Ken Burns Classroom

The Battle of Ap Bac

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

It’s important to point out that although the Vietnam War lasted 10 years, America’s involvement in Vietnam lasted 30 years, dating back to the Truman administration. By 1962, American service personnel were serving as advisors to the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN. The Cold War was growing hotter in the 1960s, and the United States increased its number of advisors in South Vietnam to 11,300. In this activity, students will view a selected video segment from THE VIETNAM WAR that describes the battle of Ap Bac. Students will follow the progress and outcome of the battle and evaluate the effectiveness of the US military advisors’ work with the ARVN.
Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the strategic importance of the battle of Ap Bac.
  • Explore the US military’s misunderstanding of the enemy and terrain in its preparations for battle.
  • Examine the lessons learned by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong from the battle.
  • Analyze the assessment that US military officials made about the outcome of the battle at Ap Bac and its effect on the American role in Vietnam.

Activity Procedure

  1. Have students view the video segment and then discuss the following questions in small groups or as a class. The final question could be presented in written form or as a debate for a final assessment: 
    • Summarize the major events of the battle of Ap Bac. What went according to plan for the Americans and South Vietnamese? What went awry?
    • What were the major misunderstandings for the United States as a result of this battle? 
    • What questions might have American military commanders been asking themselves after the battle? 
    • What were the lessons learned by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese about their own capabilities and that of their enemy? 
    • How did the posters serve as effective propaganda for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong in building morale and recruiting more soldiers? 
    • How can it be said, as General Harkins did, that the battle of Ap Bac was a victory for the United States? How can it be said that it was, at worst, a momentary setback? 
    • Did the battle of Ap Bac help to clarify America’s role in Vietnam? Why or why not?


Extension Activity

Using a chalkboard or whiteboard, draw a “line of opinion” on the battle of Ap Bac. On one end, label the battle as “a defeat”; on the other end, “a victory”; and in the middle, “a momentary setback.” Have students stand next to their characterization of the battle’s outcome. In whatever groups they positioned themselves, have the group members develop a statement justifying their position. Then, have each student write a paragraph declaring his or her position and explaining why his or her view is correct and the other two views are not.

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.