Ken Burns Classroom

Eisenhower, the French, and Dien Bien Phu—Decision-Making Lesson

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 view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and examine the impact of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu on US policy in Vietnam. Students will engage in a decision-making activity that analyzes the circumstances, explores options, and then defines a course of action. After students come to a decision, they will see what the United States actually decided to do and will comment on the decisions made.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the reasons for France’s difficulty in recolonizing Vietnam
  • Examine the French military strategy at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.
  • Examine North Vietnam’s strategy at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.
  • Analyze the purpose, benefits, and consequence of sending US aid to the French at Dien Bien Phu.
  • Make policy recommendations to President Eisenhower.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Distribute the graphic organizer handout to all students, and prepare to watch the video segments “French Fight a Dirty War in Vietnam” and “Battle at Dien Bien Phu” as a class.
  2. Before you begin, review the summarizing points in the handout with students. Have them take notes in the middle section of the handout while they view the video segments.
  3. After students watch the video and take notes, they should meet in small groups to complete the third section of the handout and develop two questions for class discussion. Have them use the summarizing points and their film notes to write questions for their discussion. Then, bring the groups back to a whole-class discussion. Have students pose their questions to the class and discuss.
  4. Next, ask students which questions were difficult to answer and why. Where would they go to find more information? Ask for volunteers to do a little more research and report back.

  5. Tell students that Presidents Eisenhower and Truman faced two similar dilemmas: 1) to help the French perpetuate an unpopular—and now failing—war to keep their colony; or 2) to encourage the French to sue for peace and lose another “domino” to communism. Tell students: Faced with this decision, President Eisenhower has asked you to make a recommendation.
  6. Have students meet in small groups to discuss these three options: 
    • Reject the French request for aid. 
    • Negotiate a settlement between the French and Vietnamese.
    • Secretly send aid to the French.
  7. Once student groups have made a decision, take a tally of which option the groups chose and then watch the last video segment, “Eisenhower and Dien Bien Phu,” which reveals what Eisenhower chose to do and why. Students will compare and contrast their decisions with that of Eisenhower and then write a brief analysis of Eisenhower’s and their own decisions.

Optional Culminating Activity

Have the groups review Eisenhower’s decision with their own and then have students discuss the following questions:

  • What surprised you about the outcome at Dien Bien Phu? Does this outcome change your own decision in any way? Explain
  • What is your opinion of President Eisenhower’s decision? Explain. How might Eisenhower’s background have influenced his decision not to aid the French?
  • What might have been the outcome if he had chosen a different option, like negotiating a settlement between France and Vietnam or secretly sending aid to the French?
  • What do you think should be President Eisenhower’s next move after refusing to aid the French?

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]

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: Eisenhower, the French, and Dien Bien Phu Graphic Organizer

Directions: The top section lists the summarizing points of the video clip. Take notes on these points in the middle section. Then, in the third section, develop two questions you’re curious about and prepare to discuss them with the class.

Summarizing Points
  • Difficulty for France in recolonizing Vietnam
  • French agree to peace talks but try to improve position
  • French establish base camp at Dien Bien Phu
  • Viet Minh surround the encampment with thousands of troops and artillery
Notes From Video Clip
As you view the clips covering the points above, think of the purpose, benefits, and consequences of continuing to help the French in a losing war.




Questions You Will Ask For Discussion







Additional Notes During Discussion