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Interview with Frederick Nolting, 1981

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Summary
Frederick Nolting was Ambassador to South Vietnam from 1961 – 1963. Appointed by President Kennedy, he became closely associated with Ngo Dinh Diem. As the United States sought to distance itself from Diem, Nolting was replaced by Henry Cabot Lodge. Mr. Nolting describes the early days of his assignment, including the visit from Vice-President Johnson and the Taylor-Rostow mission. He defends Diem from some of the criticisms that were made of him, and offers opinions of Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife, Madame Nhu. Mr. Nolting then recalls the debates in the United States regarding Diem, and his own view that the support for Diem should continue.
Topics
Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’etat, 1963, Diplomats--United States, Military assistance, American, United States--Foreign relations--1961-1963, Presidents--Family, United States--Military relations, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, United States--History--1945-, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Ambassadors, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, War and mass media, United States. Embassy (Vietnam), United States--Politics and government, Vietnam--Politics and government, Ngo, Dinh Diem, 1901-1963
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Transcript

The Kennedy Administration's conflicted position on Vietnam

VIETNAM
F. Nolting
SND 2404
Tape 1, Side 1
This is a head of sound roll #2404 for the head of camera roll #408, WGBH, Vietnam, T883, BacDiem. At the end of this roll there are several seconds of reference tone recorded ab minus 8DB, a thousand herz on an Ivor three, and we're using an internal crystal operating at sixty herz. Again this is a head of sound roll #2404 to go with the head of camera roll #408. Coming up is an interview with Fritz Nolting.
Marker.
Five twenty nine.
Clapstick.
Nolting:
Okay.
Interviewer:
Mr. Nolting, what were President Kennedy's instructions to you when you left for Saigon. Did he give you an optimistic picture or pessimistic picture and did he give you an idea of what your attitude was supposed to be?
Nolting:
Oh yes. Uh, he gave me... uh... an atti—the, the picture of a situation which was very tricky, delicate and... uh, uncertain. Uh, he also gave me the picture of a, of wanting very much to use this Vietnam... uh... situation as a means to show that wars of national liberation as Khrushchev called them were not going to succeed. That we could help a country that was determined to help itself turn back this kind of aggression. Uh, he also was very, very much concerned to know whether President Diem, the head of the government then, was the kind of person in whom, on whom we could rely.
And, uh, asked me particularly, um, to try to make an assessment on that particular point. Uh... as, as you know there'd been a task force, uh... in Washington... uh, right after the Kennedy inaug—inauguration to look into the situation in Vietnam and try to determine whether or not to respond to President Diem's appeal for more aid. And, uh, that task force had come up with a recommendation which, which President Kennedy had endorsed... uh... that yes, we could do this, we could help them diplomatically, morally, and with material aid but that... uh... military force was not required and it had to be a do it yourself operation on the part of the Vietnamese people if it was going to be successful.
So President Kennedy was... uh... optimistic, much more so I thought than Dean Rusk. Uh... the Secretary of State, I remember asking him about how long our tour was going to be because of family considerations such as the children's schooling and going to college and so forth and... uh... he said in effect, look Fritz, you needn't worry about that. Uh, we'll be lucky if we have a mission out there for another six months. So he had the feeling, I think, uh... at least this gave me the impression that Dean Rusk felt that it was a very touchy situation. Of course President Kennedy was determined on this one because of a number of early setbacks, the Bay of Pigs to begin the dressing down, in effect, that he got from Khrushchev in the Vienna conference when he first, when they first met each other.
Uh, and finally the Berlin Wall which was a slap in the face to tripartite government of... uh, or quadripartite government of Berlin. So this one was a real test. Uh... he started out drawing the line, you may recall, in Laos, and, and the Joint Chiefs said in effect... uh... if my understanding is correct, um, Mr. President, eh, in no way can you do it in Laos because it's... uh, you can't... there's no way to get in there and, and to... uh... do the kind of work necessary to preserve its independence. Uh... so Vietnam was the, the point.
Interviewer:
Um, stop please.
Marker.
Five thirty.
Interviewer:
Why did Dean Rusk have this, this feeling that Vietnam was failing fast?
Nolting:
Uh, I may have overstated that. I did get the impression that he felt that it was a very touchy situation. I think that he was loathe to take a leadership part, uh, so, that it is to have the State Department take one, uh... so that the task force really that considered this was chaired by a Defense Department person, Roz Gilpatric, who was the Deputy Secretary of Defense you remember at the time. Uh, with some State Department participation. I think, possibly that uh... that... um, Dean Rusk at that time was not as close to the President as he would become later on and I also think that the, he felt the situation was, uh, a very difficult one.
Interviewer:
Generally, do you think that the Kennedy Administration in those early years paid enough attention to Vietnam? Was it high enough on their priorities?
Nolting:
I think it was high on the President's priorities, yes. Uh, I think it, and this is partly uh... in retrospect, I think it should have been clearly stated at the beginning that it was a political problem more than a military one. A political, social, economic problem, more than a military one, and I think it was a mistake that the State Department deferred... uh... to the Defense Department in the initial briefings and almost throughout my stay there.
Interviewer:
So you're saying that in, in most of the time that you were at, in Vietnam, you were, really it was the military that was paying more attention rather than the...
Nolting:
Well, in personalities the, excuse me... Um, by McNamara, the Secretary of Defense was out there, or we met in Honolulu, almost every month. McNamara was there very frequently. Uh, nobody of his rank from the State Department, for example, the Secretary of State was never there... uh... during my, my stay... for two and a half years.

