1961 was a year filled with tension and excitement in equal measure. While gigantic advancements were being made in the space race, they were equaled by developments in numerous conflicts across the globe, most notably the Vietnam War and the Cold War, all heralded by the inauguration of one of America’s most popular presidents, John F. Kennedy.
This timeline looks back at over a hundred of the most significant events of the calendar year, and if you wish to delve deeper, our collection of original 1961 newspapers provide a truly authentic feel for what happened in 1961.
Yuri Gagarin’s capsule on show in a private museum
Turn the page to:
- President Kennedy
- The Space Race
- The Berlin Crisis
January 1: The farthing coin, worth a quarter of a penny, ceases to be legal tender in the United Kingdom, having been in circulation since the 13th century.
January 3: Aero Flight 311 crashes in the municipality Kvevlax due to pilot error, killing 25. It remains the deadliest aviation accident to occur in Finland, and is the first of several in the 1961 timeline.
January 15: Berry Gordy signs the Primettes, fronted by Diana Ross, to Motown Records, under the condition that the group’s name is changed to the Supremes.
January 17: Patrice Émery Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, is assassinated. The United States and Belgium are suspected of involvement.
January 20: John F. Kennedy is sworn in as the 35th President of the United States, succeeding Dwight D. Eisenhower.
January 24: A B-52 carrying two hydrogen bombs crashes on a farm in Faro, North Carolina, with one of the bombs beginning its arming sequence after five of its six switches fail. The final working switch prevents an accidental 24-megaton nuclear explosion.
January 25: Disney’s 101 Dalmatians is released in cinemas.
January 26: Wayne Gretzky, the leading scorer in NHL history and widely regarded as the greatest ice hockey player of all-time, is born in Ontario, Canada.
January 31: David Ben-Gurion resigns from his post as the inaugural Prime Minister of Israel.
January 31: Ham the Chimp becomes the first ape in space, climbing to a distance of 157 miles above Earth in the Mercury-Redstone 2 Launch Vehicle.
John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball
February 4: The Portuguese Colonial War begins in Angola. The conflict, between Portugal’s military and various Angolan independence movements, would be fought until 1974.
February 5: The Sunday Telegraph newspaper is published for the first time in the United Kingdom.
February 5: Marilyn Monroe is admitted to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic and locked inside a padded cell, four days after the release of her latest movie, The Misfits, which would also turn out to be her last.
February 9: The Beatles make their debut appearance at The Cavern Club in Liverpool, the first of the band’s 292 performances at the venue.
February 11: Robert C. Weaver is appointed Administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, at the time the highest U.S. federal government position ever held by an African-American.
February 12: The USSR launches Venera 1, known in the Western world as Sputnik 8, towards Venus.
February 14: The chemical element Lawrencium is first synthesized at the Berkeley Lab in California.
February 15: Sabena Flight 548 crashes on approach to Zaventem Airport in Brussels, killing all 72 people on board (including the entire U.S. Figure Skating team) and one on the ground. It remains the deadliest plane crash to occur in Belgium.
February 25: The last active tram in Sydney ceases operations, bringing to an end the largest tram network in the entire Southern Hemisphere. 16 years earlier, the network’s patronage had peaked at 405 million journeys per year.
February 26: Hassan II is pronounced King of Morocco, a position he would hold until his death in 1999.
March 1: President Kennedy establishes the Peace Corps.
March 2: 79-year-old artist Pablo Picasso marries Jacqueline Roque, 44 years his junior, in Vallauris, France.
March 6: The phrase “affirmative action”, referring to the policies of hiring and treating individuals on merit without race, creed, colour or national origin being a factor, is first coined in the Executive Order No. 10925, signed by President Kennedy.
March 8: Max Conrad touches down at the end of his around-the-world flight, setting a new world record with his average speed of 123.2 miles-per-hour.
March 11: Mattel releases the Ken doll, introducing him as Barbie’s new boyfriend.
March 13: The “Kurenivka mudslide” occurs in Kiev after a local dam collapses. Soviet authorities suppress information about the disaster and claim 145 fatalities. As with other 1961 events, the passage of time paints a different picture, with a 2012 study estimating the actual number of victims to be close to 1,500.
March 18: The Eurovision Song Contest is won by Luxembourg for the song “Nous les amoureux”. It is the first of the country’s five victories over the coming years.
March 19: Tornadoes devastate four districts of East Pakistan, killing 266.
March 21: Art Modell purchases the Cleveland Browns for just shy of $4 million. Modell would ultimately become a villain in the city three decades later by relocating the team to Baltimore.
March 29: After four-and-a-half years, the South African Treason Trial comes to an end. All 156 defendants, including Nelson Mandela, are found not guilty.
April 3: Comedian and actor Eddie Murphy is born in Brooklyn, New York City.
April 8: Scottish passenger ship Dara sinks following an explosion, killing 238 people.
April 11: The trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, begins in Israel.
April 11: The Boston Celtics win their third of eight straight NBA Championships following a game five Finals victory over the St. Louis Hawks.
April 12: Aboard the Vostok 1, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human to ever cross into outer space. The mission sees Gagarin’s space capsule orbit the earth once, and lasts 108 minutes from launch to landing.
April 17: Tottenham Hostpur win the English First Division title for the second, and to date last, time in their history.
April 17: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment wins five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, at the 33rd Academy Awards ceremony. It would be the last black-and-white Best Picture recipient until Schindler’s List in 1993.
April 17: 1,400 Cuban exiles, directed by the U.S. government, land in the Bay of Pigs intent on overthrowing Fidel Castro. Three days later, the invaders surrender.
April 24: Swedish warship Vasa, which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628, is salvaged from Stockholm Harbour. The ship was moved to the Vasa Museum in 1988, where it has since been visited by over 35 million tourists.
April 27: Sierra Leone gains independence from the United Kingdom.
The trial of Adolf Eichmann
May 1: Betting shops are permitted to open in the United Kingdom for the first time under the terms of the Betting and Gaming Act 1960.
May 1: Harper Lee is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her coming-of-age novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
May 4: The first CORE Freedom Ride, a series of bus journeys by civil rights activists to test the newly-passed Supreme Court ruling against segregation, departs from Washington, D.C.
May 5: Less than a month after Yuri Gagarin’s voyage, Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space aboard Freedom 7, the first crewed flight of Project Mercury.
May 6: Tottenham Hotspur becomes the first English team in the twentieth century to achieve the Double, after defeating Leicester City 2-0 in the F.A. Cup final at Wembley.
May 8: George Blake, a British spy found guilty of working as a double agent for the Soviet Union, is imprisoned for 42 years. After just five, he would escape and flee to Moscow.
May 19: Venera 1 passes Venus, becoming the first man-made object to ever fly-by another planet. Unfortunately, radio communication with the spacecraft had already been lost, resulting in no data being received.
May 25: President Kennedy announces his intention of putting an American man on the moon before the end of the decade.
May 28: Peter Benenson’s article “The Forgotten Prisoners” is published in The Observer, urging readers to write letters showing support for people imprisoned as a result of their political or religious beliefs. The article is thought to be the catalyst for the founding of Amnesty International two months later.
May 28: After 78 years in operation, the original Orient Express makes its final trip, traveling from Paris to Bucharest.
June 4: U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev meet at the Vienna summit, with a significant amount of discussion dedicated to the Berlin Crisis.
June 6: Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, dies in Zurich aged 85.
June 8: Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, weds Katharine Worsley at York Minster, the first royal wedding at the cathedral since Richard III married Philippa of Hainault 633 years earlier.
June 8: The first public demonstration of a jet pack is performed, with Harold Graham, wearing the Bell Rocket Belt, flying for 14 seconds and a distance of 150 feet.
June 14: A brand new, custom-built Lincoln Continental convertible is delivered to the White House for use by President Kennedy, in hindsight on. Two years later, he would be assassinated in it.
June 16: Ballet-dancing sensation Rudolf Nureyev, suspicious of the intentions of his home nation’s secret police, defects from the Soviet Union and requests asylum in France.
June 19: Kuwait becomes an independent emirate, ending the British protectorate. Days later, Iraqi leader Abd al-Karim Qasim makes claims that Kuwait belongs to Iraq.
June 23: The Antarctic Treaty comes into effect, setting aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve and banning all military activity on the continent.
June 23: Major Robert M. White becomes the first person to fly an aircraft (an X-15) faster than a mile per second, reaching a maximum of 3,690 miles per hour.
June 27: Michael Ramsey is enthroned as the one-hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury, over 1,300 years after the first.
July 1: Diana Spencer, future Princess of Wales, is born in Sandringham.
July 2: Ernest Hemingway, author of For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, dies from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Ketchum, Idaho, aged 61.
July 7: An explosion in a Czechoslovakian mine kills 108 coal miners.
July 7: Rod Laver wins the first of his four Wimbledon titles.
July 8: In the first all-British ladies singles final since 1914, Angela Mortimer defeats Christine Truman to become Wimbledon champion.
July 12: The TIROS-3 satellite, which would become the first to photograph weather storms, is launched from Florida.
July 21: The Runcorn-Widnes Bridge, which would later be known as the Silver Jubilee Bridge, opens across the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal.
July 21: Gus Grissom becomes the second American in space, piloting the Mercury-Redstone 4, nicknamed Liberty Bell 7. After splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean sixteen minutes after liftoff, the $5 million spacecraft is lost to the ocean, where it remains until being found in 1999.
July 25: John F. Kennedy delivers a speech hinting that a nuclear war may be imminent if the Soviet Union should attempt to take control of Berlin. The President goes on to explain that he has a responsibility to instruct civilians how to act “if bombs began to fall”, and details initial plans to both increase army draft calls and build fallout shelters.
July 29: An IBM 7090 computer calculates the value of pi to 100,000 places.
August 3: The Suicide Act 1961 decriminalizes both suicide and attempted suicide in England and Wales.
August 4: Barack Obama, first African-American President of the United States, is born in Honolulu, Hawaii.
August 6: Sterling Moss claims his sixteenth and final Formula One victory at the German Grand Prix. Moss would finish third in the overall championship, his seventh straight year on the podium, and would ultimately be regarded as “the greatest driver never to win the World Championship”.
August 6: Aboard Vostok 2, Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov becomes the second man to orbit the Earth, and the first to do it for more than a day, orbiting a total of seventeen times.
August 13: Construction begins on the Berlin Wall, with the purpose of restricting movement within Berlin and forming a solid boundary between East and West Germany, as well as dividing Europe itself. The wall would stand until 1989.
August 21: Jomo Kenyatta, alleged mastermind of the anti-colonial Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, is released from prison after 9 years. Kenyatta goes on to become the nation’s first ever president following its gaining independence.
August 22: Ida Siekmann becomes the first person to die at the Berlin Wall, after jumping from her apartment window in an attempt to land on the other side of the divide. Varying reports list the total number of deaths as anywhere between 138 and 245.
August 23: A car is discovered in an A6 lay-by in England containing two persons – one deceased, one sexually assaulted and paralyzed by gunfire – leading to a police manhunt. James Hanratty is later charged and sentenced to death.
August 25: Police launch a murder inquiry after the body of 15-year-old Jacqueline Thomas is discovered in Birmingham, England, a week after being reported missing. Her assailant would not be officially charged until 2007.
August 25: Jânio Quadros resigns from his position as the President of Brazil less than a year after his record-breaking election victory.
September 1: A shot fired at the occupying army by Eritrean Liberation Front member Hamid Idris Awate sparks the Eritrean War of Independence, a battle that goes on to last thirty years.
September 10: At the Italian Grand Prix, F1 Championship leader Wolfgang von Trips’ Ferrari crashes into a barrier following an on-track collision, killing its driver and fifteen spectators.
September 11: The World Wildlife Fund opens its first office, in Morges, Switzerland.
September 11: Hurricane Carla strikes Texas and is upgraded to a category 4 hurricane, forcing almost half a million residents to flee Texas and Louisiana. The Miami News calls it “the greatest evacuation in U.S. history”.
September 14: The new military government of Turkey sentences fifteen members of the previous regime to death, including former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and former President Celâl Bayar. Menderes is hanged three days later.
September 16: Two fans die following a crush on Stairway 13 at Glasgow Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium. The event would prove a tragic precursor for the Ibrox Disaster ten years later, in which 66 fans were crushed to their deaths on the same stairway.
September 17: Police arrest over 1,300 protestors during a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally at Trafalgar Square, London.
September 17: The Civic Arena, the first sports venue in the world to feature a retractable roof, opens its doors in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
September 17: The Minnesota Viking play their first ever NFL game, beating the Chicago Bears 37-13.
September 18: Dag Hammarsköld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, is killed when his DC-6 airplane crashes en-route to ceasefire negotiations in Northern Rhodesia. None of the other fifteen passengers survive. Hammarsköld is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later in the year, becoming its first and only posthumous recipient. The nature of the crash itself fuels conspiracy theories for years to come.
October 1: First broadcast of Songs of Praise on BBC TV.
October 1: In the final game of the season, the Yankees’ Roger Maris hits his 61st home run of the season, setting a Major League record that would stand until 1998.
October 3: The Beach Boys record their debut single “Surfin’” at World Pacific Studio, Hollywood.
October 10: The volcanic Queen Mary’s Peak erupts on the southern Atlantic archipelago Tristan de Cunha, forcing the entire population to evacuate to England. The islanders would remain in an old RAF base near Hampshire until 1963.
October 17: A 30,000-strong crowd of people protesting a curfew applied solely to “Algerian Muslim workers” are attacked by French National Police. 40 people are officially killed, although some estimates deem the true death toll of the event, dubbed the “Paris Massacre of 1961”, to be closer to 300.
October 18: West Side Story, an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, is released in cinemas in the U.S.
October 25: First publication issue of British satirical magazine Private Eye.
October 27: American and Soviet tanks stand off on either side of Checkpoint Charlie, a Berlin Wall crossing point. The stalemate lasts for sixteen hours before both nations withdraw.
October 30: The Soviet Union detonates a 50-megaton thermonuclear bomb dubbed “Tsar Bomba” above the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. It remains the most powerful man-made explosion ever created.
October 31: In a show of de-Stalinization, Josef Stalin’s body is removed from the Lenin Mausoleum and buried in a necropolis outside the Kremlin.
Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie
November 3: United Artists announces that the lead role in the first James Bond film, Dr. No, will be played by Sean Connery.
November 5: A fire at a school in Elbarusovo in the Soviet Union kills 106 children and four teachers. The event isn’t reported or acknowledged until its thirtieth anniversary in 1991.
November 8: Imperial Airlines Flight 201/8 crashes while attempting an emergency landing at Richmond, Virginia, killing 77 of the 79 people on board.
November 9: Eighteen-year-old Rosemarie Frankland becomes the first British winner of the Miss World beauty pageant.
November 9: The Professional Golf Association eliminates its “Caucasions-only” clause.
November 10: Catch-22, written by Joseph Heller, is published for the first time.
November 10: Stalingrad is renamed Volgograd.
November 13: The “World’s biggest fire” begins in the Sahara Desert, the result of a blow cap in a natural gas well. The blaze boasts 600-feet high flames, and isn’t fully extinguished until April 1962.
November 18: President Kennedy sends 18,000 military advisors to South Vietnam, escalating U.S. involvement.
November 30: The Soviet Union vetoes Kuwait’s application for United Nations membership.
American helicopters in Vietnam
December 2: Fidel Castro proclaims that he has been a Marxist-Leninist for years, and will lead Cuba as a nation towards Socialism.
December 4: U.K. Minister of Health Enoch Powell announces that oral contraceptive pills would become available via the NHS.
December 8: Philadelphia’s Wilt Chamberlain breaks the record for most points in a single NBA game with 78 against the Lakers, thanks in no small part to triple-overtime. Chamberlain would break his own record the following March with the only 100-point game in NBA history.
December 9: The sovereign state of Tanganyika gains independence from the United Kingdom, before becoming modern-day Tanzania three years later.
December 11: American involvement in the Vietnam War begins officially, as helicopters and four-hundred U.S. personnel land in Saigon.
December 15: Adolf Eichmann is sentenced to death, four days after being found guilty of crimes against humanity in World War II.
December 17: A circus tent fire in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro kills 323 people, having been deliberately set alight by a disgruntled employee.
December 19: The territory of Goa is successfully annexed by India, ending 451 years of Portuguese rule.
December 31: Debut broadcast of Ireland’s first national television station RTÉ.
December 31: Vince Lombardi wins first of five NFL titles as Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers, following a 37-0 shutout of the New York Giants in the Championship Game. Considering Lombardi’s impact on pro football in the subsequent years, the game is certainly one of sport’s key events in 1961.
The Presidency of John F. Kennedy was one of the shortest in U.S. history (clocking in at marginally over a thousand days) but remains one of the most popular by public opinion.
After being inaugurated in January 1961, marked by his now-legendary “Ask not what your country can do for you” address, JFK’s first year in office brought numerous significant events in history, from the establishment of the Peace Corps and the “Alliance for Progress”, to the advancement of the Civil Rights movement, and perhaps most notably the official beginning of American involvement in the Vietnam war.
Kennedy’s legacy remains substantial not merely for his actions as Commander-in-Chief, but also due to his notorious private life, as well as the eternally debatable circumstances surrounding his assassination in November 1963.
The Space Race
While the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union could be said to have begun verbally in 1955, 1961 oversaw an explosion in activity, and the largest forward steps for both nations, prior to the giant leap that would take place at the end of the decade.
After success on both sides with all manner of animals, most recently with an American ape at the beginning of the year, in April the Soviets made a household name of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, as he became the first human being ever to visit outer space.
America would follow suit less than a month later, but this was a battle that had already been won. In response, President Kennedy promised to win the war, by placing an American man on the moon by the end of the decade. The Americans would of course achieve this in 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission.
The Berlin Crisis
The Berlin Crisis of 1961 began in earnest at the Vienna summit in June, with an ultimatum from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev informed President Kennedy of the USSR’s intention to sign a peace treaty with East Germany, with or without American approval. Kennedy disagreed with the unilateral aspect of the proposal on the grounds of its conflict with the four-power agreement signed at the conclusion of World War II.
The potential permutations of the lack of overall progress made at the summit would become clearer the following month with Kennedy’s speech outlining plans for bomb shelters should the Soviet Union prompt a nuclear war with their involvement in Berlin.
Ultimately, tensions would culminate on August 13, with the erection of barbed wire and fences by East German troops forming the first segment of what would eventually become the Berlin Wall.