Document created: 19 September 03
Air University Review, January-February 1974

Vietnam in Retrospect

An Interview with Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting, Jr.

Dr. James C. Hasdorff

The Honorable Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., served as American Ambassador to South Vietnam from May 1961 to August 1963, an extremely crucial period in Southeast Asian history. In an interview with Major Richard B. Clement and Dr. James C. Hasdorff of the USAF Oral History Office at Maxwell AFB, Ambassador Nolting reviewed the Vietnamese political situation and the ramifications of the Diem overthrow in November 1963. That interview was the primary basis for this article.

In the spring of 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., a scholarly man of letters from Richmond, Virginia, to the critical post of Ambassador to South Vietnam. Ambassador Nolting’s diplomatic experience, plus his fluent French and affable manner, soon won him the trust and confidence of the South Vietnamese President, Ngo Dinh Diem. Contrary to what was being published in U.S. newspapers, Ambassador Nolting felt the Diem government was making real progress in winning the allegiance of the South Vietnamese peasants. He cited numerous examples of social and economic progress: new schools, hospitals, roads, sugarcane refineries, textile plants, etc., and consequently an increasing foreign exchange reserve. Moreover, he stressed the fact that the South Vietnamese economy went from a rice deficit to a rice surplus situation within a three-year period, 1960-1963.

But, in looking back from the perspective of 1971-72, the former Ambassador noted that the American press reported little if anything in this regard. He felt that the press was primarily interested in the “bloody side of the war and in the Saigon rumor-factory.”

If an American military adviser was shot, this would be headlines, but if three new schools were opened you didn’t see anything written about it. So the social and economic progress was underplayed very much by the press, in my opinion.

Not only was this played down, he averred, but reporters constantly harped on the notion that the pace of democratization of the Diem government was too slow. They called the regime a “Catholic dictatorship,” and Nolting further noted that the New York Times coined the uncomplimentary phrase “sink or swim with Diem.”

All of these things were highly prejudicial and misleading, in the Ambassador’s view, not because the South Vietnamese government “warranted high marks for either efficiency or democracy” but because they deserved great praise “for trying very hard in a very difficult situation to bring improvements that were really lasting. . . .” Furthermore, the hope of making an ideal democracy in South Vietnam “was completely unrealistic.”

After all, they had only been independent of French rule for six years, and they had never had a democratic system of government, not over the two or three thousand years of their total history. I think the Diem government was doing pretty well in instilling the fundamentals—the infrastructure for responsible self-government. But to expect them to accomplish this overnight was utterly ridiculous. 

The real tragedy of this situation, he felt, was that Washington became “too inspired by ideals put out by the New York Times and others” in regard to what the South Vietnamese should be, and the Kennedy administration became impatient with what they thought was excruciatingly slow progress. It was slow, Ambassador Nolting noted, but it was steady, and the Diem government was “consolidating these gains behind a screen of more effective security.” He emphasized that in 1963 he could travel with his family to provinces such as Kien Hoa with relative safety, and one could not have visited such places without armed escort a few years earlier. There were places such as Ca Mau in the south that remained Viet Cong strongholds, but freedom of movement in most areas had improved greatly between 1960 and 1963.

One of the most exaggerated and hence misunderstood events of his tenure was the so-called “Buddhist uprising.” Nolting emphasized that he always placed these words in quotes because it was not Buddhist in the sense of a religious affair and it was by no means an uprising by all those of the Buddhist faith.

It was a contrived, cold-blooded political move organized under the aegis of a newly organized ‘General Association of Vietnamese Buddhists,’ who sounded as if they represented all the Buddhists in the country but didn’t, not by a long shot. Their political agitation was widely interpreted by Vietnamese and Americans as a revolt against religious persecution, just as they intended. In fact, there was no religious persecution on the part of the government, or even religious discrimination. This political plot to undermine Diem’s government got a false interpretation in the U.S. press where it was sensationalized and badly misread. And so the American public was misled on that crucial issue, I think.

Although Nolting held the press largely responsible for casting the Diem government in a poor light, he did not agree with the overly optimistic statements of certain high-level officials from Washington who would make periodic visits to South Vietnam. They would observe conditions and attend some of the regular intelligence briefings in Saigon and then return to the U.S. and immediately hold press conferences. At these conferences they would frequently overemphasize the progress and political stability in that “volatile country.” This made most of the people in the U.S. Saigon mission “wince,” the Ambassador stated, since they “felt that the progress, while real, was not something that you could go overboard about, and that the situation was not all that stable. . . .” Nolting’s taking exception to these overly roseate statements released by Washington officials “about how we were going to clean this thing up and have our advisers out of there by next Christmas” seemed to reflect a position somewhere between the negativism of most of the press and the euphoria prevailing in official Washington at that time.

