The American Betrayal of President Diem

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Dr. Geoffrey D. T. Shaw

This is an excerpt of an upcoming book (which you can pre-order) The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam by Geoffrey D. T. Shaw by permission of the author, who is a member of VVFH.

“The fall of the dictator, greeted at the beginning with joy by the Vietnamese as the grounds for a quick peace and a better government, is regretted by many today as an unpardonable mistake which has deprived the country of its most prestigious non-communist nationalist leader.” 1

Rufus Phillips, a CIA operative who had just met with Diem but a few days before the coup, was deeply saddened and distraught when he entered Gia Long Place on the day after the overthrow as it brought to his mind the immediate sense of waste and stupidity in the acts of those who were responsible for Diem’s murder: “I wanted to sit down and cry. And I was so upset when I heard that he’d been killed…That was a stupid decision and,God, we paid, they paid, everybody paid.” 2 At the time, Vice President Johnson had supported Nolting and other officials who had attempted to stop the coup plotting as, by all accounts, he genuinely liked Diem and thought him a superior leader. He was livid over the murder of Diem and did little to hide his contempt for those who had a hand in it and later, in 1966, when he was President, he confided to Senator Eugene McCarthy the horrible reality of what happened back in 1963, in Saigon: “We killed him [Diem]. We got together and got a goddamn bunch of thugs and we went in and assassinated him. Now, we’ve really had no political stability since then.” 3 William Colby had stated nearly the same thing to this writer back in 1996 when he confided that after Diem, things never really got back on track. On November 5th, Madame Nhu stated: “Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need any enemies…I can predict to you all that the story in Vietnam is only at its beginning.” 4 Her words were to be proved prescient and true.

Of course, one of the great paradoxes of the coup and murders of Diem and his brother Nhu was that it also destroyed any harmony there had been amongst the Vietnamese generals who had launched the whole process in the first place: i.e., in killing Diem they had also killed their own chances at governing as any sort of cohesive body. General Tran Van Don took an almost immediate loathing to General ‘Big’ Minh for having ordered the killings and this meant, in all practical estimations, the coup leadership was now at daggers drawn as General Don’s following was just as considerable as Minh’s. 5 This rancor spilled over into all of the ruling junta’s appointments and dealings thus leaving it weak and vulnerable, in turn, inviting overthrow which, inevitably, occurred in 1964. But even in this, General Don should not be given too light a pass as he knew, full well, the petty and vicious motivations of his coconspirators such as Generals ‘Big’ Minh, Kim and Xuan; moreover, he later admitted that he knew ‘Big’ Minh would most likely feel compelled to murder Diem and Nhu as, indeed, the military junta would prove itself incompetent. Thus, General Don told historian, George Mct.Kahin, if Diem and Nhu had been left alive, in about three months’ time the Americans would have ‘fired’ him (Tran Van Don) and the other generals and then they would have returned Diem and Nhu to power; probably with a sigh of relief. 6; page: 418.]

One of the last public comments that Ambassador Nolting made about Kennedy’s decision illustrates the longterm strategic costs of the President’s short-term tactical gains:

Now the young president was caught in a dilemma; there was no question about it. There were several things he could have done, but the worst alternative was what he opted to do. Even worse than the practical consequences of the coup were the moral effects. I will not go into the sequence of events here because I believe it is now clear that after the revolution things went from bad to worse, regardless of the number of troops that we put in and regardless of the fact that the cost went up dramatically: 57,000 American lives, eight years of dissension in our country, huge increases in public debt, and the inflation that afflicted us throughout the 1970s. The actions of the Kennedy administration set the stage for all this 7

In correspondence between themselves written after the coup and murder of Diem and Nhu, General Harkins and Ambassador Nolting tended to be harder on Hilsman, Harriman, and the American press than on the President vis-à-vis responsibility for what went wrong in South Vietnam. For example, on March 27, 1964, Harkins wrote a letter to Nolting expressing his sorrow that the latter had resigned from the State Department. Harkins claimed that the removal of Diem had set the whole counter-insurgency program back about ten months, and he apportioned a good deal of blame to the press: “As you know, the press took the sails out of Diem starting last June and July to make him practically ineffective.” 8 Nolting replied to Harkins on April 7, 1964 and informed him that he and his wife, Lindsay, had gone over the tragedy of what had happened to Diem and Nhu so many times that it was driving them crazy. He told Harkins that he wished that he had been allowed to stay on in Saigon; but, in the final analysis, he had come to believe that the destruction of Diem’s GVN was inevitable. Nolting also reiterated that his reasons for resigning from the State Department in protest over the Government’s poor behaviour, which resulted in Diem and Nhu’s murders, were well-founded.

I too wish we could have stayed on there, but I doubt that would have done any good in the light of what I now know. The deliberate undercutting last summer of our Government’s and our Country Team’s position by certain elements of the State Department is now crystal clear to me. Among other things, these people were feeding to the press the very line that you and I were instructed to counteract — i.e., the ‘can’t win with Diem’ line. As a result, our efforts have been set back by many months, as you say…This is a most unsavory story, but some day the facts will be publicly known. They already are known around Washington, but not admitted, and the press doesn’t like to eat crow…Under these circumstances, it has restored my feeling of integrity to have resigned from the Department of State. 9

In another letter, hand-written to Nolting in 1971, Harkins enumerated the people and actions that alienated President Diem and resulted in his murder, as well as the destruction of an effective U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Harkins placed Harriman, Hilsman, Senator Mansfield, and the American press corps in this descending order of those he believed were most responsible for this destruction. 10 In 1981, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, in “The First Lesson of Vietnam,” summed up what had happened during the Kennedy years. He singled out the coup and murder of Diem as the central pivot upon which massive U.S. involvement had hinged. Quite accurately, the editor placed the responsibility for what had occurred upon the same individuals Nolting and Harkins had identified back in 1964:

There was no slippery slope; we drove over a cliff. Once we had implicated ourselves in overthrowing the head of an allied government in the name of winning the war, no American president could turn and walk away…As Vice President, Mr. Johnson had strenuously opposed American involvement in any attempt to unseat Diem…That the coup followed a massive struggle within the U.S. government is the first of a number of things to understand about the events of 20 years ago. Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman at the State Department and incoming Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge led the Diem-must-go faction, arguing that Diem was losing the war by not pressing internal reforms to win the hearts and minds of the people. Gen. Paul Harkins, the American commander in Saigon, outgoing Ambassador Frederick Nolting and Gen. Victor Krulak, the Pentagon’s counter-insurgency expert, warned that toppling an ally was no way to help the war effort. Mr. Hilsman pushed through the decisive cable over a weekend with most officials out of town…. The anti-Diem faction dominated the press through the efforts of three young men in Saigon – David Halberstam of the New York Times, Neil Sheehan of UPI and Malcolm Browne of APP. The pro-Diem faction was represented by Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune, who had already covered two other wars. The significance of this is that those who championed the coup have written the popular histories of its aftermath…What is the lesson of Vietnam? No doubt there are many, but somehow the clearest also seems the hardest for the U.S. to digest. We can always see the imperfections of our friends…And of course it is easier and in the short run a good deal safer to put pressure on friends than on adversaries. We will have learned very little from the pain of Vietnam if we do not learn to beware of that temptation. Too often American policy remains, as Miss Higgins described it, ‘friendly to the neutrals, neutral to its enemies, and hostile to its friends.” 11

In March 1967, The Wheeling Register published an article entitled: “Ex-Ambassador Nolting Speaks: Refusal to Admit Blunder Trapped LBJ in Vietnam.” Therein, Nolting identified the destruction of Ngo Dinh Diem as having been the number one tactical objective of the Viet Cong. The State Department unwittingly collaborated with dissenting generals and radical Buddhist bonzes to hand this objective over to the communists. 12 Nolting warned that, while he was not defeatist, it would take a very long time to build back what had been thrown away in the 1963 coup. He gave another very clear warning about those who had directed the coup: “The facts speak for themselves, I think concerning the judgement of those who encouraged the revolution in Vietnam in the fall of 1963 — some of whom are still in key positions in our government.”13

When Nolting started to go public with his views on what had happened in Vietnam, he maintained that the ultimate responsibility for America’s blundering policy lay with Kennedy and Rusk. During a public address in Lynchburg (Va.), Nolting stated that the “fatal error” which had led America into so much trouble in Vietnam was the consequence of the decision to undermine Ngo Dinh Diem, and this decision had been taken by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and President Kennedy. 14 Nolting recalled how Rusk had remonstrated with him over the Buddhist burnings — “We can’t stand any more burnings” – and wryly observed, “Behind this laconic statement there lay an abysmal lack of understanding and judgement.” 15

Even Nolting’s departure from Vietnam became a point of acrimony and controversy in the aftermath of Diem’s murder. Dean Rusk would later try to absolve himself from any connection to the coup and murder of Diem by claiming that he had asked Nolting to stay on in Saigon and that Nolting was the one who insisted on going home. Rusk’s implications were clear, and Nolting discerned them immediately upon hearing rumor of them: that Nolting had deserted his post during a crucial and tough period. Rusk’s position, however, cannot be sustained by the facts, and the weight of evidence is certainly on Nolting’s side on this issue. First of all, as the cable traffic and memoranda from the State Department’s files show, Harriman and Hilsman wanted Nolting out of Saigon as rapidly as possible and, as previously noted, even if this meant there was no Ambassador at the post. Hilsman had been given the authority by President Kennedy to determine the departure date of Nolting. Accordingly, he acted upon this authority in short order. The weight of documents supporting this is substantial and lends support to Nolting in manifest manner. Secondly, and relatedly, at the time Nolting had placed a request to stay on as Ambassador and for the obvious reasons just mentioned, his request was denied. (16)

