Ken Burns Classroom

Both Sides Escalate Their Efforts

Ken Burns Film: The Vietnam War

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1 class period


Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and examine the war strategies and political tactics of both North Vietnamese leader Le Duan and US President Lyndon Johnson in the war’s early stages.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the political pressures facing Ho Chi Minh.
  • Evaluate the military plan of North Vietnamese leader Le Duan.
  • Examine the political pressures facing President Lyndon Johnson.
  • Evaluate President Johnson’s military strategy.

Activity Procedure

  1. After the assassinations of US President Kennedy and South Vietnamese President Diem, both sides felt pressure to increase their commitment to win the war. Distribute the student handout and review its directions with students. Students should view the video segment, “Ho Chi Minh Shares His Power,” take notes, and discuss the questions on the handout. Then, they should view “Johnson Secretly Escalates the War,” take notes, and discuss the questions on the handout.
  2. After discussing the tactics and actions of Le Duan and President Johnson, have students write an opinion essay comparing and contrasting the two men’s actions, the potential ethical issues involved in their actions, and whether either man made the right decision under the circumstances.

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]

9.1B.1 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Explain how political, economic, and military conditions prevailing in the mid-1940s led to the Cold War. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.1B.5 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the causes and international and local consequences of major Cold War crises, such as the Berlin blockade, the Korean War, the Polish workers’ protest, the Hungarian revolt, the Suez crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the Indonesian civil war, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. [Formulate historical questions]

9.1B.6 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze how political, diplomatic, and economic conflict and competition between the United States and the Soviet Union affected developments in such countries as Egypt, Iran, the Congo, Vietnam, Chile, and Guatemala. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.1B.7 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze interconnections between superpower rivalries and the development of new military, nuclear, and space technology. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.2A.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the origins of the Cold War and the advent of nuclear politics. [Hold interpretations of history as tentative]

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]

9.3A.2 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Explain why the Cold War took place and ended and assess its significance as a 20th-century event. [Analyze multiple causation]

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: Both Sides Escalate Their Efforts Discussion Guide

Directions:  Take notes on the following questions for each video segment. Prepare to discuss them with the class.

Discussion Questions for video segment “Ho Chi Minh Shares His Power.”

  1. Summarize the political pressures facing Ho Chi Minh in early 1964.
  2. Describe Le Duan’s two-phase plan for victory in South Vietnam.
  3. Why do you think Le Duan believed this was a better plan under the current circumstances?
  4. How did Le Duan convince other party leaders to approve his plan
  5. Do you think Le Duan’s tactics would strengthen or weaken the North Vietnamese government’s resolve to continue to fight for unification of the two Vietnams? Explain.


Discussion Questions for the video segment “Johnson Secretly Escalates the War.”

  1. Summarize the political pressures facing President Johnson in April 1964.
  2. Describe President Johnson’s actions to strengthen US leadership in South Vietnam and to force the North Vietnamese to give up efforts to reunify with South Vietnam.
  3. What military actions did President Johnson refuse to take, and why do you think he didn’t tell the American people about the actions he did take?
  4. Do you think President Johnson’s actions would strengthen or weaken America’s resolve to continue to fight for a free South Vietnam? Explain.