25. Telegram From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Nolting) to the Department of State1

8140. CINCPAC/Polad has requested that we pass the following. Eyes Only SecState from Nolting. Will you be good enough to discuss the following with Secretary McNamara and, if you and he have no objection, pass it to the President.

Dear Mr. President:

I am presently on my way back to Saigon still unclear in my mind on how the US operation in Viet-nam is to be conducted. You recall [Page 47]the brief discussion of the matter in our meeting last Friday.2 In several long discussions with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, we have been unable to clarify the matter to our mutual satisfaction. Mr. McNamara and I achieved at Honolulu what is perhaps an agreement on words, but, I am afraid, not a meeting of minds, which is more important.3

Like everyone else, I am concerned only to find the way to hold Viet-nam. I think this can be done without intervention of US combat forces; but the margin is not great. Clarity of concept, mutual confidence, team work, and a balanced, many-sided effort are required.

I believe clear US organizational arrangements are essential to our chances of success. As you know, we must work through and with a sensitive sovereign government and a difficult man. We are trying to help them mount a many-sided effort to win and hold the allegiance of the Viet-nam people. In my view, this is essentially a political job under present conditions. The military component is very important and our military contributions large and increasing, but this fact should not, in my judgment, alter our basic concept nor our basic organization to carry it forward. I feel that one person must be clearly in charge of the conduct of our affairs in Viet-nam and of our relations with the Government of Viet-nam. If that person does not have good enough judgment to stay out of the line of operations of the various US agencies involved, he should be replaced. Especially is this true of military operations. I also think that the concept and function of the US Task Force (or Country Team) in Saigon ought to be continued under the chairmanship and overall direction of the Ambassador to assure proper coordination of US policy and action. Conversely, the ambassador should be held responsible for not infringing the operational responsibilities of the other agency heads, most especially that of the senior military commander.

Finally, I believe that the direction you set in your letter to President Diem (in connection with the Staley-Thuc report),4 in which you imposed greater authority and flexibility in your representatives in the field, is sound and profitable. I do not think best results can be obtained from detailed direction of the effort from Washington or Honolulu. Needless to say, I consider the vigor and speed put into the [Page 48]military effort by Secretary McNamara and the Defense Department is all to the good, and I hope it will be matched by other agencies to keep the total effort in balance.

I write this letter, Mr. President, because I feel there have been differences of view on essential matters of organization bearing on my responsibilities to you and to our government, and that efforts to reconcile them may have left scars. If the views expressed above do not accord with your own, or if there are scars which you think will impair my own effectiveness, I hope that you will tell me so and accept my resignation, which is, of course, readily available. In terms of personal relations with all concerned in this matter (including General Harkins with whom I had dinner last night), I feel that they are excellent, and that it is essential that they remain so if we are to succeed. A clear understanding on the above matters will, I am confident, assure this.

With my high regard and respect.

Sincerely, Frederick E. Nolting, Jr.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/1-1762. Top Secret; Eyes Only; Priority. Attached to the source text was a note from Battle to the Secretary indicating that U. Alexis Johnson had action on it and that no other distribution had been or would be made pending Johnsonʼs recommendations to Rusk. The letter was never submitted to the President. For Ruskʼs reply, see Document 40.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 14.
  3. Ambassador Nolting subsequently indicated that McNamara had stated to him during the plane trip to the Secretary of Defenseʼs meeting in Honolulu that his hands were tied on the terms of reference for the commander of MAC by JCS opposition to placing a four-star general in a position subordinate to an ambassador. As a result, the basic problem of who had overall authority to conduct U.S. relations with the Government of Vietnam remained unresolved in Noltingʼs mind. (Department of State, Office of the Historian, Vietnam Interviews, Frederick Nolting, June 1, 1984)
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. I, Document 114.