Ken Burns Classroom

Analysis of Early US Strategy: Myth and Reality

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

This introductory activity is intended to prompt students to think about early direct US involvement in the war in Vietnam. Students will view selected video clips from THE VIETNAM WAR on the newly elected Kennedy administration and its sense of American exceptionalism. Students will record potential points of conflict and misunderstanding between the United States and the different military and political factions in Vietnam.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the foreign policy rhetoric of President John F. Kennedy.
  • Examine the goals of the North Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong.
  • Analyze the nature of the Vietnam conflict—as a civil war or a war of liberation.
  • Explore the American military’s misunderstandings of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong’s military capabilities and willingness to fight.

Activity Procedure

  1. Distribute the handout to all students and review the directions. Then, show the video segment. 
  2. After students watch the video clip and take notes, they should meet in small groups to complete the third section of the handout. Have them use the summarizing points and their film notes to write questions. Bring the students/groups back to a whole-class discussion, having students pose their questions and the class responding in general discussion. 
  3. Finally, ask students to brainstorm a list of potential conflicts or misunderstandings between the different parties mentioned in the video clip. Write these points on the whiteboard for future reference.

Extension Activity

Have students compare and contrast America’s level of understanding about Vietnam and the conflict they were about to enter with more recent American conflicts, such as the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, or another.

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]

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.

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: Analyzing Early US Strategy: Myth and Reality in Vietnam Graphic Organizer

Directions: The top section of this handout lists the summarizing points of the video segment “JFK Confronts Communism.” Take notes on these points in the middle section. Then, in the third section, develop two questions and prepare to discuss them with the class.

Summarizing Points
  • JFK’s inaugural message
  • The meaning of a heroic America
  • John F. Kennedy’s brain trust
  • The goal of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong)
  • The North Vietnam government’s goal
  • The Vietnamese people’s feelings about the US presence in Vietnam
  • American’s depth of understanding about Vietnam


Notes from Video Clip