Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara returned from a fact-finding mission to Vietnam and suggested to President Kennedy that the United States send combat forces to the region for the possible military invasion of North Vietnam. Within one month, more than sixteen thousand U.S. military personnel were in Vietnam, with tens of thousands to follow.

Summary of Event

Beginning with the repulsion of the Chinese by the legendary Trung Sisters, the past twenty centuries of Vietnamese history have seen foreign invaders attempt, but fail, to control Vietnam. When the French left Vietnam in 1954 and the country was partitioned into north and south entities, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration sent the first U.S. military advisers to the region, and they stayed in Southeast Asia throughout the second Eisenhower presidential term. When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president early in 1961, he articulated a vision for a so-called New Frontier, which would include American support for planned democratic initiatives throughout the world. Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. involvement McNamara-Rusk Memorandum[Macnamara Rusk Memorandum] Cold War;Asia [kw]Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam (Nov. 14, 1961) [kw]U.S. Involvement in Vietnam, Kennedy Expands (Nov. 14, 1961) [kw]Vietnam, Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in (Nov. 14, 1961) Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. involvement McNamara-Rusk Memorandum[Macnamara Rusk Memorandum] Cold War;Asia [g]North America;Nov. 14, 1961: Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam[07100] [g]Southeast Asia;Nov. 14, 1961: Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam[07100] [g]United States;Nov. 14, 1961: Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam[07100] [g]Vietnam;Nov. 14, 1961: Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam[07100] [c]Military history;Nov. 14, 1961: Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam[07100] [c]Vietnam War;Nov. 14, 1961: Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam[07100] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 14, 1961: Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam[07100] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 14, 1961: Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam[07100] Ngo Dinh Diem Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;Vietnam War Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;Vietnam War Lodge, Henry Cabot, Jr. McNamara, Robert Nolting, Frederick Rusk, Dean Taylor, Maxwell Rostow, Walt Whitman

Consistent with this view, Kennedy created a task force in April, 1961, which was to devise economic, social, political, and military programs to support the South Vietnamese presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem. Kennedy replaced Elbridge Durbrow with Frederick Nolting as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam and sent his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, on a diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia in May.

After the April, 1961, Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba (a failed invasion, planned by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Eisenhower administration but not implemented until three months into the Kennedy administration), Kennedy allegedly told New York Times columnist James Reston, “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.” Kennedy increased the number of U.S. military advisers from seven hundred to three thousand and convinced retired General Maxwell Taylor to return to active duty to serve initially as a White House military adviser to the president and to serve later as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In the context of the Cold War and the Truman Doctrine—which advocated responding to the feared proliferation of Chinese and Russian communism, or both, through supporting conflicts in tertiary countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Vietnam—Kennedy seems to have viewed Vietnam as a test of his commitment to support U.S.-style democracies throughout the world.

Kennedy sent trusted advisers Maxwell Taylor and Walt Whitman Rostow on a fact-finding mission to Saigon in the early autumn of 1961; they were followed by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk in a similar mission. In a private memorandum dated November 11, 1961 (and presented publicly in a November 14, 1961, press conference), McNamara and Rusk summarized the situation in Vietnam and made recommendations that would justify the increase of U.S. military forces in Vietnam for the balance of the decade. The report concluded that the stability of South Vietnam was deteriorating and argued strongly for the introduction of U.S. combat forces—up to six divisions, or 205,000 troops. The report also indicated that it was likely the United States would have to invade North Vietnam. So-called Category A forces would support the South Vietnamese army with reconnaissance aircraft, naval patrols, and intelligence units. Category B forces would engage in direct military combat missions, though there were concerns about both domestic and international political factors as well as the increased probability of Communist bloc escalation in reprisal.

The McNamara-Rusk memo suggested that other SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) nations be encouraged to send forces but maintained the importance of increased U.S. military forces even if SEATO support was not forthcoming. To finesse public opinion, letters from President Diem were solicited, requesting additional U.S. military aid. In the weeks following the November 14 press conference, an exchange of letters between Diem and Kennedy was made public, and in December the U.S. aircraft carrier Core delivered forty-seven helicopters to South Vietnam.

By the time of the Diem coup and then assassination on November 1-2, 1963 (strongly supported by Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who succeeded Frederick Nolting as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in mid-1963), and the Kennedy assassination three weeks later, there were sixteen thousand U.S. military personnel in Vietnam, including eight thousand combat troops who were disguised as flood reclamation workers.


The McNamara-Rusk memorandum of November 11, 1961, and the subsequent presidential press conference on November 14 strongly recommended the increase of U.S. troops in the Vietnamese conflict. At a time when there were only 3,000 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam, the memorandum predicted the need for more than 200,000 troops to resolve the crisis. Ultimately, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam at the height of the conflict in 1968, and more than 50,000 military personnel died before the United States left Vietnam in 1973.

During scholarly conferences held in Hanoi between 1995 and 1998—conferences that included both Vietnamese and American scholars, as well as diplomats of the era—it became clear that North Vietnam actively and repeatedly sought accommodation and peace, not aggrandizement and aggression, and that the North Vietnamese would have settled for a two-state Vietnam not only throughout the period of the Kennedy administration but also during the early years of the Johnson administration.

However, the context and presuppositions of the Cold War, as well as the misguided notion that the Vietnam conflict constituted a test of will, created documents like the November, 1961, memorandum and kept diplomats in Saigon and Washington from achieving the peace that would come more than a decade later with the reunification of Vietnam, governed by a Communist administration in Hanoi. Although Kennedy White House assistant and longtime friend Kenneth O’Donnell claims to have had a conversation with the president in early November, 1963, in which the president said that he would fully withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam after the 1964 election, that assertion cannot be substantiated in writing, and it is of course too conjectural to posit what sort of strategic decision Kennedy might have made a year later, following his expected reelection. Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. involvement McNamara-Rusk Memorandum[Macnamara Rusk Memorandum] Cold War;Asia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Addington, Larry H. America’s War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. A chronological history with maps of the Vietnam conflict, covering America’s role in the war, especially after 1954.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charters, Ann, ed. The Portable Sixties Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. The definitive sixties-era reader that includes poetry, short fiction, and essays to contextualize the historical period. Also includes a preface and a chronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002. A strategy and policy expert at the Naval War College reviews declassified documents and describes the development of American policy on Vietnam from 1961 to 1965.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 1983. 2d rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. An excellent comprehensive survey, updated and revised, of the Vietnam War. A companion to the PBS television documentary Vietnam: A Television History. Includes twenty pages of notes on sources, a chronology, and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolko, Gabriel. Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. Historical study of the differing perspectives between the inventive and effective North Vietnamese, contrasted with the intransigence of U.S. and South Vietnamese viewpoints and theories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMaster, H. R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. A West Point graduate focuses this study on less than one year (1964-1965), which was early in the Johnson presidency, to critique Johnson and his advisers for their narrowness and arrogance, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their internal divisiveness, which rendered them ineffective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNamara, Robert S., et al. Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. New York: Public Affairs, 1999. Former Secretary of Defense McNamara facilitated discussions in Hanoi between Vietnamese and American scholars and political veterans in 1995-1998. Considers the causes, effects, and putative lessons of the Vietnam conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Neill, William L. Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960’s. New York: New York Times/Quadrangle Books, 1971. A well-documented social, political, and cultural history of the 1960’s. Twelve chapters interspersed with eleven profiles on important figures of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Spencer C., ed. The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. One-volume abridgement of a three-volume encyclopedia, arranged alphabetically with extensive appendixes, including two hundred pages of primary source documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Marilyn B., and Robert Buzzanco, eds. A Companion to the Vietnam War. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. This 514-page collection covers events leading up to the war, the war itself, and the war’s aftermath. Provides more than a military history, however. Includes social, cultural, and political analyses as well.

Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina

Vietnam Is Named a State

Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam

SEATO Is Founded

Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime

Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam

Tet Offensive Begins

United States Invades Cambodia

Categories: History