Ken Burns Classroom

Kennedy’s “Limited War” Campaign—Risk Assessment Lesson Plan

Ken Burns Film: The Vietnam War

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1-2 class periods


Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and examine the Kennedy administration’s deliberation over whether to escalate the effort in South Vietnam, weighing all contingencies of the Cold War, American exceptionalism, containing communism, and the uncertainty of the enemy.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Understand the feelings of many Americans regarding American exceptionalism.
  • Explore President Kennedy’s belief that a limited war would be enough to keep South Vietnam out of communist control.
  • Understand the resolve of the North Vietnamese government to unite the South with the North under a communist regime.
  • Analyze the limits of America’s limited war strategy.



Activity Procedure

  1. To give students enough background and information to successfully conduct the risk assessment, have them watch the video clip “Growing American Presence in Vietnam” and discuss the corresponding questions below. Then, show them “Conflicting Visions and a Life of Uncertainty” and discuss its corresponding questions. Afterward, conduct the risk assessment activity.
  2. Discussion Questions for “Growing American Presence in Vietnam”:
    • How does the testimony of John Musgrave embody the words of President John F. Kennedy when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”? Why do you think so many people of Musgrave’s generation felt so strongly about the president’s message?
    • President Kennedy’s first few months in office did not go well—the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s intimidation, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the president’s refusal to take action in Laos. What conclusions can you draw from Kennedy’s foreign policy record in the first few months?
    • In response to the communist challenge posed in South Vietnam, Kennedy rejected sending ground troops, but he supported a “limited war” strategy to confront and contain the threat. What were the tactics used in a limited war in South Vietnam? How did a limited war differ from a conventional war? Why did Kennedy believe this tactic was the better way to fight a Cold War?
    • Why was support for the South Vietnamese Army so crucial to confronting communism? How did Kennedy escalate the extent of the war while still keeping it limited? Why do you think he kept this escalation of US military advisors a secret from the American people?
  3. Discussion Questions for “Conflicting Visions and a Life of Uncertainty”:
    • By 1963, the people of Vietnam had been living in a state of war for nearly 20 years. What impact did that have on their resolve to fight a war for freedom? How might their resolve have differed from that of the Americans? How do the comments from Huy Duc reveal the desire of the North Vietnamese to reunite their country?
    • Describe the image Ho Chi Minh presented to the Vietnamese people and why this image was successful in conveying his message of unrelenting resolve to defend Vietnam.
    • According to Duong Van Mai of Saigon, how did many South Vietnamese people feel about their government and military?
    • Describe the impression many North Vietnamese had regarding the US presence in Vietnam and the commitment they felt to reject it.
    • Do you agree with Tom Vallely’s assessment that when you think about the American strategy, it was inevitable that it wouldn’t turn out well? Explain.

Complete the Risk Assessment Activity

  1. Form students into small groups. Explain to students that they will conduct a risk assessment to help advise President Kennedy on whether the US should be more or less involved in aiding the South Vietnamese government. Explain to students that a risk assessment is a process for evaluating potential risks that may result from action(s) taken. In this case, students will review six areas of potential risk that President Kennedy faced when deciding the degree of American involvement in Vietnam.
  2. Distribute the handout “Kennedy’s ‘Limited War’ Campaign” to all groups and briefly review it. Have students assess the six areas of potential risk that President Kennedy faced when he determined how involved America should be in Vietnam. Below each potential risk is the range of possibilities. Students should review the possibilities of each risk and then determine the likelihood of each risk on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = very likely possible, 5 = nearly impossible). Students should circle the level of likelihood for each risk and discuss their ratings with their group members. Groups should then make a recommendation to President Kennedy on how involved the United States should be in Vietnam.
  3. After groups have assessed each pair of risk topics, have them present their recommendation and its rationale to the class.


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: Kennedy’s “Limited War” Campaign—Risk Assessment Activity

Directions: In your group, review the six areas of potential risk that President Kennedy faced when deciding on how involved America should be in Vietnam.

Below each potential risk is a range of possibilities. Review the possibilities of each risk. Then determine the likelihood of each risk on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = very likely possible, 5 = nearly impossible). Circle the level of likelihood risk for each risk. Discuss your rating with your group. Then, make a recommendation to President Kennedy on how involved the United States should be in Vietnam.


The Possibility the Conflict Could Lead to a Nuclear War

  • The environment of a cold war with large, well-equipped armies; nuclear weapons; and strong ideological passion (communism v. freedom and capitalism) might lead to nuclear confrontation.
  • The thought of an actual nuclear war is unthinkable.


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Ideological Goals

  • The Soviet Union and communist China are committed to creating a communist world.
  • The United States and its allies are committed to stopping or containing communism around the world.


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Each Side’s Prestige and Honor

  • The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong have fought for independence from foreign powers for nearly half a century. To fail would make the sacrifices meaningless.
  • The United States has promised the free world it would stop the spread of communism. To abandon the mission would result in mistrust and a loss of respect.


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Military Capability in Fighting a War

  • The US military is one of the best in the world in terms of training, technology, and experience.
  • The effect of US military tactics and weapons against a guerrilla army are unknown and their degree of success is uncertain.


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Leadership in Conducting a War

  • President Kennedy has assembled the best and brightest political and military minds to advise him on fighting communism.
  • Ho Chi Minh had assembled the best and brightest political and military minds on fighting for independence.


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The Will of the People

  • The resolve of the North Vietnamese people to be totally free of foreign influence is strong.
  • The resolve of the American people to fight a foreign war is not very strong..


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Your Group’s Recommendation: