Ken Burns Classroom

1965 Troop Escalations—Decision-Making Lesson

Ken Burns Film: The Vietnam War

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1 class period

Lesson Overview

Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and review the conditions on the ground in mid-1965. Students will engage in a decision-making activity that analyzes the circumstances, explores options, and defines a course of action. After students come to a decision, they will see what the United States actually decided to do and will comment on the decisions made.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the military situation in Vietnam in mid-1965.
  • Examine US General Westmoreland’s request for more troops.
  • Analyze the North Vietnamese strategy of attrition.
  • Analyze the purpose, benefits, and consequences of expanding the number of US ground troops fighting in South Vietnam.
  • Make policy recommendations to President Johnson.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Distribute the graphic organizer handout to all students, and prepare to view the video segment, “Conditions Grow Worse,” as a class.
  2. Before you begin, review the summarizing points in the handout with students. Have students take notes in the middle section of the handout while viewing the segment.
  3. After students watch the video clips and take notes, they should meet in small groups to complete the third section of the handout, using the summarizing points and their film notes to write their questions for discussion.
  4. After students have discussed their questions, ask them which ones were still difficult to answer and why. Where would they go to find more information? Ask for volunteers to do a little more research and report back.
  5. Tell students: The US war effort seems to be waning, but General Westmoreland tells the Johnson administration that the war can be won. He asks for an additional 150,000 troops. Johnson wants to intimidate the North Vietnamese government to force them to the bargaining table, but he is concerned that too large a show of force might bring the Soviet Union and China into the conflict. Faced with this situation, President Johnson has asked you to make a recommendation.
  6. Have students meet in small groups to discuss whether to approve the increase in ground troops. Here are their options:
    • Agree to Westmoreland’s request of 150,000 ground troops.
    • Agree to send only a portion of the troops requested.
    • Send no troops at this time.
  1. Once student have made a decision, take a tally of which option the groups chose. Then show the final video segment, “Troop Levels,” which reveals what Johnson decided to do and why. Students will compare and contrast their decisions with that of Johnson and then write a brief analysis of Johnson’s and their own decisions.

Optional Culminating Activity

Have student groups review Johnson’s decision with their own, and then have students discuss the following questions:

  • What surprised you about Johnson’s decision to increase the number of ground troops? Does this change your decision in any way? Explain.
  • What is your opinion of Johnson’s decision? Explain.
  • What might have been the outcome if Johnson had chosen a different option, like sending no troops or sending the number of troops Westmoreland requested?
  • According to Tran Ngoc Toan of the South Vietnamese Marines, what were the additional US troops lacking when they arrived in South Vietnam? How might this have been a problem in achieving their mission?

National Standards for History

10.1C.6 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the reformulation of foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.2C.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the Vietnam policy of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations and the shifts of public opinion about the war. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.2C.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the composition of the American forces recruited to fight the war. [Interrogate historical data]

9.2C.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate how Vietnamese and Americans experienced the war and how the war continued to affect postwar politics and culture. [Appreciate historical perspectives]

9.2C.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the provisions of the Paris Peace Accord of 1973 and evaluate the role of the Nixon administration. [Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations]

9.2C.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the constitutional issues involved in the war and explore the legacy of the Vietnam war. [Formulate a position or course of action on an issue]

National Standards for Civics and Government

IV.B.1.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain how and why the United States assumed the role of world leader after World War II and what its leadership role is in the world today

IV.B.2.4 ( Grades: 9-12 ): describe the various means used to attain the ends of United States foreign policy, such as diplomacy; economic, military and humanitarian aid; treaties; sanctions; military intervention; covert action

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Handout: 1965 Troop Escalations Graphic Organizer

Directions: The top section lists the summarizing points of the video clip. Take notes on these points in the middle section. Then, in the third section, develop two questions you’re curious about and prepare to discuss them with the class.


Summarizing Points
  • Situation in South Vietnam is getting worse
  • Westmoreland requests more troops
  • North Vietnamese implement a strategy of attrition
  • China and the Soviet Union send more aid to North Vietnam
  • Recommendations from Johnson’s advisors
Notes from Video Clip
As you take notes on the summarizing points, think of the purpose, benefits, and consequences of sending an additional 150,000 troops.






Questions You Will Ask for Discussion






Additional Notes during Discussion