Ken Burns Classroom

Kennedy and the Diem Coup: The Torch Is Passed—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 Introduction

Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and explore the military coup of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and the Kennedy administration’s degree of complicity. 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 opinions of various State Department officials and President Kennedy toward the Diem regime.
  • Analyze the words of President John F. Kennedy in his message to the Diem regime.
  • Analyze the various opinions of members of the Kennedy administration toward President Diem of South Vietnam.
  • Analyze the purpose, benefits, and consequences of approving the coup against Diem.
  • Make policy recommendations to President John F. Kennedy.


Lesson Procedure

    1. Distribute the graphic organizer handout to all students and prepare to view the first video segment, “Promoting a Coup in South Vietnam,” 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 watch the segment.
    3. After students watch the clip and take notes, they should meet in small groups to complete the third section of the handout, using the summarizing points and their film notes to write their questions for discussion.
    4. Have students review and discuss the White House memos and summarize the main points of disagreement over the Diem regime. Regroup as a class and have students ask their questions to the class in a general discussion.
    5. After students discuss their questions, ask them which ones were difficult to answer and why. Did any of the White House memos help answer their questions? Did the memos generate any further questions? Where would students go to find more information? Ask for volunteers to do a little more research and report back.
    6. Tell students that President Kennedy was faced with a difficult decision. The Diem regime was brutal and didn’t follow American values; however, it was the only viable government in South Vietnam suitable to US goals in the region. It was becoming clear that the regime was losing support of the military and the South Vietnamese people. Tell students: Faced with this situation, President Kennedy has asked you to make a recommendation.
    7. Have students meet in small groups to discuss President Kennedy’s options regarding a possible coup of the Diem regime. Here are his three options:
      • Strongly oppose a coup and try to reform the Diem regime.
      • Do not encourage a coup, but don’t stand in the way, either.
      • Help encourage a coup.
    8. Once student groups have made a decision, take a tally of which option the groups chose and then show the last segment, “South Vietnam: Diem and Nhu,” which reveals what Kennedy decided to do and why. Students will compare and contrast their decisions with that of Kennedy; they should then write a brief analysis of Kennedy’s and their own decisions.

Optional Culminating Activity

Have the groups review Kennedy’s decision with their own, and then ask students to discuss the following questions:

  • What surprised you about the outcome of Kennedy’s decision to not stand in the way of a coup? Does this change your decision in any way? Explain.
  • What is your opinion of President Kennedy’s decision? Explain.
  • What might have been the outcome if President Kennedy had chosen a different option, such as strongly opposing the coup instead of letting it happen?
  • After allowing the coup to take place, what do you think should be President Kennedy’s next move?

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.1.1 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain the significance of principal policies and events in the United States’ relations with the world, e.g., the American Revolution, Monroe Doctrine, Mexican and Spanish American Wars, World Wars I and II, formation of the United Nations, Marshall Plan, NATO, Korean and Vietnam Wars, end of the Cold War, interventions in Latin America

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: Kennedy and the Diem Coup 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
  • Roger Hilsman Jr.’s cable to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge
  • US concern about the Diem regime
  • Lodge’s decision to endorse a coup
  • Kennedy’s message to Diem during Cronkite interview
  • Kennedy’s advisors’ disagreement regarding the coup
  • Kennedy’s instructions to Lodge
  • Result of the coup
Notes from Video Clip
As you view the clips covering the points above, think of the purpose, benefits, and consequences of continuing to recognize and support the Diem regime.




Questions You Will Ask for Discussion





Additional Notes during Discussion