L.B.J.'s visit to South Vietnam

Interviewer:
That's a very good point. Shortly after you arrived, Lyndon Johnson came. Um, it was the first high level visit from the government in a long time. Did you feel that this was some sort of signal to you about your attitude towards Diem and did Diem interpret it as a, a signal?
Nolting:
Well, um... Vice President Johnson 'n his wife 'n a large contingent of people from Washington came. Uh, arrived about twenty four, forty eight hours after we did. And... uh, this was laid on suddenly, I believe, uh by President Kennedy to show that this, that he really meant business. Uh, uh... the Vice President as usual was uh extremely vigorous and uh... had a whirlwind visit. Um.
Four days uh... shook hands with many people, made many toasts to President Diem and the government, uh... was uh... very bullish in his attitude. And uh, as you may, as I'm sure you know, ca—came out, the two governments came out with a joint communiqué at the end of that visit uh... which was a very strong uh... uh communiqué and it, it put the moral support of the, of the United States squarely behind the effort of the South Vietnamese uh... to put down uh... this aggression.
Interviewer:
Well, I guess, I guess the question is, Kennedy had said to you go out and make your assessment yourself, be open minded. But then he sends Lyndon Johnson out so quickly. Did it really tie your hands in making your mind?
Nolting:
No. I don't think so.
Interviewer:
Could you, “No I don't think Johnson's visit...”
Nolting:
No, I don't think Johnson's visit was uh, uh, I think it was a good, good send-off for our mission. Uh, it, it didn't um... uh tie my hands 'n, in any way that I then knew. Um... it was a fact, however, that the Kennedy Administration did send a lot of people all the time and not only to Vietnam. Uh, they were people closer to uh... President Kennedy than, than some of us were. Uh, uh he had that method of operation. He liked to send people close to him to look at what was going on in other parts of the world. Now, sometimes that got a little irksome because you had conflicting signals but for the most part I don't remember any uh, instances in which there was disagreement.
Interviewer:
Stop. We have to change. We have...
Turning. Marker.
Five thirty one.
Nolting:
The Vice President's visit, Pres—Vice President Johnson and his group, came suddenly. It was a surprise to to us, we knew about it just before leaving and had to leave in a hurry to get there uh... in time. Uh... I don't think it was prejudicial. I don't think Diem misread it. I think he needed uh... this kind of, of reaction from the United States because things were, the Viet Cong had really turned on the heat. Uh, I don't think it gave him a sen—a sense of of uh... over-commitment, or false commitment.
Um... my impression was that the visit was a success in boosting the morale of the South Vietnamese people to take on this greatly increased uh... violence uh... from the Viet Cong which had begun about six months before and the begin, they were beginning to really hurt in terms of the county, the government in the districts and provinces and in terms of the South Vietnamese government's ability to, to handle it.

