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.
The youthful Kennedy administration is inexperienced in matters regarding
Southeast Asia. Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, 44-year-old Robert McNamara,
along with civilian planners recruited from the academic community, will
play a crucial role in deciding White House strategy for Vietnam over the
next several years. Under their leadership, the United States will wage
a limited war to force a political settlement.
However, the U.S. will be opposed by an enemy dedicated to total military
victory "...whatever the sacrifices, however long the struggle...until
Vietnam is fully independent and reunified," as stated by Ho Chi Minh.
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.
The role of the Green Berets soon expands to include the establishment
of Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) made up of fierce mountain
men known as the Montagnards. These groups establish a series of fortified
camps strung out along the mountains to thwart infiltration by North Vietnamese.
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.
Defense Secretary McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend instead
a massive show of force by sending six divisions (200,000 men) to Vietnam.
However, the President decides against sending any combat troops.
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..."
President Kennedy then sends additional military advisors along with
American helicopter units to transport and direct South Vietnamese troops
in battle, thus involving Americans in combat operations. Kennedy justifies
the expanding U.S. military role as a means "...to prevent a Communist
takeover of Vietnam which is in accordance with a policy our government
has followed since 1954." The number of military advisors sent by
Kennedy will eventually surpass 16,000.
December 1961 - Viet Cong guerrillas now
control much of the countryside in South Vietnam and frequently ambush
South Vietnamese troops. The cost to America of maintaining South Vietnam's
sagging 200,000 man army and managing the overall conflict in Vietnam rises
to a million dollars per day.
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. However, over 50 of
the hamlets and are soon infiltrated and easily taken over by Viet Cong
who kill or intimidate village leaders.
As a result, Diem orders bombing raids against suspected Viet Cong-controlled
hamlets. The air strikes by the South Vietnamese Air Force are supported
by U.S. pilots, who also conduct some of the bombings. Civilian causalities
erode popular support for Diem and result in growing peasant hostility
toward America, which is largely blamed for the unpopular resettlement
program as well as the bombings.
May 1962 - Viet Cong organize themselves
into battalion-sized units operating in central Vietnam.
May 1962 - 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
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. Three American helicopter crew
members are killed.
The South Vietnamese Army is run by officers personally chosen by President
Diem, not for their competence, but for their loyalty to him. Diem has
instructed his officers to avoid causalities. Their primary mission, he
has told them, is to protect him from any coups in Saigon.
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.
Political pressure now mounts on the Kennedy administration to disassociate
itself from Diem's repressive, family-run government. "You are responsible
for the present trouble because you back Diem and his government of ignoramuses,"
a leading Buddhist tells U.S. officials in Saigon.
June-August - Buddhist
demonstrations spread. Several Buddhist monks publicly burn themselves
to death as an act of protest. The immolations are captured on film by
news photographers and shock the American public as well as President Kennedy.
Diem responds to the deepening unrest by imposing martial law. South
Vietnamese special forces, originally trained by the U.S. and now controlled
by Diem's younger brother Nhu wage violent crackdowns against Buddhist
sanctuaries in Saigon, Hue and other cities.
Nhu's crackdowns spark widespread anti-Diem demonstrations. Meanwhile,
during an American TV interview, Nhu's wife, the flamboyant Madame Nhu,
coldly refers to the Buddhist immolations as a 'barbecue.' As the overall
situation worsens, high level talks at the White House focus on the need
to force Diem to reform.
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. But Diem arrogantly refuses even to discuss such matters
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.
However, the coup against Diem fizzles due to mistrust and suspicion within
the ranks of the military conspirators.
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."
Also during the interview, Kennedy comments on America's commitment
to Vietnam "If we withdrew from Vietnam, the Communists would control
Vietnam. Pretty soon, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya, would go..."
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.
The rebel generals, led by Duong Van "Big" Minh, first ask
for assurances that U.S. aid to South Vietnam will continue after Diem's
removal and that the U.S. will not interfere with the actual coup. This
scenario suits the White House well, in that the generals will appear to
acting on their own without any direct U.S. involvement. President Kennedy
gives his approval. The CIA in Saigon then signals the conspirators that
the United States will not interfere with the overthrow of President Diem.
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. Diem and his brother Nhu are trapped
inside the palace and reject all appeals to surrender. Diem telephones
the rebel generals and attempts, but fails, to talk them out of the coup.
Diem then calls Lodge and asks "...what is the attitude of the United
States?" Lodge responds "...it is four thirty a.m. in Washington,
and the U.S. government cannot possibly have a view." Lodge then expresses
concern for Diem's safety, to which Diem responds "I am trying to
At 8 p.m., Diem and Nhu slip out of the presidential palace unnoticed
and go to a safe house in the suburbs that belongs to a wealthy Chinese
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. While traveling to Saigon, the
vehicle stops and Diem and Nhu are assassinated.
At the White House, a meeting is interrupted with the news of Diem's
death. According to witnesses, President Kennedy's face turns a ghostly
shade of white and he immediately leaves the room. Later, the President
records in his private diary, "I feel that we must bear a good deal
of responsibility for it."
