Ken Burns Classroom

1967 General Westmoreland Promises to End the War—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 Introduction

Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and review General Westmoreland’s assessment of the progress in the war and his request for an additional 200,000 troops to end the war within two years. The Pentagon also recommended increasing US bombing in North Vietnam along the Chinese border as well as mining North Vietnamese harbors. Students will engage in a decision-making activity that analyzes the circumstances, explores options, and then 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 General Westmoreland’s message to Congress in 1967.
  • Analyze the prospect of ending the war with increased military pressure.
  • Analyze the purpose, benefits, and consequences of increasing the number of US ground troops, increasing the bombing of North Vietnam, and mining its harbors.
  • Make policy recommendations to President Johnson.

Supporting Materials

  • In a private memo from Secretary McNamara to President Johnson, May 19, 1967, McNamara warned:

“There may be limits beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one. It could conceivably produce a costly distortion in the American national consciousness and in the world image of the United States.”

Lesson Procedure

  1. Distribute the graphic organizer handout to all students and prepare to view the first video segment, “Pressure to Increase the Scope of War,” 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 video.
  3. Have students review the excerpt from the McNamara memo and listen to General Westmoreland’s speech before Congress. Summarize the main points of each and compare their messages.
  4. After students watch the video segment and take notes, they should meet in small groups to write their group’s question for General Westmoreland and then share the questions with the class.
  5. After students have discussed their questions, ask students which questions would be 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.
  6. Tell students that though the United States was bringing unprecedented firepower to the war, little gain seemed to be made. The military kept asking for just “a few more” troops and bombing raids, but many government officials were becoming nervous of America’s image in the world.
  7. Have students meet in small group to discuss whether (or not) to approve Westmoreland’s request for an additional 200,000 troops and the request from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to bomb sites just below the Chinese border and to mine the harbors of North Vietnam.
  8. Once student groups have made a decision, take a tally of which option the groups chose and then show the final segment, “Johnson Seeks a Middle Ground,” 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 take the middle course? 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 following Secretary McNamara’s suggestion to limit troop levels and declare an unconditional end to all bombing of North Vietnam or sending the number of troops Westmoreland requested and agreeing to the Joint Chiefs of Staff request to increase bombing?
  • Do you feel the question you wrote for General Westmoreland would have contributed to the discussion and helped Johnson make a decision on Westmoreland’s request? Explain why.

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: 1967: General Westmoreland Asks for More Troops 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
  • General Westmoreland’s speech to Congress
  • What more is needed to end the war in two years
  • Secretary McNamara’s memo to President Johnson
Notes from Video Clip
As you take notes on the summarizing points, think of the purpose, benefits, and consequences of sending an additional 200,000 troops to Vietnam and approving the request from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to bomb areas just below the Chinese border and to mine the harbors of North Vietnam.








Questions You Will Ask for Discussion






Additional Notes during Discussion