Ngo Dinh Diem's reaction to increased American involvement in Vietnam

Interviewer:
Let's talk about this, this pacification effort, that, that um... I'd like it if you would express to me, as you did that it wasn't in your opinion a war, but a pacification effort, Um, at the end of '61, the President sends uh... the Taylor-Rostow mission and they recommend sending in military force, ground troops. Could you talk about that recommendation.
Nolting:
The uh... Taylor-Rostow mission came about six months later, after the Johnson visit. It was... intended to come up with uh... recommendations together our own mission's recommendations, on a program to support the South Vietnamese effort. Uh, again not by force of arms or mil—or American combat troops, but by helping 'em in intelligence gathering about infiltrations and Viet Cong activities, generally. In terms of economic planning and aid. In terms of technical assistance and in every respect in which they were operating to try to pacify the country.
Uh, our instructions were to get as close to this, to all of their operations as possible, to give them advice, to get their confidence in our advice so they would carry it out. Uh... this, I think, was uh... pretty well packaged, spelled out by the Taylor-Rostow mission and I agreed with all of their recommendations with the exception of the one that they added on their way back in Honolulu and that was this force of five thousand uh... men, American engineering corps unit which was to be self contained and ready to, to fight if necessary. I think the recommendation, I remember the recommendation was to bring them in under cover of uh of the flood conditions in the Mekong which at that time were, were quite bad. Uh... I did not approve of, approve of that because I thought it was the opening wedge for American combat forces.
Interviewer:
What did Diem think of those recommendations?
Nolting:
I, as I recall...
Interviewer:
Excuse me, could you begin again [inaudible]?
Nolting:
Begin?...
Interviewer:
Yes.
Nolting:
Yes. Diem felt that those recommendations were not necessary. That is, the recommendations about the five thousand man American military force. Uh, he did not want American combat forces. In general he said that if they couldn't win it with their own manpower uh... that it wouldn't be a viable solution. Of course, he wanted material help and all the support he could get short of uh... military force.
Interviewer:
Okay. Stop. Stop please.
Marker.
Five thirty two.
Nolting:
President Diem ha... excuse me. President Diem had, in my opinion, uh ve...Start again?
Interviewer:
Yes.
Nolting:
Uh, President Diem had, in my opinion, a very deep insight into the character and psychology of his own people. And I think one of the things that governed many of his judgments was his sense that nationalism on the part of the South Vietnamese was going to be the major strength of their resistance to what he characterized, strangely enough, as another foreign, Chinese-type invasion. This dates way back... hundred, a thousand... thousands of years. He would make speeches to the, to groups of peasants talking about this new invasion under a garb of a new ideology, communism.
Uh, it wasn't against the North Vietnamese people, it was against what eh... Ho Chi Minh was trying to impose on South Vietnam. His insight carried so far, I think, that uh... he did not want to have an overwhelming American influence and uh, he feared an overwhelming American influence, that was one of the reasons he didn't want American combat force. Uh... he was... to my mind prescient in, in, in this un, uh... Some people blamed him for being too nationalistic, particularly some of our press. Uh, I think he was right. I think that his uh... understanding of his own people was much greater than ours.
Interviewer:
Let's do it once again and bring in the Taylor-Rostow report. If you just mention that in connection.
Nolting:
Um hm. In connection with the Taylor-Rostow report, I think most parts of that report concerning as I said, economic aid and, as well as a military shield of Vietnamese forces to protect gains in economic field and the social, educational, and the rest... uh... he was entirely, eh, President Diem was entirely agreeable and enthusiastic. I think the reason he was unenthusiastic about the five thousand man American force was for the reasons I've just said, namely that uh, uh, he did not think that uh American influence ought to be exerted in the military sense. And one good reason for that was because uh... it exposed him to Communist propaganda.
The Viet Cong would immediately have said, look, you're just going back to the, to the French occupation again. And this they couldn't, he didn't want. I remember his getting advice from a number of people in his own cabinet and, and his brothers. I remember Archbishop Thuc, for one, saying he thought the President was exactly right on this point. He read the people's psychology the same way. Said, in effect, he thought it would be a bonanza for the Viet Cong.
Interviewer:
Um...
Nolting:
Does that uh...
Interviewer:
Yes, that does. Stop. I don't think we have enough to go...
Marker.
Five thirty three.
Interviewer:
Tell me about Diem's reaction to the Laos agreement.
Nolting:
Well the agreement on Laos, as you know, was supposed to seal that area off from the, from the... um... um... area of conflict in Southeast Asia. This was the concept and this was what the uh, the conference in Geneva in 1962 was supposed to do. Uh... the government of South Vietnam was represented, so was the Thai government as well as the US and others on, French 'n on, British on our side. The Russians 'n others, North Vietnam on the other side. Uh, they worked out various proposals, starting with the a position, I think, that was uh, was uh... fairly sound because it had some sanctions in it.
Uh, as time went on the sanctions began to be traded away. Uh, and... by the time the agreement was near completion the South Vietnamese government as well as the Thai government became very uneasy that this was just gonna expose their flank to further infiltration from, from North Vietnam and from the thirty or forty thousand troops who were, North Vietnamese troops who were in Laos in the, on the eastern borders along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. So that the... both the Thai and the South Vietnamese government began to get very uneasy about this. We communicated they uh, they uh...
Interviewer:
Sorry.
Nolting:
...their uneasiness to Washington...
Interviewer:
Have to do a change of film.