Another shortcoming on the part of U.S. policy-makers was their failure to look at Southeast Asia as a whole instead of in a “compartmentalized” manner. It was illogical, he stated, to make a stand in South Vietnam and allow the Communists practical immunity in the neighboring countries. This problem was further compounded when Averell Harriman negotiated the so-called Laotian settlement in 1962 “and in the process traded away all effective safeguards. . . .” When the final agreement was signed, Nolting asserted, there were no safeguards in it, and the U.S. “was compelled to rely on the so-called goodwill of the Communist signatories. . . .” Of course, the Communists completely disregarded the agreements, North Vietnamese forces continued their penetration into Laos, and the Ho Chi Minh trail became a Communist thoroughfare. Naturally, this heightened the problem for the South Vietnamese by making it “much more difficult” for them to defend their own country.

The continuing Viet Cong activity in South Vietnam, the anti-Diem sentiment generated by the press, and the euphoria manifested by some Washington officials culminated in a situation that soon led the Kennedy administration along a dangerous path. A number of those surrounding the President became disillusioned with what they considered to be too slow progress in pacifying South Vietnam. Initially, President Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and his wife, Madame Nhu, became the focal points of blame. Their removal, it was believed, would greatly alleviate the country’s problems, but Nolting thought that it would have been highly unrealistic for the United States to request that President Diem get rid of his brother. He agreed that public relations would have been better had Nhu “gotten out of there”; nevertheless, he thought this was “an impossible request for one government to put to another.”

I can imagine what the result would have been if the situation had been reversed and the Vietnamese government had made a similar request of President Kennedy. And I think you can imagine what the reply would have been, too. Because of the disproportion in size and power, Washington felt, no doubt, that it could make such a request. But from the point of view of the Vietnamese president -the Vietnamese people for that matter-if Diem had yielded to this he would have lost enormous face with his own people. And the Viet Cong would have had a field day saying he was a puppet of the Americans, that they had even made him throw out his own brother.

The situation finally reached the point where Washington considered that perhaps the South Vietnamese generals “should be encouraged to revolt and make a clean sweep of it.” Nolting termed this” a drastic and disastrous thing to even consider,” and he still finds it “incredible” that our government did become involved in this very undertaking. After “severe debate in Washington,” instructions went out to the new Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, “to give encouragement to the military junta to revolt, on the stupid assumption that they could organize a better government and make more progress against the Viet Cong.”

Not only did Ambassador Nolting find this to be preposterous; he also found it to be dishonorable. For in 1961, while he was negotiating with President Diem to increase U.S. aid and support, Diem raised this very point. The South Vietnamese president stated that his country needed American help and that he was grateful for it. However, he wanted it clearly understood that once this relationship was entered into and South Vietnam had become dependent on the U.S. for arms, equipment, technicians, etc., the United States would not utilize this tremendous power “to try and rule this country.” Diem declared that as the elected president he could not surrender this prerogative to anyone, and he wanted some assurances to this effect. Nolting recalled that these assurances came back promptly from President Kennedy, “telling him that we had no idea of interfering in his internal affairs.” Two years later, however, our government “did exactly what I had been instructed to promise him we wouldn’t do.”

The U.S. involvement in the Diem overthrow came as “a total surprise” to Ambassador Nolting when he got back to Washington, after being recalled from Saigon. He emphatically stated that the coup was nothing less than “disastrous,” and it wiped out “the gradual progress that had been made over the past nine years.” During that entire period the U.S. had a total of 98 men killed, by contrast with the skyrocketing casualties after we assumed responsibility for fighting the war.

In answer to a query as to whether his continued support of Diem caused Washington’s attitude toward him to change, the Ambassador remarked that initially all was “favorable and commendatory” from the White House, the State Department, as well as the Department of Defense. Then, toward the end of his tenure in South Vietnam, there was a marked change, and when it came to a choice, he had to stick up for his convictions. He strongly believed that

the continuation of the Diem government was by far the best thing for Vietnam and for the American interest there, and that the temptation to dump him was a temptation that ought to be strongly resisted.

Nonetheless, those who were in favor of dumping Diem gradually gained influence in Washington, and the so-called Buddhist agitation gave their efforts an additional boost.

Contrary to the notion held by many, the Ambassador while in Saigon was far from being in “all-out agreement with Diem” and spent a great deal of time arguing with him, “trying to get him to do things that he didn’t want to do or couldn’t see his way clear to doing.” Nevertheless, the two “always managed to have straight-out relations,” and they “respected each other.” Nolting noted that if Diem promised to do something, he would do it.

A relationship of confidence between us and between our mission and his government had been built up so that we could help him. Then suddenly it was broken, and those of us who had worked very hard, including General [Paul D.] Harkins and John Richardson and others, to build this relationship, found ourselves classified as pro-Diem people, even though we had been using this relationship to try to influence his government in many ways in which they didn’t want to move. But, when once this political crisis developed, you found yourself isolated from the growing influence in Washington who were fed up with the government out there, overinfluenced in my opinion by the American press.

