Ken Burns Classroom

A Misuse of American Power? An Examination of American Power and an Alternative Approach

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

In this activity, students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR that show the US involvement in Vietnam in the early years of the war. In them, reporter Neil Sheehan vividly describes the daunting military power of the United States. But as the conflict progresses, both US and South Vietnamese military officials begin to doubt whether the military operations are achieving their objectives.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Describe the feelings of many Americans during the early years of the Cold War.
  • Describe how US military capabilities gave Americans the feeling of exceptionalism and commitment to a free world.
  • Analyze why some American military officials questioned the use of massive force.
  • Compare and contrast the US conventional military strategy with a pacification program.

Activity Procedure

  1. Have students view the three video segments and discuss the following points:
    • Characterize the feelings of many Americans, like Neil Sheehan, about the mission in Vietnam in the early stages of the war.
    • From Sheehan’s words and the images in the video, describe how America’s military capabilities helped support its sense of exceptionalism and commitment to a free world.
    • Why did some American military personnel, like John Paul Vann, begin to question the use of massive force on the enemy? Give an example of how using massive force could have unwanted results.
    • Compare and contrast the conventional military strategy of the US military in Vietnam with the pacification policy of province chief Tran Ngoc Chau. Explain why, under the circumstances, the pacification policy of Chau might be more effective than that of the US military.

Extension Activity

Have students engage in a “point-counterpoint” discussion over the use of force when trying to pacify a population that is suspect and noncompliant. This can be viewed in terms of international relations when the United States is confronting a “rogue state” or occupying a foreign nation, or in domestic situations in the United States with police or the National Guard on high alert or enforcing martial law.

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.