Growing opposition to Diem

VIETNAM
T 883
SR #2405
This is a head of SR #2405 to go with the head of Camera Roll #410 for WGBH, Vietnam, Diem. T 883. Again this is a head of SR #2405 to go with the head of Camera Roll 410. 534. Clapsticks.
Interviewer:
Tell us about this meeting.
Nolting:
Well as the opposition of the South Vietnamese government ah to the agreements as finally modified in Geneva, the agreements on Laos, increased ah Averell Harriman as the principal negotiator for the United States at the Geneva Conference ah flew out to Saigon and ah had a very ah ah...a very tough talk with President Diem. I was present. Ah. The re... in a nut shell what he said was that ah ah it's necessary for the South Vietnamese government to sign this agreement, if they want American aid to be continued.
And, ah, President Diem didn't like this being dictated to. Ah. Neither did ah Secretary Harriman like Diem's... ah ah... temerity in voicing his ah objections, which he did at great length. Ah. It was left that ah when Harriman left ah that I was to do everything possible to persuade Diem to sign the agreement, which I did. Somewhat against my better judgment, and he did sign it very much against his better judgment. The Thai government in a similar position was also convinced to sign it. I think that left some feelings of ah, if not antagonism, certainly ah some feelings of lack of mutual trust between those two people.
Interviewer:
Do you think that that lack of mutual trust, that that feeling came into play later when Harriman became the Assistant Secretary of State for Far East Affairs?
Nolting:
It seemed to me to have some effect upon the judgment ah of ah Mr. Harriman with respect to the Diem government and to Diem personally.
Interviewer:
In 1962, there were a lot of people who were criticizing Diem, who were persuaded that he really had to go or he had to reform in some way. Um. Did you agree with those criticisms?
Nolting:
Oh, the New York Times, Washington Post, ah certain elements in the State Department and the White House were constantly saying that there had to be political reform in the direction of more democracy in South Vietnam and it had to come very rapidly. Otherwise, they didn't think that we ought to be supporting them and they didn't think the South Vietnamese would win their struggle to pacify n... their country. In principle, everybody agreed with that. In practice, anybody that knew anything about it, would realize that you had to build the infrastructure of democracy before you could build a superstructure. Ah. Before the superstructure would mean anything. As it...
Interviewer:
The criticisms were quite directed towards Diem. They were saying it was his fault. How did you feel about that?
Nolting:
I think Diem was dedicated to running a government that was effective at the same time, that he was dedicated to the long range aim of a self representative ah ah democratic system. I never felt that he wanted to maintain an an... autocracy. I felt that he, himself, would like to have a democratic system but knew that it was not possible in our sense of the term for a long time until you had education. Until you had ah a feeling of responsibility for one's own affairs. Um. He was doing his utmost, in my opinion, to develop education. For example, three shifts in most of the schools. Ah. He was doing his utmost to introduce in the villages and districts ah elections. Ah. There was, of course, an elected assembly, but none of these measures really meant anything, unless the people had the feeling of self-responsibility and self-government, and for thousands of years, they hadn't had it.
Under the French they were a colony and before that they were under a mandarin-type society. And, so, the introduction to that feeling of self-responsibility and self-government was a very slow process. I do not feel, however, as aaas was often suggested that Diem was dragging his feet on this, and strangely enough, I think his Brother Nhu ah was even more ah anxious to introduce self-government measures, although he had the reputation of being just the reverse.

