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Frederick Nolting Jr.

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Frederick E. {"Fritz") Nolting, Jr. (1911-1989) was a career Foreign Service Officer and United States Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam (May 10, 1961 to August 15, 1963). Succeeded by Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., he was the last ambassador that was committed, by U.S. policy, to support Ngo Dinh Diem as President of South Vietnam. Elbridge Durbrow preceded him in office.

It is difficult to read interviews with Nolting and not get a sense of intense frustration and anger with U.S. leadership at top as well as intermediate levels. He was extremely critical of the U.S. press in Vietnam, calling them "immature and experience", to which Neil Sheehan, one of those reporters, responded "our youth and inexperience made it possible for us to acquire what critical faculty we were displaying...what we saw and what we were told by the men we most respected and most closely identified with — the advisors in the field like Vann —contradicted by what we were being told by higher authority."[1]

He respected Lyndon Johnson as Vice-President, but found himself puzzled at why, when he "inherited this mess, what I can't understand is why he didn't do something about the advisers of President Kennedy who had created it. They were principally Averell Harriman, whom he kept on, Cabot Lodge, whom he not only kept on but reappointed to the ambassadorship out there."[2] At various places in the LBJ Library Oral History, he variously spoke of Harriman as supportive of him and attacking him.

Nolting believed the Ngo Dinh Diem government was making significant economic progress in 1960-1963, but its achievements were misrepresented by the U.S. press. He also was highly critical of U.S. officials who would look at Vietnam in isolation, rather than in the broader context of Southeast Asia. [3]

Early career

A career diplomat, [4]Nolting earned a 1933 undergraduate degree in history, and a masters' and doctorate in philosophy, from the University of Virginia, and a second master's in philosophy from Harvard. After Navy service, he joined the State Department in 1946, becoming an assistant to John Foster Dulles. Before Saigon, he was deputy chief of the United States mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to the Organization for European Economic Cooperation.


In general, he considered U.S. relations with Diem to be dishonorable. When negotiating with Diem in 1961, Diem said his country needed American help, but wanted to be sure that the U.S. would not try. Nolting reported that Diem said that as elected president, Diem could not surrender authority. [3] Nolting cited a speech by then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, in which Diem got 90 percent of the votes. "But the charge which was leveled--these were United Nations supervised elections, whatever that might mean ; it surely doesn't mean everything that it implies . But [it means] at least certain supervision of the fairness of the elections . Nevertheless, most of the press interpreted the elections as another indication of an undemocratic system on grounds that no other democracy and no other candidate for president had ever gotten that percentage of the vote." Nolting's opinion was that the South Vietnamese people were generally anti-Communist, and recounted an April 1961 conversation with Edward Lansdale, whom Nolting believed felt the same way about the people. "Sure, there are a lot of criticisms that can be leveled against this government in South Vietnam, but compared to the others in Southeast Asia, it's a beaut," or words to that effect . I think he was probably pessimistic on the grounds of the staying power of the United States, on grounds of the persistence, absolute implacability of the communist movement in Southeast Asia, not only in Vietnam but throughout Southeast Asia. [5]

While he agreed that Ngo Dinh Nhu was a public relations problem, he said that it was a politically impossible demand, drawing the interesting parallel if John F. Kennedy had been asked to get rid of his brother, Robert Kennedy.

Nolting had been criticized for being too supportive of Diem, but said he was not 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.” He said Diem kept his word, and 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 [CIA station chief] 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.

Nolting did say Averell Harriman supported him, to John F. Kennedy, that the policy of the United States was that the Ambassador was Chief of Mission, and could give orders to the U.S. military. He thought that the sugggestion of a split came from the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Robert McNamara or Maxwell Taylor; Taylor was then serving in the White House in the unique role of Presidential representative to the JCS. [6]

He considered the 1960-1963 problem of South Vietnam to be principally military, and that Diem, if supported, "would have made it and would have gradually succeeded in pacifying the country and making a reasonably viable place out of South Vietnam.” According to Nolting,
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.[3]

Nolting minimized the April 1963 Battle of Ap Bac, saying "The worst thing that happened was Colonel Vann's spilling his guts to the American press and having it spread all over the headlines that the South Vietnamese Army, despite all that the Americans had done to train and supply them, were basically cowards and they couldn't win. I don't believe that."[7]

Military unrest

In a conversation with General Tran Van Don and his brother-in-law, General Le Van Kim, Nolting said "You have a chance to run for president next time . Don't give us this stuff about revolt and supporting a revolt. Why don't you do your duty as military men? The United States is not going to get into this question of a coup d'etat." In fact, President Kennedy had promised President Diem on two occasions not to interfere in the internal affairs of South Vietnam.[8]

Buddhist crisis

He felt the press was especially deceptive with respect to something he always put in quotes, the "“Buddhist uprising.” [3] Nolting was on a preplanned vacation during the start of the violent incidents. He believed Averell Harriman " wanted me out of there because I thought that President Diem was the best bet for achieving the United States' interests . I think he wanted me out of there so that Diem would have enough rope to hang himself."[9]

He agreed that neither the Republic of Vietnam nor the United States handled the situation well. "The only skillful people in this were these upstart Buddhist militants . Incidentally, that general association of Vietnamese Buddhists was a new organization . There had never been any such hierarchy . The Buddhist bonzes in the provinces were their own bosses... I had numerous letters, when I got back from this ill-fated vacation, on my desk from bonzes, some of whom I'd met in outlying villages, some of whom I didn't know, saying "count us out so far as this general association of Vietnamese Buddhists is concerned . We have nothing to do with them, we don't know who they are, and we don't subscribe to their policy or their slogans of overthrowing the government.[10]


  1. Sheehan, Neil. (1988), A bright shining lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New Random House, p. 315
  2. Gittinger, Ted (November 11, 1982), Oral History interview of Frederick Nolting, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, p. I-33
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Hasdorff, James C. (January-February 1974), "Vietnam in Retrospect: An Interview with Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting, Jr.", Air University Review
  4. Pace, Eric (December 16, 1989), "Frederick Nolting Jr., U.S. Envoy To Saigon in 60's, Is Dead at 78", New York Times
  5. LBJ oral history, p. I2
  6. LBJ oral history, p. I-24
  7. LBJ oral history, p. I-11
  8. LBJ oral history, p. I-22
  9. LBJ oral history, p. I-14
  10. LBJ oral history, p. I-19