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Kennedy and Vietnam

President Kennedy at a press conference with a map of Laos, 1961.
President Kennedy at a press conference with a map of Laos, 1961.

America’s war in Vietnam cost the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers, and an uncounted number of Vietnamese estimated in the millions. How did America get into the war? What was Kennedy’s role in escalating the conflict, which mushroomed into full war under his successor Lyndon Johnson? Did Kennedy actually initiate a withdrawal from Vietnam, a policy which changed with his death?

American advisors were present in Vietnam in the Eisenhower era in small numbers. Under Kennedy, that number increased to about 16,000. But it wasn’t until 1965 that President Lyndon Johnson sent hundreds of thousands of American combat troops streaming into the country.

1963 Vietnam Withdrawal Plans – Discusses the emerging evidence that Kennedy’s aborted plans to withdraw from Vietnam were more serious than historians have generally acknowledged.

Kennedy-Johnson Transition in Vietnam Policy – Highlights the changes in Vietnam policy which occurred in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination.

Gulf of Tonkin Incident - Discusses the purported attacks off the North Vietnamese coast which were used by President Johnson to obtain authorization for escalating the Vietnam conflict.

Vietnam War Timeline – Displays a chronological listing of major events in the Vietnam conflict.



Walkthrough - Vietnam in Late 1963. This walkthrough highlights many of the important Vietnam-related documents from 1963, many of them declassified as recently as 1997.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume III: Vietnam January-August 1963

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume IV: Vietnam August-December 1963


Other Links

Vietnam Online: an online companion to Vietnam: A Television History. This is the companion website to the acclaimed American Experience televison series.

U.S. Department of State: online volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States. This page contains online volumes of State Department history for the Kennedy era.

Related Starting Points


Peter Dale Scott, author of Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, discusses Vietnam in the Kennedy era.
play video (running time: 3:13)
Peter Dale Scott discusses the Vietnam situation in the fall of 1963, focusing particularly on the McNamara-Taylor mission to Vietnam and the subsequent initial implementation of withdrawal plans.
play video (running time: 4:52)

Books of Interest

    The Best and the Brightest
David Halberstam
Fawcet Publications, Inc., 1969
    JFK and Vietnam
John Newman
Warner Books, 1992
    American Tragedy
David Kaiser
Belknap Press, 2000
    In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam
Robert S. McNamara
Vintage Books, 1996
    JFK and the Unspeakable
James W. Douglass
Orbis, 2008
    Kennedy in Vietnam
William J. Rust
Da Capo Press, 1985
    Choosing War
Fredrik Logevall
University of California, 1999

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