On March 18, 1964, Nolting wrote to Rusk about the controversy surrounding his leaving Saigon and his subsequent resignation from the State Department. The key issues which had found their way into the public forum and which the Ambassador was concerned about and required explanation for, were as follows:

  1. That he had been unwilling to go along with the State Department’s policy while serving as US Ambassador in Viet Nam.
  2. That he had refused Rusk’s personal request to extend his tour of duty in Saigon beyond two years.
  3. That he had been over-zealous after his return from Saigon in urging in U.S. government councils that they should continue to support South Viet Nam through the Diem government, and in opposing actions which would weaken that government. 16

Rusk wrote a very terse letter back to Nolting on April 9, 1964. He admitted that there was “not an iota of truth in the first” rumour that the Ambassador had brought to his attention and then stated, “And you and I know to what extent there is anything in the other two.” 17 Nolting responded immediately to Rusk’s brief note and spelled-out the specific details of how he was treated with regard to being informed about Henry Cabot Lodge replacing him and the timing of his being sent home and there was no covering up the fact that the State Department had wanted him out of the way. 18

Nolting heard no more from Rusk on this issue, at least directly, until late summer of 1964, when more than just rumors began to reach the Ambassador’s ears. A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Nolting does not give his name) told him that testimony given by Rusk to his committee indicated that Nolting had refused to stay on as Ambassador in Viet Nam in 1963. Even this committee member noted that Rusk’s implication was clear: that Nolting had quit when the going got rough and was therefore to blame for the deterioration of the situation in Viet Nam during that year. 19 The committee member told Nolting that he believed Rusk had made an unfair charge. Nolting concurred and promptly took Rusk to task in a five page letter which concerned itself with all the pertinent issues related to his departure from South Vietnam. Accordingly, Nolting told Rusk, straight out, that he was disappointed that he had chosen not to talk to him in a direct manner about these issues — something that the Ambassador had requested. 20

Nolting then proceeded to lay out an accurate chronology of events and correspondence related to his permanent return to the United States. The Ambassador also pointed out that regardless of the serious problems that erupted with the Buddhists when he was on leave in Europe, no one informed him. None of this was reported to Nolting, even though his deputy, Trueheart, and the State Department in Washington had been instructed to let him know immediately if a real problem came up, as he would have cut his vacation short and returned to Saigon had he known. 21 Further implicating the Department’s attempts to keep him uninformed, Nolting was not even told about Henry Cabot Lodge’s appointment as new United States Ambassador to South Vietnam. Instead, he first heard about it over the ship’s radio on his way back from Europe at the end of his vacation. Once in Washington, both the State Department and Diem requested his further presence in Vietnam. He promptly returned there, only to find relations between the U.S. government and the GVN all but destroyed and in serious jeopardy. As such, he set to work with Diem, as opposed to the Harriman/Hilsman instructions of table pounding which Trueheart had carried out in his absence. Thus Nolting was able to stabilise the situation so that by the date that he was actually recalled and went home to the United States, affairs were much calmer.

Nolting pointed out that the renewed agitation of the Buddhists and the subsequent crack-down of the GVN occurred when he had already left Vietnam and Henry Cabot Lodge had not yet arrived. The facts, as Nolting stated, cleared his name and placed the onus on the State Department. He went further than this by clearly implicating Harriman as the leading force in ensuring a revolt broke-out in South Viet Nam. He noted that when arrived back in Washington for consultations, in early July of 1963, he had to report first to Harriman who immediately back-handed him with the blunt statement that if it had been up to him, Nolting would have been relieved of his post after a two year term in Saigon and that, regardless of Nolting’s wonderment at not being informed of the troubles that erupted while he was on leave, he would not have been able to help the situation anyway. Thus, in Nolting’s mind, Harriman was making it crystal clear that he wanted to see Diem’s government overthrown and there was nothing that he, the ambassador, could do to stop it. Naturally enough, this admission of Harriman’s caused Nolting to suspect that it had been Harriman who arranged for him to go on his home leave when it occurred and that he had overseen the decision not to inform him when matters were getting out-of-hand in Saigon. In short, Harriman wanted things out-of-hand and Diem gone as a result. 22

Nolting went on to tell Rusk what he believed and thought to be the major defects which had led up to the debacle in Saigon; and he had apportioned a fair amount of blame to State Department misjudgements and actions. 23 But, not all of Ambassador Nolting’s experiences leaving Vietnam were as sordid as his treatment at the hands of the State Department. Ironically, the Vietnamese seemed to have sincerely appreciated his mission to Saigon. A very moving and relatively accurate article appeared in The Times of Viet-Nam on August 12, 1963, just a couple of days before Nolting left, and it was concerned with the ambassador’s tenure in Saigon. Maybe the saddest and most profound indictment ever made of the out-of-control American press was alluded to in this article, which noted that the American newsmen had accomplished what the Viet Cong had been unable to do, and that was get rid of Nolting. 24

Later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson revealed that he thought Nolting’s recall was a serious mistake. Johnson noted that Nolting had the courage of his convictions and could not be cajoled into a contrary position by influential reporters like David Halberstam. More importantly, Johnson believed that Nolting’s judgement was sound. 25

David Halberstam and his editors at The New York Times, recognized, astutely enough, that Nolting’s removal, more than Lodge’s appointment, represented the undoing of the official policy toward Diem. This was because, in their relatively accurate estimation, Frederick Nolting had become “the symbol for all-out American support for the anti-Communist cause and for Mr Ngo Dinh Diem personally.” 26

What makes the Nolting ambassadorship so worthy of examination, and why it has been called upon with some regularity in this work to reveal the truth about what happened to President Ngo Dinh Diem, is the compelling fact that his advice was the opposite of those encouraging President Kennedy toward the active support of a coup against Diem because Nolting’s position was grounded in realism – and he was right! William Colby, in his Foreword to Frederick Nolting’s, memoirs rendered the best overall analysis, which sums up the Nolting era in American policy toward South Vietnam:

Nolting’s task was to support the Southern government and to understand its need to assert its nationalist credentials even against the United States, on whom it depended. He did a superb job. He developed the closest of relations with the leadership of the new nation and influenced it by persuasion as a friend, not pressure by an adversary…But Nolting had to contend with another constituency — the Kennedy administration that had sent him to Vietnam and its natural sensitivity to American public opinion. This constituency found flaws in the Mandarin regime Diem exemplified as failing to match the democratic standards the United States held up for itself and insisted on for its clients and dependents…. The eventual result, against Ambassador Nolting’s advice, was American complicity in the overthrow and murder of Diem, and a period of political chaos and confusion in Vietnam that President Lyndon Johnson felt compelled to respond to by the commitment of a massive American expeditionary force… As the drama unfolded, Nolting retained a clear and persistent view that the United States should support the constituted authority in Vietnam which Diem represented and that it should persevere in the strategy of helping the Diem government to win its own struggle against the Viet Cong, through such programs as the strategic hamlets. He fought for his policies from Saigon to Washington and against some of the towering figures of the Kennedy administration. In the end he lost the battle, but his story of it is a necessary piece of American history. It is made more important because in retrospect it is clear that the policies he fought against proved to be massively mistaken and engulfed America in a war which shook it internally and which it lost…this account by a farsighted Virginia gentleman of our early Vietnam experience deserves particular attention. 27

Nolting’s entire argument was consistent and straightforward down through the years. From his early letters and cables sent from the embassy in Saigon to the State Department, to his very last arguments at White House meetings; from his early private letters to friends and associates, immediately after the fact in 1964, to his late 1980’s interviews; the consistency of his testimony is remarkable. Hence Nolting’s account of his mission to South Vietnam is of particular value, enhanced, ironically, by the inconsistencies of those who railed against him in the Department of State. The inconsistencies of the testimonies and recollections of the Harriman faction have been made manifest in this work and stand in stark contrast to that which Nolting stood for. From Halberstam et al. in the news media, who attempted to hide behind a veneer of journalistic objectivity, but then openly admitted to wanting to bring down the Diem government, the contradictions are clear. From Harriman and Hilsman, publicly declaring, after the fact, that they had no intention of seeing Diem destroyed, to the transparent coup plotting machinations of their cables and instructions to both Nolting and Lodge, a distinct picture of arrogance, deceit and duplicity is driven home. Indeed, this direction of the Harriman group becomes so unmistakable as to undermine any claim to the truth that they may have had. From Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge we even have an incredible and blatantly inconsistent testimony. He was the diplomat who, after the fact, stated that the cable sent from Washington, which had called for a coup, was a terrible mistake. In his own words, he stated that these instructions had left him “thunderstruck,” but his cables at the time told the Kennedy administration, with compelling urgency, that they had better not back down from overthrowing Diem.

The record of Department of State meddling in South Vietnamese internal affairs, and the department’s internal clash over the issue of promoting a coup against Diem is abysmal and the consequences speak to this directly. Nevertheless, there are a few positive things that can be said, which are made plain for the reader in this work, which indicate that the American government had, in Frederick Nolting, placed the right man for a very difficult task in Vietnam. For one has to consider, quite apart from his work as a diplomat, that Nolting had to have the imagination and mental dexterity to discern that the war America was facing in Vietnam was something new. He recognized that the fight against the communists was not so much that of guns and bombs as it was one of political legitimacy. He discerned that Ngo Dinh Diem had a true political legitimacy that spoke to something much deeper in the Vietnamese soul than mere democracy. Democracy was a foreign political construct that held little meaning, and had virtually no historical tradition, in the centuries-old customs of Vietnam. Accordingly, Nolting intuited that the most valuable gifts America could give the struggling GVN under Diem were patience and time. In this sense then, Nolting was not only a great American diplomat but a military strategist of some substance.

A gifted military mind is naturally drawn to a strategy wherein appropriate weapons and tactics suited to the needs demanded by the terrain, political and otherwise, bring about the defeat of the enemy. In this regard, Frederick Nolting, unlike many in the Kennedy administration, never lost sight of what the fight was about and where it locus lay. His clear-sightedness and steadiness of purpose exemplified a fine and tough moral character beneath the self-effacing Virginian manner on display in his public demeanour. Given that the Kennedy years and U.S. policy were replete with ironies and contradictions, it is fitting that the final irony of this study should be an article written in The New York Times. For this sang praises to Nolting’s steadfast moral qualities at the beginning of his mission to South Vietnam in 1962:

Spirits are noticeably higher in Washington about the fate of Southeast Asia, especially the still precarious struggle for South Vietnam. One reason for the lift is what someone today described as the country-doctor manner of Fritz Nolting: gentle but firm, a bit of old Virginia mixed with broad colloquialisms, lyrical and hard-headed – just about what you would expect of a brilliant philosophy student and a member of a musical, old-line Virginia family…When President Ngo Dinh Diem’s associates went into fits over what they thought was excessive United States pressure to reform their government, their economy and their war, Mr. Nolting spent long patient hours explaining that Washington wanted for them only what they wanted for themselves…His first pleas everywhere in Washington have been against fits of temper over the besieged Vietnamese. These are good but troubled people, he says in effect…Sniping from Washington, he suggests, will not kill one additional guerrilla for them. That, associates here say, is typical of the Ambassador’s steady performance in Saigon…Of all Nolting’s traits, his associates emphasize his courage. 28

Postscript

Frederick Nolting proved to be as resilient as he was courageous as he rebounded from his lonely fight in the State Department to a prestigious position in private business. After having served in the Department of State for eighteen years, he resigned in protest over the destruction of Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu. 29 His official letter of resignation was sent to President Lyndon Baines Johnson on February 25, 1964 and it read as follows:

“Dear Mr. President,
I am sorry to have been unable to get an appointment to see you, for I have wanted for several months to talk with you about Vietnam and related matters. I believe you and I have seen the issues in Vietnam in much the same light from the time of your visit there in May, 1961; at least, I have that impression from talks we have had in the past. I know, therefore, how heavily this problem must now weigh on your mind, as indeed it does on mine also, and I earnestly hope that, despite certain irrevocable errors that I think have been made, a way can yet be found to fulfill our national interests there with honor.

I take the liberty of sending this letter, Mr. President, because I feel an obligation as well as a desire to tell you frankly and directly about my future course of action, which is likely to be interpreted in the press and elsewhere as being related to my tour of duty in Vietnam.

I have today sent to the Secretary of State a request to be granted retirement from the Foreign Service, in order to accept an offer in private business. That my decision has been influenced by my strong disapproval of certain actions which were taken last fall in relation to Vietnam, with predictable adverse consequences, I do not deny. Nor do I deny that I have been uncomfortable in my association with the Department of State since returning from Vietnam six months ago.

Under these circumstances it seems sensible for me to accept a position in private business. As a private citizen, I shall continue to do my best to contribute to our country’s success.

I solicit your understanding, Mr. President, and I wish you, as you know, personal happiness and all success in looking after the affairs of our nation.

Sincerely and respectfully yours,
Frederick E. Nolting

Nolting went to work for Morgan Guaranty Trust in Paris as its Vice-President. 30 He worked at this post in Paris from 1964 until 1969, when he became Assistant to the Chairman in New York City. In 1973, he became a consultant to the company and was able to maintain this position until 1976. All along and simultaneous to his business career, he re-established his academic contacts.

Thus from 1971 to 1973 Nolting served at the University of Virginia as Diplomat-in-Residence. He went on to hold teaching and administrative posts as Olsson Professor of Business Administration in the Darden School of Business (from 1973 to 1976). He also became Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Government and Foreign Affairs and helped found the Miller Center of Public Affairs, of which he became the first Director. He went on to serve as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and as a member of the Center for Advanced Studies and the International Management and Development Institute.

He retired from his full-time academic commitments at the University of Virginia in 1982 and began the painstaking process of compiling documents for his critical analysis of the Kennedy administration’s blunders in Vietnam. This work produced his political memoirs, From Trust To Tragedy, a work that devastates many of the popularly held myths about the Kennedy–Diem period. Because of its unrelenting precision, it will stand as a testament to his gentlemanly yet bold role in American diplomatic and military policy toward Diem’s GVN.

Frederick Nolting died on December 14, 1989, at the age of 78, only a year after From Trust To Tragedy was published. 31 His wife, Mrs. Lindsay Nolting, and four daughters — Mary, Lindsay, Jane, and Francis — survived him (although Francis died in 1995). 32

William Colby would go on to become the Director of the CIA (1971 – 1975) under Presidents Nixon and Gerald Ford but his penchant for seeing things clearly, naturally enough, never made him a likely candidate for an even higher political post after this prestigious appointment. The travail of South Vietnam’s war years never really left him alone and, indeed, in his retirement years he went on to become one of the founding executives of the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University. Some of us who knew him always held a small thread of doubt in our minds as to why he perished so suddenly after returning home from a Vietnam Center conference in 1996; for this was the conference wherein Bill Colby actually went after some of the senior figures who had been involved in the escalation of the war. Within less than a week of his return home, his body was found floating in the Chesapeake as he had gone missing when he went out on a solo canoe trip thereupon. Mrs. Nolting, Ambassador Nolting’s widow, told this writer straight-out that many of their diplomatic friends believed that Colby had indeed been assassinated.

As for the martyred Ngo Dinh Diem, General Nguyen Khanh told me that most of the Buddhists who were in full support of the coup, and even the subsequent killing of the man, that took place on November 1-2nd, 1963, have since changed their minds in the intervening decades and now regard his murder as a mistake of unparalleled proportion for South Vietnam. 33 And, as things would turn out, after the war it was revealed by Communist sources that their agents had indeed infiltrated the Buddhists. This resulted in the campaign to get rid of Diem that was pursued with an ideological impetus well beyond the normal means of the regular bonzes which, in turn, caused the Americans, through the auspices of their well-biased press to play right into the Communists’ hands: i.e., by persuading the Americans to get rid of Diem and Nhu for being, amongst other things, so ‘oppressive’ in their treatment of the radical Buddhist bonzes. 34

One of the most fitting tributes given for Diem came from Cardinal Josef Frings, the Archbishop of Cologne when, in 1965, he stated: “Only today, in the midst of these grave incidents (in Vietnam), do we realize that the greater part of the world has not given just recognition of this noble man.” 35 In his pastoral letter, Cardinal Frings went on to note that those who thought the death of Diem would bring peace and plenty to South Vietnam had learned to repent in leisure, and through great sorrow and tragedy, for what they had wrongly assumed in haste. 36 Diem’s memory is kept alive, unto this day, by devout Vietnamese Roman Catholics and all those who know the truth of what transpired in Vietnam, now half a century ago.

  1. Fr. Gheddo further elaborated on this revelation in the following: “The same Buddhist bonze, Tri Quang, who was the principal architect of his downfall, no longer takes responsibility today for having overthrown him. In a long interview granted to me, he asserted that it was not his intention to have Diem fall; all he wanted was for him to concede greater democratic freedoms and not to patronize the Catholics openly. But, Tri Quang went on, Diem was overthrown by a coup d’etat of the military, supported by the Americans and not by the Buddhists (which in fact is true).The fact they contributed to Diem’s downfall is regretted by the Americans as an unpardonable error. Actually, the dictator was a convinced nationalist and did not want the Americans to gain a footing in the country. This is our war – he said frequently to the American ambassador – not yours; give us arms and military advisers, but not soldiers. In fact in November 1963, when Diem was killed, there were only 16,000 Americans in South Vietnam, principally diplomats and advisers of various kinds (military men, advisers for aid programs and agricultural development, etc.), while today there are more than half a million.” Fr. Piero Gheddo; THE CROSS AND THE BO-TREE: Catholics & Buddhists in Vietnam; New York: Sheed & Ward, 1970; pages: 134 – 135.
  2. Howard Jones; DEATH OF A GENERATION: How The Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War; Oxford University Press, 2003; page: 436.
  3. Monique Brinson Demery; FINDING THE DRAGON LADY: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu; New York, Public Affairs, 2013; page: 210.
  4. Ibid. page: 214.
  5. Howard Jones; DEATH OF A GENERATION: How The Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War; Oxford University Press, 2003; page: 436.
  6. Hoang Ngoc Thanh & Than Thi Nhan Duc; WHY THE VIETNAM WAR? President Ngo Dinh Diem and the US, His Overthrow and Assassination; Tuan – Yen & Quan –Viet Mai-Nam Publishers, 2001 [ISBN: 09675058-0-1
  7. Nolting, “Kennedy, NATO, and Southeast Asia,” Diplomacy, Administration, and Policy, Thompson, ed., 25.
  8. Paul D. Harkins, “Letter to Fritz Nolting,” March 27, 1964, pp. 1 – 2 in R621/102.921, Box No.: 12, Selected Correspondence: Harkins, Paul D., The Nolting Papers.
  9. Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., “Letter to General Paul D. Harkins – COMUSMACV,” April 7, 1964, p. 1 of 2 in R621/102.921, Box No.: 12, Selected Correspondence: Harkins, Paul D., The Nolting Papers. Nolting’s suspicions about the Country Team being undermined were founded on reality as would later be proved in the contents of the secret annex to the Hilsman-Forrestal Report.
  10. Paul D. Harkins, “Hand-Written Letter to Fritz Nolting,” July 22, 1971, pp. 1–2 in R621/102.921, Box No.: 12, Selected Correspondence: Harkins, Paul D., The Nolting Papers.
  11. The Editor, “Review & Outlook: The First Lesson of Vietnam,” The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 1983, 1, in R621/102.921, Box Number: 23, Professional Papers, Newsclippings 2 of 2, The Nolting Papers.
  12. Frederick E. Nolting, “Ex-Ambassador Nolting Speaks: Refusal to Admit Blunder Trapped LBJ in Vietnam,” The Wheeling Register, March 1967, 1, in R621/102.921, Box Number: 23, Professional Papers, News clippings 1 of 2, The Nolting Papers.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 2.
  15. “Nolting Finally Speaks Out,” The Danville Register, Danville, VA, April 4, 1968, 1, in R621/102.921, Box Number: 23, Professional Papers, Newsclippings 2 of 2, The Nolting Papers
  16. Correspondence to Dean Rusk, p. 1 of 2 in R621/102.921; Box Number: 13; Selected correspondence, The Nolting Papers.
  17. Letter from the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, to The Honorable Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., April 9, 1964, p. 1 of 1 in R621/102.92; Box Number: 13; Selected Correspondence – Dean Rusk, The Nolting Papers.
  18. “On the second point, I am quite sure that I never received a personal request from you to stay on in Saigon. If I had, I would have stayed. After our initial exchange of letters on this subject (December 2, 1962, and January 17, 1963), I had a further exchange with Averell Harriman, who approved our plans for home leave in May, 1963, and added that, due to the time required to find a replacement, it would be necessary for me to return to Viet Nam after home leave. This I agreed to do, and so notified Diem, on instructions. The next word from Washington on this subject was the public announcement of Lodge’s appointment, while we were en route home on leave and consultation.” Letter From Frederick Nolting to The Honorable Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, April 14, 1963, p. 1 of 2 in R621/102.92; Box Number: 13; Selected Correspondence – Dean Rusk, The Nolting Papers.
  19. Draft of Letter to The Honorable Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, from Frederick Nolting, September 24, 1963, p. 1 of 5 in R621/102.92; Box Number: 13; Selected Correspondence to Dean Rusk, The Nolting Papers.
  20. “This is the third time I have heard reports of remarks attributed to you to which I take strong exception. Your reply to my letter several months ago was not conclusive or satisfactory from my point of view, and I was frankly disappointed that, after our long association, you did not respond to my suggestion that we should clear up any misunderstanding by face-to-face talk.” Ibid.
  21. “On the substance of the matter, the facts as I know them are these. Correspondence on the duration of my tour of duty in Viet Nam began with my letter to you from Saigon in December 1962, at a time when things were going well in Viet Nam, requesting you to bear in mind my desire, for family reasons, to be relieved after about two years – the period of time you and I had discussed before my departure to Viet Nam. Following your interim reply in January 1963, there was a series of correspondence with others in the State Department, the upshot of which was an understanding that I should come home on leave and consultation at the end of May 1963 and then return to Saigon for an indefinite period, pending the selection of a successor and an orderly transfer of responsibility. I was instructed to tell the Vietnamese government that I would return to my post after six weeks of leave and consultation, and I did so inform President Diem. On State Department orders my family and I left Saigon on May 23 for leave in Europe and consultation in Washington. While we were on vacation, the so-called Buddhist crisis broke out in Viet Nam, in June last year. I was not informed of this dangerous development, although my clear travel instructions had been left with my deputy in Saigon to notify me of any change in the situation. The sudden adverse development in Viet Nam clearly warranted my being notified. Yet neither the State Department nor Embassy Saigon did so.” Ibid. 1-2 of 5.