Saigon celebrates the downfall of Diem's regime. But the coup results
in a power vacuum in which a series of military and civilian governments
seize control of South Vietnam, a country that becomes totally dependent
on the United States for its existence. Viet Cong use the unstable political
situation to increase their hold over the rural population of South Vietnam
to nearly 40 percent.
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
By year's end, there are 16,300 American military advisors in South
Vietnam which received $500 million in U.S. aid during 1963.
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. We shall provide whatever help is required
to win the battle against the Communist insurgents."
Following his visit, McNamara advises President Johnson to increase
military aid to shore up the sagging South Vietnamese army. McNamara and
other Johnson policy makers now become focused on the need to prevent a
Communist victory in South Vietnam, believing it would damage the credibility
of the U.S. globally. The war in Vietnam thus becomes a test of U.S. resolve
in fighting Communism with America's prestige and President Johnson's reputation
on the line.
The cost to America of maintaining South Vietnam's army and managing
the overall conflict in Vietnam now rises to two million dollars per day.
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.
Summer - As 56,000
Viet Cong spread their successful guerrilla war throughout South Vietnam,
they are reinforced by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars pouring in
via the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Responding to this escalation, President Johnson
approves Operation Plan 34A, CIA-run covert operations using South
Vietnamese commandos in speed boats to harass radar sites along the coastline
of North Vietnam. The raids are supported by U.S. Navy warships in the
Gulf of Tonkin including the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox which conducts
electronic surveillance to pinpoint the radar locations.
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.
President Johnson also appoints Lt. Gen William
C. Westmoreland to be the new U.S. military commander in Vietnam. Westmoreland
is a West Point graduate and a highly decorated veteran of World War II and
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
Goldwater is an arch conservative and virulent
anti-Communist whose campaign rhetoric will impact coming White House decisions
concerning Vietnam. Above all, Johnson's aides do not want the President
to appear to be 'soft on Communism' and thus risk losing the November presidential
election. But at the same time, they also want the President to avoid being
labeled a 'war monger' concerning Vietnam.
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
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. U.S. Navy fighters from
the carrier Ticonderoga, led by Commander James Stockdale, attack
the patrol boats, sinking one and damaging the other two.
At the White House, it is Sunday morning (twelve hours behind Vietnam
time). President Johnson, reacting cautiously to reports of the incident,
decides against retaliation. Instead, he sends a diplomatic message to
Hanoi warning of "grave consequences" from any further "unprovoked"
attacks. Johnson then orders the Maddox to resume operations in
the Gulf of Tonkin in the same vicinity where the attack had occurred.
Meanwhile, the Joints Chiefs of Staff put U.S. combat troops on alert and
also select targets in North Vietnam for a possible bombing raid, should
the need arise.
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. By nightfall, thunderstorms
roll in, affecting the accuracy of electronic instruments on the destroyers.
Crew members reading their instruments believe they have come under torpedo
attack from North Vietnamese patrol boats. Both destroyers open fire on
numerous apparent targets but there are no actual sightings of any attacking
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
Press reports in America greatly embellish the second attack with spectacular
eyewitness accounts although no journalists had been on board the destroyers.
At the White House, President Johnson decides to retaliate. Thus, the
first bombing of North Vietnam by the United States occurs as oil facilities
and naval targets are attacked without warning by 64 U.S. Navy fighter
bombers. "Our response for the present will be limited and fitting,"
President Johnson tells Americans during
a midnight TV appearance, an hour after the attack began. "We Americans
know, although others appear to forget, the risk of spreading conflict.
We still seek no wider war."
Two Navy jets are shot down during the bombing raids, resulting in the
first American prisoner of war, Lt. Everett Alvarez of San Jose, California,
who is taken to an internment center in Hanoi, later dubbed the "Hanoi
Hilton" by the nearly six hundred American airmen who become POWs.
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.
Johnson's aides, including Defense Secretary McNamara, now lobby Congress
to pass a White House resolution that will give the President a free hand
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.
The only Senators voting against the Resolution are Wayne Morse, and
Ernest Gruening of Alaska who said "all Vietnam is not worth the life
of a single American boy."
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. The streets
of Saigon soon disintegrate into chaos and mob violence amid the government's
August 26, 1964 - President Johnson is
nominated at the Democratic National Convention.
During his campaign he declares "We are not about to send American
boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought
to be doing for themselves."
September 7, 1964 - President Johnson assembles
his top aides at the White House to ponder the future course of action
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. President Johnson
dismisses all recommendations for a retaliatory air strike against North
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. The
Democrats also achieve big majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate.
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. They shore
up Viet Cong battalions with the weapons and also provide experienced soldiers
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
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. Americans, he had already warned them, are
"tired of coups."
Taylor's behavior greatly offends the young officers. Gen. Khanh retaliates
by lashing out in the press against Taylor and the U.S., stating that America
is reverting to "colonialism" in its treatment of South Vietnam.
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. Two Americans are killed and 58 wounded.
President Johnson dismisses all recommendations for a retaliatory air strike
against North Vietnam.
By year's end, the number of American military advisors in South Vietnam
is 23,000. There are now an estimated 170,000 Viet Cong/NVA fighters in
the 'People's Revolutionary Army' which has begun waging coordinated battalion-sized
attacks against South Vietnamese troops in villages around Saigon.