Contrary to the media’s totally unrealistic picture of the South Vietnamese president, Nolting felt that Diem “was a very dedicated, sincere, hardworking man . . . honest as the day is long.” Nolting agreed, however, that he had some individuals in his government who undoubtedly were dishonest but that Diem would replace them whenever they were discovered.

The Ambassador strongly disagreed with a report submitted to President Kennedy by Roger Hilsman and Michael Forrestal in early 1963, in which Diem was described as an individual who “wants only adulation and is completely insensitive to the desires of the foreign press for factual information.” The report also noted that the South Vietnamese president was not only “insensitive to his own image” but was likewise unaffected by “the political consequences of the activities of Madame Nhu and other members of his family and his own tendencies of arbitrariness, failure to delegate and general failure.”

Ambassador Nolting called this report “poisonous” and felt that the American reporters in South Vietnam “were much more to blame for the situation that arose than either President Diem or his government.” He qualified this by pointing out that Diem’s unsophisticated public relations staff were poor “at interpreting themselves to the outside world” and did not realize that “something they might say would bounce all around the world within the next six hours if it were sensational.”

On many occasions, the Ambassador spoke about this problem with members of the American press, who numbered about six resident reporters in the early days of his tour.

I would talk with them about giving the benefit of the doubt to this struggling government which was beset by difficulties on all sides and not criticizing it so brutally for the things it didn’t do right, but to try to help it, to try to give it a break every now and then.

Most American and some foreign press members, particularly the French, were prejudiced against the Diem government, and “they used many opportunities to make the situation worse.” Since Diem was a proud man, he resented this, and “resentment built up on all sides.” Nolting tried to mediate in many instances, but this problem continued to vex him during his entire tenure in South Vietnam.

Contrary to the Forrestal-Hilsman report, Ambassador Nolting took great exception to the notion that Diem was “insensitive” to what he and members of his family did “to attract adverse publicity.” On one occasion the American Embassy procured “through clandestine sources” a copy of a speech Madame Nhu was preparing to give to her “women’s lib” movement. Like other speeches she had made, this one would be “subject to very bad interpretation in the Western press.” Since she was scheduled to give the speech the next day, Nolting got in touch with President Diem via telephone at Hue, where he was visiting with his 83-year-old mother.

After apologizing for disturbing him, the Ambassador informed Diem that his sister-in-law was preparing to make a speech that potentially could worsen relations between South Vietnam and the U.S. Diem, of course, wanted to know how he had found out that she was going to make this particular speech, but Nolting expressed regret that he could not reveal his source of information. Nevertheless, he assured the president that this was the talk she was about to make and read him a few excerpts from it. After hearing them, Diem agreed that the speech was, in effect, “bad” and that he would “have to stop her again.”

Ambassador Nolting soon found out that President Diem had indeed stopped Madame Nhu, for in less than fifteen minutes she called the embassy and wanted to know if Nolting had just spoken with the president. He acknowledged that he had and answered affirmatively her query concerning his involvement in the cancellation of her speech. This caused Madame Nhu to be “furious,” but, as an indication of what a “volatile”person she was, within a few days she called and apologized for her earlier behavior and agreed that “it would have been a bad mistake for me to have said that.”

So I think this evidence points out President Diem’s intentions, at least, and is somewhat contradictory to that sweeping indictment that Hilsman and Forrestal sent. . . .

In answer to a query regarding the gradual U.S. buildup from the unsophisticated FARM GATE operation to general purpose forces, Nolting said he was aware that many felt “this gradual approach was no good” and that “we should have hit harder earlier and so forth.” He saw our fundamental mistake, however, as being political in nature and not military. Although military mistakes may have been made later on, the U.S. government made “an irretrievable political mistake” after the end of his tour by encouraging the coup against the elected constitutional government. He felt that if the Diem government had not been undermined, they “would have made it and would have gradually succeeded in pacifying the country and making a reasonably viable place out of South Vietnam.” With the amount and type of aid that was being given them, without American combat forces, if the U.S. had persisted with the original program and not” gone for what was supposed to be a quicker solution,” Nolting saw an eventual successful conclusion to the problem. Furthermore, the notion that heavier or more sophisticated weapons during the 1961-63 period were the ultimate answer did not at all appeal to him, since he felt “they were doing all right with the weapons they had, and there wasn’t any need to use a sledgehammer when something lighter would do.”

Acknowledging that many would disagree with him, Ambassador Nolting did not see “this picture that is painted quite often now of a continuum of increasing U.S. military involvement over many years. . . .” Rather, he saw our country initially in a role of “You do it, and we’ll help you within certain limits.” Following the coup d’ etat, however, the military junta that came in was unable to govern. Within two years there were nine chiefs of state, and the Viet Cong again made tremendous inroads.

The strategic hamlet program, which was Nhu’s principal thing, and in my opinion a good thing, was wiped out. And all these hospitals and schools and things that I’ve been talking about were virtually wiped out. Finally, the U.S. was faced with the alternatives: either go in to save Saigon or wash our hands of it. President Johnson made the decision to send American combat forces, but I do not think that there was a need up to ‘63, before the coup, of American military power in that situation.

Ambassador Nolting viewed the Vietnamese conflict, prior to the Diem overthrow, as a unique experience for the U.S. Following the East-West standoff in the nuclear field, the Communists resorted to so-called “wars of national liberation,” and the one in South Vietnam was so announced: Hanoi organized the “National Liberation Front of South Vietnam as the spearhead for the national liberation struggle.” As a result, it was the first time the U.S. “really locked horns on this” and took steps to prevent a take-over by subversion. The Ambassador was a hundred percent in favor of helping “the indigenous government preserve itself and its people.” The principle of this “is absolutely right and necessary,” he asserted, but in the case of South Vietnam, a tragic situation arose when the Kennedy administration became impatient with that government and encouraged someone else to take over. A further tragedy may arise after the final outcome of the Vietnam experience, Nolting speculated, in that the American people may misread it, and if there were another similar situation, they could say, “Let’s not touch it with a ten-foot pole.”

I think that if we recoil in horror from helping a friendly country maintain its independence against this kind of subversion, and if the other side judges that we are going to recoil in horror because of the Vietnam experience, undoubtedly there will be other cases in many parts of the world.

The Ambassador summarized his views on the Vietnam conflict by reiterating that “there wasn’t any reason to get involved up to our necks” and that “we should have stayed with the original program.” That meant helping the South Vietnamese in a “Do it yourself’” resistance. He emphasized that what we were originally doing in South Vietnam was not a Kennedy administration “invention” but had been going on since President Eisenhower’s days. During the Kennedy years, however, aid was “increased and accelerated” in response to increased Viet Cong attacks and support that Hanoi was giving them. The principle of our aid was right, but “the tactics went wrong when the Kennedy administration got impatient with the rather slow rate of progress.”

As an added point, the Ambassador expressed the “greatest admiration” for most members of the American mission in South Vietnam, particularly the military. They had an extremely difficult mission to accomplish, with many personal risks involved, and they did “an outstandingly fine job, with a diplomatic touch.”

It’s hard for a well-trained American officer, in most cases older than a less well-trained Vietnamese officer, to advise him in a way which doesn’t assume authority over him, particularly when you come from a big powerful nation, and he’s a little fellow and knows it. But the Vietnamese had to maintain the respect of his own troops, and if the American is not tactful in this role, you can see that it just would not work at all. Well, many Americans worked so well in this role that I must say I thought it was a splendid demonstration of not only character and military training and devotion but also of tact and diplomacy. And I think this was true right on up to the top of the military mission in Saigon.

Ambassador Nolting concluded the interview by noting that the first two years he spent in South Vietnam were the “most gratifying” and the last few months were the “worst experience” he had had in his life. This was especially true after losing the argument back in Washington following his removal from Saigon “and seeing what happened as a result of the coup.” He has had the feeling, despite hopes to the contrary, “that we could not redeem that mistake of 1963.” Despite his misgivings, he sincerely hopes that redemption will be possible, but nonetheless “the cost to our country in men, money and honor has been enormous.”

In reviewing Ambassador Nolting’s appraisal of the Vietnamese situation, one must not assume that failure to conclude the conflict quickly and successfully was due solely to the actions of the Kennedy administration in supporting the Diem overthrow. For in some respects, President Kennedy’s action was prompted by his constituency’s desire to win the war quickly and decisively. Not only has this been true for the Vietnam War but throughout the nation’s history, also. The eminent historian, Thomas A. Bailey, noted this trait in his book, The American Pageant, when discussing the Korean War:

Americans are not a patient people; they have been accustomed to quick and heady successes. Many of our red-blooded citizens could see no point in being in a war without striving for a satisfying triumph, even though such action would be costly in lives and might wrap the world in flames.

Let us earnestly hope that more maturity and steadfastness will be displayed by our people should the United States find itself involved in future “wars of national liberation.” It is an Achilles’ heel that we should no longer allow the Communist world to exploit.

Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center


Dr. James C. Hasdorff (Ph.D., University of New Mexico) is a USAF Oral Historian, Special Acquisitions Branch, Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He served on active duty with the Air Force as an airborne radio repairman 1953-57. He is a member of the Oral History Association and two national honor societies. As technical representative for the Bendix Corporation, Hasdorff worked in Hawaii, England, Spain, and Nigeria.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor