organization were dwarfed by the contributions of the Department of Defense. Yet the civilian agency was unhappy about contributing any funds to programs not under its control. Citing a confusion in the agency's role in South Vietnam, Administrator William Gaud proposed to Under Secretary of State Katzenbach that the CORDS program be more narrowly defined and AID removed from congressional accountability for activities that had been transferred to MACV. This proposal encouraged the return to his jurisdiction of some of the programs under CORDS, most notably that dealing with the South Vietnamese police.2

Seeing the proposal as a clear attempt to subvert the president's decision to centralize the pacification effort, Komer dispatched a sharp letter to Gaud.3

Pacification, he wrote, could not be sliced to fit jurisdictional and budgetary alignments of Washington agencies:, that had been a plague to past efforts in pacification. CORDS, he noted, had merely taken over AID programs that had earlier been taken over by the Office of Civil Operations and no more, so why the objection at this stage? To Komer removal of any programs would be the start of a return to the old separation of civil and military programs. With support from
McNamara and Bunker, he successfully resisted Administrator Gaud's proposal.

That did not mean that AID officials considered their relations with


CORDS settled. From time to time they continued to raise questions on funding and accountability,4 and Komer experienced difficulty in persuading officials of the agency in Washington to correspond directly with CORDS on pacification business rather than to go through the agency's office in Saigon. As time passed, relationships nevertheless improved.

Although always wanting it understood who was in command, General Westmoreland was soon allowing his deputy for pacification remarkable freedom of action. A combination of Westmoreland's flexibility and Komer's ability to capitalize on it through the absence of an intervening layer of command permitted Komer to run an unusual, innovative program within what otherwise might have been the overly strict confines of a military staff. "The way [Westmoreland] handled the thing," Komer remarked later, "was one of the basic reasons why CORDS worked. I think Westmoreland deserves a great deal of credit for the decentralization [and] delegation of pacification management." Westmoreland supported him, Komer recalled, "on every issue that did not involve taking something away in the way of [military] forces."5

In regard to reporting channels, the new job meant a readjustment for Komer from the heady days of full access to a president. On the day of Komer's arrival in South Vietnam, General Westmoreland told him firmly that he would not compromise on his reporting to anyone else. To which Komer responded that he had no intention of trying to serve two masters. In his opening press conference, Ambassador Bunker stressed a single reporting channel on pacification as one of the benefits of the new organization, yet he had gone on to say that he intended frequent meetings not only with Westmoreland but with his deputy for pacification.6
Free access to Bunker had been one of the requirements of the job that Komer had early stressed to President Johnson, and despite the caveats from both Bunker and Westmoreland, that was what he got. Placing Komer on the Mission Council, and even more importantly on its Executive Committee, meant that the man operationally responsible for pacification would be able to present his views directly to the rest of the mission and in particular to the chief of mission, not filtered through a third person. As working relationships matured, Komer's personal access to Bunker became a commonplace. Aside from casing the


transaction of daily business, it gave Komer and the pacification program two channels, Westmoreland and Bunker, through which to apply pressure on other American agencies in Saigon or Washington.

Communication arrangements with Washington were settled less quickly. Secretary McNamara made it clear from the first that Komer was to work through normal channels, and Komer himself knew that he would soon incur the wrath of both Ambassador Bunker and General Westmoreland if he went over their heads; but the old Washington ties were hard to sever. President Johnson apparently wanted him to communicate directly with the White House, for the president and his Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, Walt W. Rostow, often cabled Komer directly, to which he felt obligated to reply. General Westmoreland would later note that he "had to clamp down" on the practice of direct communication. In any event, communications from the White House had dropped off by the fall of 1967 and ceased entirely by early 1968.7 Westmoreland and Bunker were far less sensitive about direct communications on strictly pacification matters to Ambassador Leonhart's White House pacification office and with civilian agencies in Washington associated with pacification.

Nor was there objection to direct communications with subordinate echelons in the field, even if intervening echelons were by-passed. Indeed, close contact between CORDS and district advisers through formal and informal communications and reporting was one of the strengths of the CORDS organization. It was a two-way flow; Komer and members of his staff often visited lower echelons, and on visits to Saigon key field officials dropped in on Komer or his assistants.
CORDS also established teams of Americans and South Vietnamese who made lengthy field trips to evaluate programs arid developments. The teams were encouraged to look for problems and to report frankly on success or failure. That process annoyed some subordinate officials, but Komer defended the practice and as time passed increased the number of evaluators.

Komer and the CORDS staff also communicated directly on pacification matters with all levels of the South Vietnamese government, including the president, vice-president, and prime minister. That practice developed from the first but increased dramatically following the Tet offensive when CORDS played a major role in a nationwide recovery comfort, to include setting up a special US office in the president's palace to help coordinate this effort.


The leaders of CORDS also acted aggressively to bring under their purview programs important to pacification that had been languishing under other agencies. One of the first to be transferred to CORDS was advice and support to the South Vietnamese militia, the Regional and Popular Forces. Although that responsibility had been transferred in the early 1960s from the Agency for International Development to MACV, those forces had always been neglected in favor of support for the regular army. Since South Vietnamese generals were unable to pull their troops from the big-unit war to support pacification, pacification clearly needed its own security forces. Rather than attempt a long, slow build-up of police and Revolutionary Development cadre to fill that role, Komer saw the territorial units as a ready, large, ,and under-utilized force for securing the rural regions.

By doubling the number of advisers responsible to CORDS, by making CORDS responsible for assisting and advising sizable military resources, and by providing the organization leverage with the South Vietnamese government, the transfer strengthened CORDS considerably. It also enabled CORDS to press for a corresponding reemphasis and reorganization by the South Vietnamese, who in late 1967 appointed a vice chief of staff in the joint General Staff to be responsible for the military side of pacification and for the Regional and Popular Forces. That was a first step toward unifying the South Vietnamese pacification effort and afforded Komer a readily identifiable opposite in the South Vietnamese military chain of command.

A second program taken over by CORDS was the war against the enemy's clandestine politico-military command and administrative cadre or infrastructure. To deal with that new responsibility, CORDS created the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation Program, later known as the Phung Hoang, or PHOENIX, program. The transfer focused attention on a hitherto neglected element of the insurgency. Although officials had long recognized that the infrastructure had to Ale excised if the Viet Cong were to be defeated, the attempts to do it had long been diffuse, uncoordinated, and unequal to the task.

In Komer's opinion, the CIA knew more about the problem than did MACV, whose basic intelligence interest was in enemy order of battle. He wanted the new advisory program against the infrastructure to be under CIA leadership yet, as an integral part of CORDS, subject to his close personal supervision. To do that meant creating a new organization

within MACV with a CIA man its its head that would be in competition with MACV's own intelligence staff section (J-2). It would also be an


organization composed of advisers who were almost all military men. Not unexpectedly, the MACV J-2 wanted to head the new program.

The matter reached the point of decision in a conference in General Westmoreland's office. Speaking for the military staff, the MACV chief of staff insisted that the advisory program on rooting out the infrastructure should be run as a military operation by the military. After hearing him out, Westmoreland asked for and received Komer's rebuttal. Then, as Komer later recalled it, Westmoreland "turned to the chief of staff, in the presence of all the generals, and said: `The Ambassador is right ... I think we ought to do it his way.' And that was it. They all filed out, and from that time on my power position was solid . . . And I remember psychologically marking that as the time when West), made it clear that when I had a good case, he was on my side." That decision, clearly in Komer's favor, was, he felt, what put CORDS "in business" with the rest of MACV.8

It was another example of General Westmoreland's flexibility. As it turned out, the anti-infrastructure advisory program became a, microcosm of the larger CORDS organization with an intermingling of military and civilian advisers, the military more numerous but the civilians holding important directorial positions. A program previously marked by disunity had been welded together through close civil-military cooperation and, as with the militia advisory program, served eventually to promote a similar amalgamation on the part of the South Vietnamese.

At key points in the war CORDS also created and managed programs that increased its responsibilities. Following the 1968 Tet offensive, Bunker and Westmoreland called on CORDS to take the lead in a nationwide recovery effort. In the process CORDS developed an even closer working rapport with the South Vietnamese government. In late 1968, CORDS conceived, planned, and supported a major South Vietnamese pacification drive to take advantage of enemy weakness stemming from losses in the Tet offensive and two follow-up attacks.

As it took time for the CORDS experiment to achieve its full impact, so it took time for the example of the improvements achieved through centralization to convince the South Vietnamese to emulate the practice. When CORDS was created in 1967, the South Vietnamese military, the Ministry of Revolutionary Development, and numerous civilian agencies such as those dealing with health, education, and police, were all involved in pacification but with little unity or focus to their programs. That lack of unity was complicated by institutional heritages and


political problems that made the disharmony on the American side seem simple by comparison. Except in 1965 with creation of the Ministry of Rural Construction (later Revolutionary Development), which pulled together diverse pacification cadre programs but not the programs of all the ministries, American officials had been able to do little about it.

Since one explicit rationale behind the decision to create CORDS was to encourage the South Vietnamese government to unify its own pacification programs, Komer from the outset tried to foster it. The appointment of a vice chief of staff in the joint General Staff to be responsible for the military side of pacification was one step; unifying the efforts against the enemy's infrastructure was another. Yet the real key to unity as Komer saw it was to engage the South Vietnamese government at its highest levels directly, to lift pacification from the purview of diverse ministries by creating a national pacification council run by the prime minister but headed by the president. During Komer's tenure, he pressed strongly for that kind of council, but only under his successor, Ambassador William Colby, did the South Vietnamese in 1969 adopt the idea.

Known as the Central Pacification and Development Council, the new organization had a full-time staff directed by a general officer. No figurehead organization, the council through its staff actually ran the South Vietnamese pacification program in all its aspects with an authority-as American officials had long hoped--that in time served to diminish the American role.

In addition to the unity that CORDS brought to the American pacification advisory effort and, eventually, to the South Vietnamese effort, CORDS also greatly improved cooperation between military and civilians. After CORDS was created, such terms as "non-military actions" and "the other war" fell out of the official vocabulary. Although the military contributed a preponderance of people, money, and resources, civilians held most of the key policy making and directorial positions in pacification advisory support. That and Komer's aggressiveness went a long way toward allaying the fears the civilians may have entertained that they would be swallowed by a large and powerful military organization. After several months of civilians and military working together, the distinctions between the two began to break down. For the civilians CORDS was an invaluable managerial and operational experience of the type few of them had been exposed to before.
Rather than civilians being captured by the military, just as strong a case could he made that the reverse actually happened. After the crea-


Photo: Ambassor Colby

(Photograph taken while lie was director of the Central Inttelligence Agency. )

Lion of CORDS, pacification had direct access to such resources as military transport and military engineers for construction and road building and to the funds available through the Department of Defense. Although much of the Defense monetary contribution to CORDS went for support of the Regional and Popular forces, other portions of the military share of the CORDS budget also increased.

From a contribution for fiscal year 1967 amounting to 81 percent of the CORDS budget, the Defense contribution had increased by fiscal year 1970 to 94 percent; while that of the Agency for International Development, previously the largest contributor to funding the Office of Civil Operations, declined from 19 percent in 1967 to 5 percent in 1970. In terms of dollars, the Agency for International Developments contribution declined from $70 million in fiscal year 1968 to $41 million in fiscal year 1970; the share contributed by the Department of Defense increased over the same period from $485 million to $729 million.9

Just how much CORDS affected military operations and policies is difficult to measure. Having within the MACV staff as the largest single


element of that staff a powerful, institutionalized advocate of pacification blessed with outside ties clearly influenced military operations and policy in a way that pacification had never been able to do when it was the province of separate and often competing agencies and when the military had no direct overall responsibility.

That is not to say that pacification became the main criterion of military operations. There continued to be any number of operations that did not take pacification adequately into account, but as was apparent from planning guidance issued by MACV to senior commanders, emphasis on operations related to pacification markedly increased following the creation of CORDS. For example, in a directive issued in May 1967, just before its creation, MACV stressed offensive operations against large enemy units. In discussion of various aspects of the current situation, that directive treated pacification last, and of seven military objectives noted, pacification was listed last. Yet in a new directive in October 1967, MACV declared that the key to the overall concept of the war was "sustained territorial security for pacification." Under the current situation, pacification was treated second and became both the second and third military objectives, even ahead of "invade enemy base areas," which had long drawn the military's primary attention. Joint American-South Vietnamese annual combined campaign plans reflected the same change.10

All these achievements of CORDS were unquestionably far greater than any official in Washington, including President Johnson, could have expected when the new organization came into being in May 1967. That the president no longer had to concern himself with pacification was one indicator that CORDS worked organizationally; and it worked well enough and built up enough momentum to last until American withdrawal in early 1973 despite attempts to reduce its role, despite increasing lack of support for it from civilian agencies, and despite a complete change in the top officials.

The first change occurred in mid-1968 when General Westmoreland left South Vietnam to become the US Army's chief of staff. General Abrams replaced him. The change in command had a particular effect on the freewheeling operational style of Komer and his organization, although not on pacification itself, for Abrams supported pacification


as fully as had his predecessor. Komer also sensed that that was no longer the same interest from Washington. When a new secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, visited Saigon in July 1968, Komer later recalled that he felt that Clifford had little interest in pacification.11 Two months later Komer was ready to accept an offer from President Johnson to become US ambassador to Turkey and left South Vietnam in October.

With President Johnson's departure from office soon thereafter, CORDS was truly on its own and had to live by its own devices, but it had-been helped by a smooth transition from Komer to William Colby, whom Komer had personally picked to succeed him and had brought to CORDS six months earlier to replace Lathram as assistant chief of staff for CORD'S.

By nature a different personality from Komer, Colby stuck more closely within the boundaries of programs directly related to pacification; and if General Abrams reduced the independence of CORDS, he made no effort to stifle it. In a sense, each man was right for his period: Komer for establishing the system and Colby for keeping it running effectively in a changed situation. As American military forces withdrew, pacification actually became a larger component of the total American effort. Along with turning the war over to the South Vietnamese in a program known as "Vietnarnization," pacification provided an alternative to the presence of large numbers of American troops.

Although CORDS was a large organization, it was in tune with what the war and the American response had become by 1967. Rather than plead for tidbits of manpower, resources, and attention, it drew resources and emphasis from the US military by aggressive innovation, force of personalities, and working from within as part of the military structure. Although not revolutionary, CORDS was flexible and innovative, as new organizations often are, and was less bound by the constraints of long established agencies. Most important, it had but one purpose: pacification. Yet without Komer and some of his key assistants CORDS still might have failed. Ambassador Bunker's influence was also important; he supported and backed CORDS strongly and never interfered in the conduct of pacification operations or CORDS' contact with even the highest levels of the South Vietnamese government. General Westmoreland, for his part, was vital to the successful establishment of CORDS. He accepted, at times tolerated and almost always supported what was by any definition an unusual, quasi-independent organization and gave it the necessary freedom to operate.


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