Ken Burns Classroom

Early War Strategy: Comparisons of US Military Tactics and North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong Tactics

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 communist forces and US military battle tactics during the battle in the Ia Drang (Yuh Drang) River valley. Students will then discuss the results of this pivotal battle and the lessons learned by the North Vietnamese and the Americans. 

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the advantages that US forces and North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces had over each other.
  • Assess who won the battle of Ia Drang.
  • Explore the lessons learned by both sides.
  • Examine the misunderstandings about the enemy that the Americans discovered after the battle of Ia Drang.
  • Determine whether the United States or the North Vietnamese won the battle of Ia Drang, and make recommendations on the next steps for either side.

Activity Procedure

  1. Distribute copies of the handout to students and review the summarizing points in it. Show the first video segment, “Plei Mei and the Ia Drang Valley,” to the class and ask students to take notes in the handout. Then discuss the questions on the handout for segment 1.
  2. Show the second segment, “Moore’s Line,” to the class and have them take notes. Then discuss the questions on the handout for segment 2.
  3. Show the third segment, “An Unwinnable War,” to the class. Then, organize students back into small groups and discuss the questions on the handout for segment 3.
  4. Have students take into account all they’ve learned about the confrontation in the Ia Drang Valley; they should then write a summary report on the results. Have them determine whether the victory went to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong or to the United States, and support their reasoning with information from the video segments. What recommendations would they give either side’s leadership in determining the next steps?

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.

Handout: Comparisons of US Military Tactics and North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong Tactics Video Viewing Graphic Organizer

Directions: The top section lists the summarizing points of the video clip. Take notes on the three video clips in the appropriate sections. Prepare to discuss them with the class.

Summarizing Points
  • 1st Cavalry Division (helicopter cavalry)
  • Major Charles Beckwith
  • Assault on Plei Me
  • Fighting ability of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong
  • Events at Landing Zone X-Ray along the Ia Drang (Yuh Drang) River
  • US tactics during the battle
  • Viet Cong tactics during the battle
Notes from Video Clips 1 and 2
As you view the first video clip, take notes on the following points:

  • Advantages for US forces
  • Advantages for North Vietnamese/Viet Cong forces
  • Who do you think won the battle of Ia Drang?

As you view the second video clip, take notes on the following points:

  • Your reactions to witnessing the battle and your impression of the men on both sides
  • Lessons learned by the Americans and the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong from this battle
  • What did the battles in the Ia Drang Valley signal to the United States about the future of the war in Vietnam?
Notes during Discussion of the Third Clip
  • What misunderstandings did General Westmoreland and the Johnson Administration discover after the battle of Ia Drang?
  • What seemed to be the lesson in the ratio of 10 enemy soldiers to one American casualty?
  • Review the two options McNamara laid out to President Johnson. What course of action would you have chosen under these
    circumstances and why? How do you react to finding out about the decisions made?
  • Comment on Karl Marlantes’ assessment of the situation. Do you agree or disagree and why?
  • Do you feel the Johnson administration’s halt in the bombing of North Vietnam was “going the extra mile” to bring the war to a conclusion? Explain.