Diem's family

Interviewer:
Well, I, I'm interested in the question of his family because one of the criticisms was that, that Diem had become a prisoner of his family. That all, the only people he trusted were his brothers and his family, by '62, '63.
Nolting:
Well, I got by that time, by '62 to '63 to know him pretty well. I had many long talks with him, many long arguments. Ah. I never felt that President Diem was a prisoner of his own family or of any particular group; Roman Catholic or any other. I felt that he had a very difficult job to govern the country in a way which would not redu... permit the Viet Cong to take over.
Ah. I never fel... I never felt that he was a dictator at heart. Ah. He was anything but. He had to manage, however, and ah it was very difficult for him to delegate. Ah. In the first place, there were not many people to whom he could delegate. And, secondly, he wasn't a delegator by nature. So, he tried to do too much himself. But, he didn't do it in the spirit of, of a dictator in, in the Hitlerian sense.
Interviewer:
Okay. Um. Stop for a moment here to give you a break.
Mark it. 535. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Could you talk a bit about Madame Nhu and the kind of bad publicity she had?
Nolting:
Madame Nhu was ah, an enigmatic character for me. Ah, to me. She ah had some virtues and some ah weak spots as, as a political person, she, she was very difficult. Ah. Her main motivation, her main feeling, in my opinion, was to preserve what she considered to be the ancient heritage of the Vietnamese people and not have it corrupted by any foreign influence including American. Ah, so that she, by her speeches occasionally, by other actions, antagonized a number of Americans and in particular, the American press.
Ah. I don't think that was intentional but it was very difficult to control, and on several occasions, I had to speak with President Diem about it. He generally agreed, although she was his official hostess, ah, he being a bachelor, and he was very close to his brother, her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu and ah it was difficult for him also.
Interviewer:
I want to ask you one question about Nhu, which is a specific one. Um. Roger Hilsman tells a story about a dinner in 1963 that he attended with Nhu, in which he claims Nhu was like a madman, raving. Were you there? Did, did you see any of their interaction during that visit?
Nolting:
I don't recall any such dinner with Hilsman and Nhu.
Interviewer:
Uh. Huh.
Nolting:
Ah, no. I don't think I ever saw Nhu raving like a madman. It may have been a different occasion.
Interviewer:
Did you, what about these rumors that Nhu had become power-mad and so forth ?
Nolting:
I have said before and I repeat again that I saw no evidence to that. I think that he was loyal to his brother. Ah. I think he was more of an intriguer in, mostly in connection with trying to get defections from the Viet Cong by units to the government's side. And, on one occasion, I was in his office and he said ah a leader of the Viet Cong had just been here and was sitting right where you're sitting. And I said, "What was that all about," and he said, "I was trying to get him to come over to the government with his unit and I think we're going to succeed." Well, President Diem knew about this...
Interviewer:
Okay. I've got to do a film change here. We'll go...

Bombing of the Saigon palace

Nolting:
You're going to start me out on this.
Interviewer:
Uh huh. Uh huh.
Mark it. 536. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Could you tell me this personal story again about ah the '62 bombing and getting there?
Nolting:
Well, the '62 bombing, as you recall, were, was done by three Vietnamese pilots. Vietnamese Air Force. And, it occurred early in the morning. And, ah, (sighs) it sounded like a great deal of damage had been done. It was not too far from where we lived and ah ah I went immediately, almost immediately down there to the palace and I remember getting ah into some trouble with the security guards who didn't recognize me. Ah. But, I finally, walked in. The gate was unlocked and I found President Diem and his Brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu in the garden walking around sort of surveying the damage to one wing of the palace.
And, ah, they seemed pretty collected. Cool. I think Ngo Dinh Nhu, was very much worried about his wife, Madame Nhu, who had been carted off to the hospital. She had slid down a part of the collapsed building. The, oh, another thing that they were very much worried about their, the smallest child, a babe in arms, ah, had just been located and the amah who was carrying her had been killed. She was protecting the child and a beam had fell, fallen on her, but the child was all right. They were very distressed about this. Ah. About the amah's death.
Ah. Ngo Dinh Nhu had on the gardener's pants because he said he, he was still in his pajamas when this thing happened. He had borrowed a pair of pants from the gardener since he could not get back into his quarters to get any. He was, wa... walking around. President Diem had just made a talk to the nation saying that this was not a serious matter in terms of any uprising and to remain calm and cool, which it turned out to be. Unlike, I might add, the previous revolt in 1960, in which there were units of the Vietnamese forces involved. This was not.

American press in Vietnam

Interviewer:
I want to come back to the question about the resident press in Vietnam. Your relations with them were somewhat cool, and, could you ex, explain why and perhaps talk about some incident where you disagreed with them?
Nolting:
Well, ah, my, I, I didn't think my relations were cool. We saw each other very frequently. Ahm. I suppose ah what you're inquiring about is why we didn't agree. I didn't agree with the majority of the reports that came from the New York Times ah correspondent who was David Halberstam ah and his predecessor, Homer Bigart... Ah. I didn't agree with some of the reports that came from the two other resident reporters who were Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press and Neil Sheehan of the UPI. I think Browne was a better interpreter than either of the other two, ah, because he could see the nuances of the situation so much better.
Ah. I think the New York Times was ah generally against US support of the Diem government and later against the, the government itself for reasons which I never quite understood, but which may have been mentioned earlier and that is that they weren't getting on with what they termed democracy fast enough, and I've already said why I thought why that was an unreasonable ah position. I do know that some of the New York Times editorials, critical of the Diem government, were broadcast ah from Hanoi in its propaganda efforts to undermine the Diem government. The editorials themselves written in New York. A...
Interviewer:
What about, for example, the battle about Ap Bac a famous example of reporting? Did you agree with the reports on Ap Bac or did you agree with the military's assessment?
Nolting:
I think the Battle of Ap Bac was a very poor show on the part of the South Vietnamese units that were involved. I don't think they acquitted themselves well. I think it was an exception, however. Generally, they acquitted themselves much better, and sometimes brilliantly, and they were courageous. Ah. In this case, they weren't. And, whether it was a failure of local leadership or what, I have never been sure of. I do think the Battle of Ap Bac was blown out of all proportion by the American press and should have been treated as a setback, a very unfortunate setback, at an unfortunate time, but not as a symbol of Vietnamese cowardice.
Interviewer:
And...stop please, yes.

