Ken Burns Classroom

Reassessing Rolling Thunder

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 effectiveness of the bombing campaign known as “Rolling Thunder,” which directed air attacks against Hanoi and Haiphong in hopes of forcing North Vietnam to negotiate a peace settlement. 

Learning Objective

Students will:

  • Assess the merits of Operation Rolling Thunder.
  • Assess the effectiveness of the US strategy of using overwhelming force on the enemy.
  • Assess whether the use of overwhelming force changed Americans’ perception of the US war effort.
  • Evaluate the Johnson administration’s continued use of the overwhelming force strategy.

Activity Procedure

  1. Have students view the first segment, “Reassessing Rolling Thunder and the Crossover Point,” which features President Johnson stating publicly his desire to end the war and his private concerns that the current strategy isn’t hurting the enemy enough, and that more pressure is needed. Then show the second segment, “Repairing the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” which reveals the results of increased bombing of North Vietnam and the ability of the North Vietnamese to rebound from the punishing destruction.
  2. Have students discuss the questions for each video segment in a small group or as a full class. Then, review the debriefing questions with the full class. You can use the debriefing questions for a writing assignment or a debate.

Discussion Questions for “Reassessing Rolling Thunder and the Crossover Point”:

  • What was General Westmoreland’s crossover-point strategy, and why were Johnson administration officials concerned about it?
  • What was President Johnson’s reasoning for deciding to increase the bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder?

Discussion Questions for
“Repairing the Ho Chi Minh Trail”:

  • Summarize Secretary Robert McNamara’s strategy for destroying the morale of the enemy. How did reports on the effectiveness of Rolling Thunder debunk his strategy?
  • What is your assessment of the effectiveness of Operation Rolling Thunder? Why do you think President Johnson opted to increase the bombing in North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in spite of the collateral damage involved?

Class Debriefing Questions

  • Discuss the merits and drawbacks of Operation Rolling Thunder. Why did the strategy seem rational to Americans but in reality proved totally ineffective?
  • How did the continuation of the use of overwhelming force prove counterproductive on the battlefield and at home in the United States?
  • Why do you think the Johnson administration and the US military continued the overwhelming force strategy in spite of the knowledge that it wasn’t working?

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.