Ken Burns Classroom

The Diem Regime and US Misperceptions

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

By spring 1962, the United States was embroiled in a cold war with the Soviet Union and China. It had a lot at stake: international prestige and influence in world affairs and the preservation of the capitalist economic system. President John F. Kennedy had committed to making South Vietnam a free and independent state in Southeast Asia. His initial support for its president, Ngo Dinh Diem, started out strong but waned over time.

In this activity, students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR on American impressions of Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam, after the French departure. They will compare American policy makers’ perceptions of these situations with the reality.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Analyze the South Vietnamese government’s strategic hamlet program.
  • Explore press reports in the success of the strategic hamlet program and the reality on the ground.
  • Examine the actions of the Diem government and the Diem family members in governing South Vietnam.
  • Analyze the extent of influence the United States had over the Diem regime.

Activity Procedure

Have students view the video segment “Strategic Hamlet Campaign,” which describes Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s assessment of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and the success of the strategic hamlets.

Then, review the following discussion questions with the class:

  • Describe the South Vietnam government’s strategic hamlet program. What was the program’s goal, and how was it supposed to “win the hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese people?
  • How well did the US government feel the conflict in South Vietnam was going by May 1962? What evidence was there that the program was progressing?

Next, view the second and third segments, “Press Coverage of Vietnam” and “Ngo Dinh Diem’s Regime.” These segments feature The New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan’s comments on the strategic hamlet program and Sheehan’s and Phan Quang Tue’s comments on how the South Vietnamese people felt about the Diem government.

Then, review these discussion questions with the class:

  • What similarities and differences did the strategic hamlet program under Diem have with the French Pacification program of the 1950s? 
  • What was being reported in the American press regarding the status of the strategic hamlets and the support for President Diem? How does this contrast with official government news briefings? 
  • Describe the operations of the Diem government, including the actions of his brother No Ding Nhu. How does Phan Quang Tue express the frustration of the South Vietnamese in terms of what was promised by the Diem regime and what was delivered? 
  • Reporters who probed too deeply into the operations of Diem and Nhu were ordered out of the country. When the American ambassador objected, Nhu’s wife retorted, “Vietnam had no use for your crazy freedoms!” Why do you think she said this about Vietnam? If you were the American ambassador, how would you have responded to Madam Nhu? 
  • Feelings toward the Diem regime filtered into the South Vietnamese military. Special Forces commander Robert Rheault suggested that the United States should have forced the Diem government to “clean up its act” or leave. Do you think this was sound advice at the time? Why or why not? What leverage could the United States use to enforce such a suggestion?

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]

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework

D2.Civ.10.9-12 ( By the end of Grade 12 ): Analyze the impact and the appropriate roles of personal interests and perspectives on the application of civic virtues, democratic principles, constitutional rights, and human rights.

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.