American antagonism and Diem's fate

Interviewer:
And, just two more questions I think.
Turning. Mark. 537. Clap sticks.
Nolting:
Can you describe Mansfield's visit to Saigon and report on Diem's reaction?
Nolting:
Ah. Yes. Senator Mansfield and two other senators came. They were on tour of the Far East and they came ah came to Saigon. Ah the visit was very unfortunate in my view because of the report that Senator Mansfield ah made and made the covering letter of that report public. And, it was severely critical of his old friend, President Diem. Ah. In fact I regard ah the Mansfield report as the first nail in Diem's coffin. Ah. Why did Senator Mansfield do it, why did he assess the situation that way, I'm not sure.
I know that he had very little to do with the Embassy and would not, didn't want many briefings. I know that he had a lot to do and spent a lot of time with the American press representatives. And, I think he was over influenced by them, in my opinion. Ah. His assistant Frank Valeo was certainly not either cordial or helpful to the members of our mission. And, I think Frank Valeo was prejudiced and I think Senator Mansfield came up with the wrong conclusion.
Interviewer:
And, you told me a story about Diem’s reaction to... that he wouldn't let... he was disappointed, but he wouldn't let it... ?
Nolting:
Yes. I talked to President Diem the next day or right after this release, and he said, my o... I, I, I'm terribly disappointed in what my old friend had to say about my government and myself, such as, being divorced from the people. But, he said, I am not going to let it stand in the way of a friendship that has existed ever since I was in the United States.
Interviewer:
Okay, stop please.
Turning. Mark. 538. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Can you describe the change in policy that came in with Harriman and Hilsman?
Nolting:
Well, when Mr. Harriman took over as as ah Secretary for the Far East, ahm, I did begin to perceive a change in the American attitude um and the State Department’s attitude towards the Diem government. My instructions were never basically changed. They were, as I have said, to create confidence and try to use that confidence to get them to do the things that would improve their situation. Um. We’ve spoken of a certain possible lack of confidence between Harriman and Diem arising earlier. Um. My job was made more difficult.
Um. This change was gradual and there were factions in the State Department. Some thought we ought to stick to the old line. But I have the feeling that Harriman became very impatient with the old line and uh impatient with those of us who were trying to carry it out. I remember asking him on one occasion whether he had read the instructions under which I was sent out there by President Kennedy. And he said, Well I know what it’s all about, I don’t have to read uh instructions of that kind.
And I said, Well, if we’re going to have a change, let’s have it openly so we can debate it and talk about whether it’s wise to do so. No, this was more feeling of, than, the telegrams took on a different tone, they took on a peremptory tone. And uh why don’t you go tell him to do this, that or the other. Well uh we were not in a position nor was our assignment to tell him. It was to try to convince him. Um I think Harriman was discoura, was um was not discouraged but was determined to get on with this thing at a faster rate, and I think a part of that was his political instinct to get uh to get Kennedy re-elected.
Interviewer:
Okay, stop.
VIETNAM
T 883
SR #2406
FRITZ NOLTING
This is the head of Sound Roll #2406 to go with the head of Camera Roll #412 for WGBH, Vietnam, Diem, T 883. Again, this is the head of Sound Roll #2406 to go with the head of Camera Roll 412. 539. Clap sticks. Standby/Cut
Turning. Mark it. 540. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Stand by just a moment.
Nolting:
I had the feeling, very definite feeling that ah, that ah, Secretary Harriman ah was, became more and more impatient with the slow process the slow progress that ah we thought Washington felt was ah occurring in Vietnam. I think he wanted to get it o... get on with it in much more of a hurry than most of us thought was possible. Ah. I think that a part of this was his ah natural impatience and a part of it was to get a, a resounding success, if you will, for political reasons in the re-election of President Kennedy. I think that was an unrealistic attempt, and for my part, I was ah ah disappointed to see this faction opening up in the State Department. It became very confused, confusing to the people in the field to know really who was calling the signals. Ah.
Interviewer:
Stop.
Turning. Marker. 541. Clap sticks.
Nolting:
Well, speaking of the...speaking of the crucial arguments, as I considered them, crucial debates ah in the NSC in late August and early September, which were the only ones I attended, I should say a couple of things. Number one, I was no longer ambassador and had no official position with respect to Vietnam. I was, however, invited to those meetings by President Kennedy or Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General. Ah, or through one of their people, because I had a point of view quite different from what was being argued by the State Department.
Ah. And, what had, in fact, already been signaled to Senator Lodge. To... ahm... Ambassador Lodge, excuse me. And, they wanted to hear this other side. Ah. At times the argument, well, the discussion became hot and heavy. At times ah some words were said ah by Mr. Harriman ah who on previous occasions I had found, and over the years, a delightful friend, but he was very impatient with ah what I had to say, and ah I think it has been reported and so there's no reason not to, not to say that he would shout across the table and say shut up when I was speaking. So much so that ah on one occasion I recall that the president had to say Averell I want to hear what ah Nolting has to say.
Ah. These were meetings at which the majority of the State Department were for a change. Ah. The reading of the CIA was against a change, although they were not in a policy position. The reading of the military was against a change. Ah. The reading of certain members of the White House staff were for a change. That is, for a coup or change in American policy, which would likely bring about a coup. I do not think the thing was well-coordinated. Ah. Certainly, it was a, a series of meetings after which nobody quite knew what the president wanted to do. Then, he made a talk, do you remember, before ah Walter Cronkite in which he said we might be ch, cha, calling for a change in, in policy, and perhaps in personnel. Or, tha... not we would be calling but they perhaps should make a change in policy and perhaps in personnel.
These were indications ah of ah decided change and they were taken very hard in Saigon by the Diem government. Another symbol, of course, was the asylum that was given Thich Tri Quang in the US Embassy, and tha—that symbol ah was very ah very strong. Ah. My own view was that even at that point, ah, we would have done much better to stick with the constitutional government or at the very least, to have let them know ah that our policy was changing. I don't think it was fair, just, or honorable to an ally of nine years ah to do this behind his back, and ah, for myself, I am convinced that that change in policy at the end of the Kennedy administration was the thing that got us locked into this unnecessary and disastrous war.

