Ken Burns Classroom

Reassessing the Crossover Point

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

Before starting this activity, explain to students that by spring 1967, the US military believed it had achieved the “crossover point” in several areas of South Vietnam. This strategic point was devised by Commanding General William Westmoreland to indicate the point in the war when more enemy soldiers had been killed than could be replaced. General Westmoreland tried to convince President Johnson that with just another 200,000 US troops, he could achieve the crossover point throughout South Vietnam and get the North Vietnamese government to surrender.

Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and examine General Westmoreland’s crossover point strategy and his request for more troops to end the war.

Learning Objectives

Students will:  

  • Examine various military and political experts’ opinions of the best war strategy.
  • Analyze the choice of action chosen by President Johnson.
  • Debate the recommendations by Johnson’s advisors and come to their own conclusions on the best course of action.

Activity Procedure

  1. Have students view the video segment, “Westmoreland Addresses Congress,” which shows General Westmoreland announcing that the crossover point had been reached and that the end of the war was in sight. He then asks President Johnson for an additional 200,000 troops and permission to send US troops into Laos and Cambodia. Then, show the second segment, “Johnson’s Compromise,” of President Johnson’s decision.
  2. Have students discuss the questions below in a small group or as a full class. Then, review the debriefing questions with the full class. You can conduct the activity below as a class or as an individual student writing activity.

Discussion Questions for Clips 1 and 2

  • Summarize the message of General William Westmoreland in his address to Congress regarding the status of the war.
  • What was the true belief of Westmoreland and the administration on how the United States would prevail in the war?
  • Describe General Westmoreland’s assessment of the war’s progress as of April 1967. What steps did Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff say were needed to end the war in two years?
  • Describe Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s feelings and his memorandum to President Johnson about the war’s progress by mid-1967.
  • What were Secretary McNamara’s recommendations to President Johnson?

Debriefing Questions

  • After receiving advice from his military advisors, what actions did President Johnson eventually take? Why do you think he chose this middle ground?
  • Would you have followed the advice of Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Robert McNamara? Explain.

Closing Activity

  1. Divide students into small groups of two to three students. Assign each group one of the following positions until all groups are assigned:
    • Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff
    • Secretary McNamara
    • President Johnson
  1. Have each group develop talking points explaining and justifying their respective positions. Form larger groups, each with the three positions, and have the groups discuss their positions again. Then have each large group vote on the most preferred position (Westmoreland’s, McNamara’s, or Johnson’s) or develop one of their own.  

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.