Ken Burns Classroom

A Cost/Benefit Analysis of Colonialism

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 watch selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and examine the impact of French colonial rule of Vietnam on both the French and the Vietnamese people. Then students will conduct a cost/benefit analysis for each country and discuss ways to find a middle ground.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the different types of colonialism experienced by the Vietnamese.
  • Explore the effects of the French pacification program.
  • Conduct a cost/benefit analysis of French colonialism on the Vietnamese.

Activity Procedure

  1. Begin by showing students the video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR. Then, discuss the following questions:
    • How did colonialism, first under the Chinese and then the French, impact the Vietnamese people? What did they gain, and what did they lose?
    • Under the conditions of colonialism, why was it easy for the French to feel superior to the Vietnamese, and for the Vietnamese to hate the French?
    • How did the French policy of pacification set the tone for relations between the Vietnamese and the French? How did it set the standard for brutality among the combatants?
    • Describe how the Vietnamese fight for independence was similar to other colonies’ struggles for independence from more powerful and domineering countries. For example, what similarities and differences do you see in Vietnam’s quest for independence from France and the American colonies’ break with Great Britain?
  1. Form students into small groups and have each group do a quick cost/benefit analysis of colonialism for the French and the Vietnamese. Distribute two copies of the graphic organizer handout to each group and ask them to complete an analysis for each country, France and Vietnam. 
  2. When students have completed their handouts, debrief the class with the following questions:
    • Which country benefited the most from colonialism? In what way?
    • What were the political, economic, and social costs of colonialism for both countries?
    • Which country seemed to “pay” more?
    • What arguments could each country have made to convince the other that either the benefits were good for both France and Vietnam if Vietnam remained under French rule, or the costs were too high for the French to maintain colonial rule over Vietnam?

National Standards for History

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]

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework

D2.Civ.10.9-12 ( By the end of Grade 12 ): Analyze the impact and the appropriate roles of personal interests and perspectives on the application of civic virtues, democratic principles, constitutional rights, and human rights.

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: Colonialism: A Cost/Benefit Analysis Graphic Organizer

Directions: After discussing the questions in the corresponding activity, fill out the chart below.


______________________________________________________ (Name of Country)