The August 24 cable to Ambassador Lodge

Enter. Mark. 542. Clapsticks.
Interviewer:
Just a moment.
Nolting:
My feelings about the August 24 telegram sent to Ambassador Lodge were number one, that it was an uncoordinated, badly drafted and badly conceived paper. I think also it was put through by those who ah were ah determined to have a change of government in Saigon and they were, by no means...
phone rings in background
Nolting:
...the...
Interviewer:
Cut.
Turning. Mark it. 543. Clapsticks.
Nolting:
The telegram was uncoordinated, as I've said. It forced the hands of the American government because the signal was almost immediately ah delivered by Lodge to the generals. Ah. It became the major focus of debate in the National Security Council meetings that I attended. Ah. It represented, at the time, nnnn, nobody's considered opinion with the exception, perhaps, of the drafters, and those that approved it in, ah, who were quite few. To turn back the clock, however, was very difficult and President Kennedy realized that.
Ah. Those of us who argued that this would lead us to further involvement and would lead us into, to having the responsibility for the major military effort ah were unable, unfortunately, to, to, convince President Kennedy then I think, principally, because nobody could see a way of turning, turning the clock back. Ah. To my mind that telegram plus the arguments in the NSC and their outcome, which, again, was a rather uncoordinated thing, ah led to the overthrow of the only government that had a chance of pulling this thing out and ah was the crucial turning point ah in our involvement in the military field, in the major military responsibility ah in this unnecessary war.
I might say one other thing which is, has been on my mind for a long time, and that is, that it was, this action was, not only ah very ill considered as a political move, but it was dishonorable. At the very least, we should have let our ally of nine years know that we were pulling the rug from under him, and we didn't. And, this is something that I found very difficult to swallow.
Interviewer:
Cut. That's very good.
End of SR #2406.
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