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Vietnam War (1961-1964): Timeline, Facts, and Resource


January 1961: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pledges support for “wars of national liberation” throughout the world. His statement greatly encourages Communists in North Vietnam to escalate their armed struggle to unify Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.

January 20, 1961: John Fitzgerald Kennedy is inaugurated as the 35th U.S. President and declares “…we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to insure the survival and the success of liberty.” Privately, outgoing President Eisenhower tells him “I think you’re going to have to send troops…” to Southeast Asia.

May 1961: Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visits President Diem in South Vietnam and hails the embattled leader as the ‘Winston Churchill of Asia.’

May 1961: President Kennedy sends 400 American Green Beret ‘Special Advisors’ to South Vietnam to train South Vietnamese soldiers in methods of ‘counter-insurgency’ in the fight against Viet Cong guerrillas.

Fall: The conflict widens as 26,000 Viet Cong launch several successful attacks on South Vietnamese troops. Diem then requests more military aid from the Kennedy administration.

October 1961: To get a first-hand look at the deteriorating military situation, top Kennedy aides, Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow, visit Vietnam. “If Vietnam goes, it will be exceedingly difficult to hold Southeast Asia,” Taylor reports to the President and advises Kennedy to expand the number of U.S. military advisors and to send 8000 combat soldiers.

October 24, 1961: On the sixth anniversary of the Republic of South Vietnam, President Kennedy sends a letter to President Diem and pledges “the United States is determined to help Vietnam preserve its independence…”

December 1961: Viet Cong guerrillas now control much of the countryside in South Vietnam and frequently ambush South Vietnamese troops.

January 11, 1962: During his State of the Union address, President Kennedy states, “Few generations in all of history have been granted the role of being the great defender of freedom in its maximum hour of danger. This is our good fortune…”

January 15, 1962: During a press conference, President Kennedy is asked if any Americans in Vietnam are engaged in the fighting. “No,” the President responds without further comment.

February 6, 1962: MACV, the U.S. Military Assistance Command for Vietnam, is formed. It replaces MAAG-Vietnam, the Military Assistance Advisory Group which had been established in 1950.

February 27, 1962: The presidential palace in Saigon is bombed by two renegade South Vietnamese pilots flying American-made World War II era fighter planes. President Diem and his brother Nhu escape unharmed. Diem attributes his survival to “divine protection.”

March 1962: Operation Sunrise begins the Strategic Hamlet resettlement program in which scattered rural populations in South Vietnam are uprooted from their ancestral farmlands and resettled into fortified villages defended by local militias.

May 1962: Viet Cong organize themselves into battalion-sized units operating in central Vietnam. Defense Secretary McNamara visits South Vietnam and reports “we are winning the war.”

July 23, 1962: The Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos signed in Geneva by the U.S. and 13 other nations, prohibits U.S. invasion of portions of the Ho Chi Minh trail inside eastern Laos.

August 1, 1962: President Kennedy signs the Foreign Assistance Act of 1962 which provides “…military assistance to countries which are on the rim of the Communist world and under direct attack.”

August 1962: A U.S. Special Forces camp is set up at Khe Sanh to monitor North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh trail.

January 3, 1963: A Viet Cong victory in the Battle of Ap Bac makes front page news in America as 350 Viet Cong fighters defeat a large force of American-equipped South Vietnamese troops attempting to seize a radio transmitter.

May 1963: Buddhists riot in South Vietnam after they are denied the right to display religious flags during their celebration of Buddha’s birthday. In Hue, South Vietnamese police and army troops shoot at Buddhist demonstrators, resulting in the deaths of one woman and eight children.

June-August: Buddhist demonstrations spread. Several Buddhist monks publicly burn themselves to death as an act of protest.

July 4, 1963: South Vietnamese General Tran Van Don, a Buddhist, contacts the CIA in Saigon about the possibility of staging a coup against Diem.

August 22, 1963: The new U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge arrives in South Vietnam.

August 24, 1963: A U.S. State Department message sent to Ambassador Lodge is interpreted by Lodge to indicate he should encourage the military coup against President Diem.

August 26, 1963: Ambassador Lodge meets President Diem for the first time. Under instructions from President Kennedy, Lodge tells Diem to fire his brother, the much-hated Nhu, and to reform his government.

August 26, 1963: President Kennedy and top aides begin three days of heated discussions over whether the U.S. should in fact support the military coup against Diem.

August 29, 1963: Lodge sends a message to Washington stating “…there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration.” President Kennedy then gives Lodge a free hand to manage the unfolding events in Saigon.

September 2, 1963: During a TV news interview with Walter Cronkite, President Kennedy describes Diem as “out of touch with the people” and adds that South Vietnam’s government might regain popular support “with changes in policy and perhaps in personnel.”

October 2, 1963: President Kennedy sends Ambassador Lodge a mixed messaged that “no initiative should now be taken to give any encouragement to a coup” but that Lodge should “identify and build contacts with possible leadership as and when it appears.”

October 5, 1963: Lodge informs President Kennedy that the coup against Diem appears to be on again.

October 25, 1963: Prompted by concerns over public relations fallout if the coup fails, a worried White House seeks reassurances from Ambassador Lodge that the coup will succeed.

October 28, 1963: Ambassador Lodge reports a coup is “imminent.”

October 29, 1963: An increasingly nervous White House now instructs Lodge to postpone the coup. Lodge responds it can only be stopped by betraying the conspirators to Diem.

November 1, 1963: Lodge has a routine meeting with Diem from 10 a.m. until noon at the presidential palace, then departs. At 1:30 p.m., during the traditional siesta time, the coup begins as mutinous troops roar into Saigon, surround the presidential palace, and also seize police headquarters.