  22. “I have my own views as to why this matter was handled the way it was. The reason, I think, lies in the uncontrolled plotting going on in Washington at that time. When I arrived in Washington for consultation in early July 1963, I reported first to Averell Harriman. He opened the conversation by saying that if he had had his way, I would have been relieved of my post in May, at the expiration of a two-year tour of duty. I said that, however that might be, I could not understand the State Department’s failure to let me know about the troubles that had broken out in Viet Nam when I was on vacation, which threatened the whole basis of our policy there. He replied that he did not think that my presence in Viet Nam would have helped the situation in any way. The implication was clear – he wanted to see a revolution there. It is noteworthy in this connection that it was Harriman who controlled the correspondence respecting the duration of my tour of duty, the timing of my home leave and, I suspect, the decision not to notify me when things began to get out of hand in Saigon.” Ibid., 3-4 of 5.
  23. “To me it is clear that the divided counsels in the Department of State on this critical issue, our government’s susceptibility to press pressures, the lack of co-ordination in Washington and plain bad judgement contributed greatly to the deplorable coup d’etat in Viet Nam last November 1 and the subsequent events which underlie our country’s grave predicament now.” Ibid., 5 of 5.
  24. “The first American Ambassador to Vietnam really worthy of being addressed by this title is being recalled from Vietnam…The Nolting era in Vietnam has been marked by the kind of friendship capable of sustaining differences of opinion and direct attack of the Viet Cong propaganda machine, but apparently the criticism and ridicule of the American press was too much…For the past eight months the American press has apparently been out to get Nolting. Their antipathy for President Ngo Dinh Diem, his family and his government is nothing new and it has rubbed off heavily on Ambassador Nolting. He has been attacked and offended consistently by the American press…The why is not a pretty story. The Ambassador has exhibited the courage to do his job without pandering to any press. In return they discredit his considered evaluations of the situation in Vietnam. They scorn him because he does not try to run the show as a good imperialist should…And now the Buddhist leaders are profiting from the image of Nolting projected abroad by the press to attack him for an honest, reasoned, intelligent statement, attacking him with an insidious and not so subtle appeal for ‘good’ Americans to identify themselves in opposition to Nolting. This would, of course, serve well the interests of those toting neutralism as the ‘solution to the Vietnam problem,’ which is exactly what the Viet Cong want…But in Free Vietnam Nolting will be remembered as the symbol of an era when, nation to nation, the United States and Viet Nam found the basis of understanding which resulted in a workable collaboration for the national interests of both countries and the interests of the Free World. Ambassador Nolting somehow seemed intuitively to know how to represent in its Sunday best the greatest power of the Free World in this newly independent nation while always showing the respect for Vietnam’s national integrity…. Henry Cabot Lodge is to represent the United States in Vietnam, but he will have mighty big shoes to fill.” The Editors, ”Big Shoes To Fill,” The Times of Viet-Nam: A Chronicle of the Nation’s Progress, August 12, 1963, p. 4 in R621/102.92; Box Number: 23; Professional Papers: Newsclippings 1 of 2, The Nolting Papers.
  25. “Interview With President Johnson,” p. 10 of 10 in R621/102.92; Box Number: 28; Professional Papers: Historical Background Records, The Nolting Papers.
  26. David Halberstam, “Some U.S. Officials In Saigon Dubious About Diem Regime,” The New York Times, July 3, 1963, 1.
  27. William E. Colby, “Foreword,” in Frederick Nolting’s, From Trust To Tragedy: The Political Memoirs of Frederick Nolting, Kennedy’s Ambassador to Diem’s Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1988), xi-xii.
  28. Special to The New York Times, “Courageous Envoy: Frederick Ernest Nolting, Jr.” (January 13, 1962), p. 1 in R621/102.92; Box Number: 23, Folder Dates and Heading: Professional Papers, News Clippings 1 of 2, The Nolting Papers.
  29. Nolting, From Trust to Tragedy, 134-35
  30. Mrs. Nolting informed this writer that her husband had no special contacts within Morgan Guaranty Trust and that he secured the position through a combination of luck, experience in the family banking business, and his manifest intellectual capabilities. Telephone interview conducted with Mrs. Nolting, February 4, 1999.
  31. Ibid., 2.
  32. Telephone interview with Mrs. Nolting, February 4, 1999.
  33. Transcript of tape-recorded conversation with General Nguyen Khanh (Premier of South Vietnam, CinC ARVN) and Geoffrey DT Shaw; Recorded on June 16th, 1994 at the USAF Special Operations School, Hurlburt Field, Florida; transcript is available at the Indochina Archives @ Texas Tech University’s Vietnam Center in Lubbock, Texas; transcript page: 62.
  34. Monique Brinson Demery; FINDING THE DRAGON LADY: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu; New York, Public Affairs, 2013; pages: 216 – 217.
  35. The Sunday Examiner; Hong Kong, July 30th, 1965; page: 12.
  36. Fr. Piero Gheddo; THE CROSS AND THE BO-TREE: Catholics & Buddhists in Vietnam; New York: Sheed & Ward, 1970; page: 136.