Ken Burns Classroom

Operation Rolling Thunder and Widening the War—Decision-Making 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

Lesson Overview

Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and examine the 1965 US bombing campaign of North Vietnam, code-named “Operation Rolling Thunder,” and President Johnson’s decision to send ground troops into South Vietnam. Students will engage in a decision-making activity that analyzes the circumstances, explores options, and 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 presidential briefings on the status of the US war effort in 1965.
  • Analyze US military response to an attack on a US air base and its consequences.
  • Analyze presidential briefings on the effectiveness of US military strategy in Vietnam.
  • Analyze the purpose, benefits, and consequences of going along with current strategy or increasing US bombing and sending ground troops into Vietnam.
  • Make policy recommendations to President Johnson.



Lesson Procedure

  1. Distribute the graphic organizer handout to all students and prepare to view the first video segment, “Pleiku and Operation Rolling Thunder,” as a class.
  2. Before you begin, review the summarizing points in the handout with students. Have students take notes in the middle section of the handout while viewing the segment.
  3. After students watch the first segment 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 questions for the class discussion.
  4. Have students read the “Fork in the Road” memo from William Bundy and Robert McNamara to President Johnson. They can also read the interview with Robert McNamara. Ask students: What seems to be the main message in each of these briefings? Bring the groups back to a whole-class discussion, having students ask their questions to the class in a general discussion.
  5. When students have finished asking their questions, ask them which questions were difficult to answer and why. Did the memo and interview help answer their questions? Did the memo and interview generate any further questions? Where would they go to find more information? Ask for volunteers to do a little more research and report back.
  6. Tell students that at this stage of the conflict, the North Vietnamese were showing more resilience to US military actions than was expected. The Pentagon was asking for more troops and increased bombing of North Vietnam. But European allies were becoming nervous that the conflict could spin out of control. Tell students: Faced with this situation, President Johnson has asked you to make a recommendation.
  7. Have students meet in small groups to discuss President Johnson’s options regarding the war’s strategy and the next steps to take. Here are his options:
    • Go along with current strategy and hope for a face-saving settlement.
    • Increase bombing of North Vietnam and commit US ground troops in South Vietnam.
  8. Make sure to point out circumstances that students need to consider in their deliberation that were expressed in their notes taken from the video segment, “Pleiku and Operation Rolling Thunder.”
  9. Once student groups have made a decision, take a tally of which option the groups chose. Then show the final video segment, “Widening the War,” which reveals what Johnson decided to do and why. Students will compare and contrast their decisions with that of Johnson, and then write a brief analysis of Johnson’s and their own decisions.

Optional Culminating Activity

Have student groups review Johnson’s decision with their own. Then have students discuss the following questions:

  • What surprised you about the outcome of Johnson’s decision not to stand in the way of a coup? Does this change your decision in any way? Explain.
  • What is your opinion of President Johnson’s decision? Explain.
  • What might have been the outcome if Johnson had chosen the other option—that is, of going along as the U.S. had hoped for a face-saving settlement?
  • Describe the misconception held by the Johnson administration about the enemy’s resolve. How might the Johnson administration have avoided this misconception with the evidence available?
  • Why do you think Johnson wanted to keep knowledge of the bombing and increasing troop numbers a secret? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this?
  • How did the increased bombing and troop numbers change the nature of the conflict in Vietnam? Considering the situation on the ground and the political circumstances Johnson faced, did he have any other choice? Explain.

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: Operation Rolling Thunder, Widening the War 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
  • McGeorge Bundy’s memo to Johnson on the war’s status
  • Johnson’s advisors propose options
  • Guerrillas’ attack on the US helicopter base at Pleiku
  • United States responds with air attacks
  • Viet Cong blow up a hotel in Qui Nhon
  • Conflict’s escalation worries US allies France and Britain
  • Worry that escalating the war could hurt domestic policies
  • Need for more ground troops
Notes from Video Clip
As you take notes on the summarizing points, think of the purpose, benefits, and consequences of sending additional troops and increasing the bombing of North Vietnam.




Questions You Will Ask for Discussion





Additional Notes during Discussion