November 2, 1963: At 3 a.m., one of Diem’s aides betrays his location to the generals. The hunt for Diem and Nhu now begins. At 6 a.m., Diem telephones the generals. Realizing the situation is hopeless, Diem and Nhu offer to surrender from inside a Catholic church. Diem and Nhu are then taken into custody by rebel officers and placed in the back of an armored personnel carrier.

November 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as the 36th U.S. President. He is the fourth President coping with Vietnam and will oversee massive escalation of the war while utilizing many of the same policy advisors who served Kennedy.

November 24, 1963: President Johnson declares he will not “lose Vietnam” during a meeting with Ambassador Lodge in Washington.

January 30, 1964: General Minh is ousted from power in a bloodless coup led by General Nguyen Khanh who becomes the new leader of South Vietnam.

March 1964: Secret U.S.-backed bombing raids begin against the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos, conducted by mercenaries flying old American fighter planes.

March 6, 1964: Defense Secretary McNamara visits South Vietnam and states that Gen. Khanh “has our admiration, our respect and our complete support…” and adds that, “We’ll stay for as long as it takes.”

March 17, 1964: The U.S. National Security Council recommends the bombing of North Vietnam. President Johnson approves only the planning phase by the Pentagon.

May: President Johnson’s aides begin work on a Congressional resolution supporting the President’s war policy in Vietnam. The resolution is shelved temporarily due to lack of support in the Senate, but will later be used as the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

July 1, 1964: General Maxwell D. Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is appointed by President Johnson as the new U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. During his one year tenure, Taylor will have to deal with five successive governments in politically unstable South Vietnam.

July 16-17: Senator Barry Goldwater is chosen as the Republican nominee for president at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. During his acceptance speech Goldwater declares, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

July 31, 1964: In the Gulf of Tonkin, as part of Operation Plan 34A, South Vietnamese commandos in unmarked speed boats raid two North Vietnamese military bases located on islands just off the coast. In the vicinity is the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox.

August 2, 1964: Three North Vietnamese patrol boats attack the American destroyer U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin ten miles off the coast of North Vietnam. They fire three torpedoes and machine-guns, but only a single machine-gun round actually strikes the Maddox with no causalities.

August 3, 1964: The Maddox, joined by a second destroyer U.S.S. C. Turner Joy begin a series of vigorous zigzags in the Gulf of Tonkin sailing to within eight miles of North Vietnam’s coast, while at the same time, South Vietnamese commandos in speed boats harass North Vietnamese defenses along the coastline.

August 4, 1964: Although immediate doubts arise concerning the validity of the second attack, the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly recommend a retaliatory bombing raid against North Vietnam.

August 5, 1964: Opinion polls indicate 85 percent of Americans support President Johnson’s bombing decision. Numerous newspaper editorials also come out in support of the President.

August 6, 1964: During a meeting in the Senate, McNamara is confronted by Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon who had been tipped off by someone in the Pentagon that the Maddox had in fact been involved in the South Vietnamese commando raids against North Vietnam and thus was not the victim of an “unprovoked” attack. McNamara responds that the U.S. Navy “…played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any…”

August 7, 1964: In response to the two incidents involving the Maddox and Turner Joy, the U.S. Congress, at the behest of President Johnson, overwhelmingly passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution put forward by the White House allowing the President “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to prevent further attacks against U.S. forces. The Resolution, passed unanimously in the House and 98-2 in the Senate, grants enormous power to President Johnson to wage an undeclared war in Vietnam from the White House.

August 21, 1964: In Saigon, students and Buddhist militants begin a series of escalating protests against General Khanh’s military regime. As a result, Khanh resigns as sole leader in favor of a triumvirate that includes himself, Gen. Minh and Gen. Khiem.

August 26, 1964: President Johnson is nominated at the Democratic National Convention.

September 7, 1964: President Johnson assembles his top aides at the White House to ponder the future course of action in Vietnam.

September 13, 1964: Two disgruntled South Vietnamese generals stage an unsuccessful coup in Saigon.

October 14, 1964: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is ousted from power, replaced by Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the U.S.S.R.

October 16, 1964: China tests its first Atomic Bomb. China, by this time, has also massed troops along its border with Vietnam, responding to U.S. escalation.

November 1, 1964: The first attack by Viet Cong against Americans in Vietnam occurs at Bien Hoa air base, 12 miles north of Saigon. A pre-dawn mortar assault kills five Americans, two South Vietnamese, and wounds nearly a hundred others.

November 3, 1964: With 61 percent of the popular vote, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson is re-elected as President of the United States in a land-slide victory, the biggest to date in U.S. history, defeating Republican Barry Goldwater by 16 million votes.

December 1964: 10,000 NVA soldiers arrive in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail, carrying sophisticated weapons provided by China and the Soviet Union.

December 1, 1964: At the White House, President Johnson’s top aides, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Defense Secretary McNamara, recommend a policy of gradual escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

December 20, 1964: Another military coup occurs in Saigon by the South Vietnamese army. This time Gen. Khanh and young officers, led by Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu, oust older generals including Gen. Minh from the government and seize control.

December 21, 1964: An angry Ambassador Taylor summons the young officers to the U.S. embassy then scolds them like schoolboys over the continuing instability and endless intrigues plaguing South Vietnam’s government.

December 24, 1964: Viet Cong terrorists set off a car bomb explosion at the Brinks Hotel, an American officers’ residence in downtown Saigon. The bomb is timed to detonate at 5:45 p.m., during ‘happy hour’ in the bar. President Johnson dismisses all recommendations for a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam.