Ken Burns Classroom

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident—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 Introduction

Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and examine the circumstances that led to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the decisions made to authorize the resolution that bears its name. Students will engage in a decision-making activity that analyzes the circumstances, discusses options, and then 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.

Before showing the video segments, tell students that since President Johnson took over after the assassination of President Kennedy, Johnson sought better results in South Vietnam. He gradually escalated US military pressure, hoping to bring the North to negotiate before the 1964 election. But he dared not push too hard for fear of Soviet and Chinese reprisals. He asked his aid, William Bundy, to draft a congressional resolution authorizing him to use force, if needed.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the circumstances surrounding the attack of US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
  • Explore the controversy surrounding the attack of US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
  • Analyze the purpose, benefits, and consequences of approving the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
  • Make policy recommendations to President Johnson.



Lesson Procedure

  1. Distribute the graphic organizer handout to all students and prepare to watch the video segments 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 videos.
  3. View the first segment, “The USS Maddox Is Attacked,” and ask students if they have any questions. Then have them view the second segment, “The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” and take notes.
  4. After students watch the segments 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 their questions for class discussion.
  5. For more information on the discussions between President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, students can listen to audiotapes (link found in the materials above). There are transcripts to several of the tape recordings. Select one or have students review all and discuss their findings.
  6. Regroup as a class and have students pose their questions to the class in a general discussion.
  7. After students discuss their questions, ask them which ones were difficult to answer and why. Did any of the White House tapes help answer their questions? Did the tapes generate any further questions? Where would students go to find more information? Ask for volunteers to do a little more research and report back.
  8. Tell students: Operating on the information he had at the time, President Johnson sends to Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
  9. Now distribute copies of the resolution (linked to in the materials above) or access it online; have students meet in small groups to discuss whether to approve the resolution. Here are their options:
    • Approve the resolution.
    • Reject the resolution.
    • Ask the Johnson administration to provide more information before making a decision.
    • Formally ask Congress to declare war on North Vietnam.
  10. Once student groups have made a decision, take a tally of which option the groups chose. Then, show the final segment, “1964: President Johnson Responds,” which reveals what Congress decided to do and why. Students will compare and contrast their decisions with that of Congress and then write a brief analysis of Congress’s and their own decisions.

Optional Culminating Activity

Have student groups compare Congress’s decision with their own and then have students discuss the following questions:

  • What surprised you most about the outcome of Congress’s decision to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? Does this change your decision in any way? Explain.
  • What is your opinion of Congress’s decision? Explain.
  • What might have been the outcome if Congress had chosen a different option, like rejecting the resolution or declaring war on North Vietnam?
  • After reading the text of the resolution, how do you think this action will impact US strategic plans for South Vietnam? How might it impact President Johnson’s war-making capability? What are your thoughts on giving any president this amount of power and discretion?

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: Gulf of Tonkin Incident Graphic Organizer

Background:  When Johnson became president after Kennedy’s assassination, he sought better results in South Vietnam. He sought to escalate US military pressure, hoping to force North Vietnam to negotiate peace before the 1964 election. Because there wasn’t a formal declaration of war, he didn’t know how much force he could apply without some kind of congressional authorization. In anticipation of changing events, Johnson asked his aid, William Bundy, to draft a congressional resolution authorizing him wide latitude in the use of force.  

Directions: In the graphic organizer below, 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. Conduct the decision-making activity with your group in the fourth section. Be prepared to defend your decision to the class.

Summarizing Points
  • South Vietnamese ships attack North Vietnamese islands
  • North Vietnamese patrol torpedo (PT) boat squadron attacks USS Maddox in international waters
  • Controversy over who ordered the North Vietnamese attack
  • Both sides make threats of further action
  • Mystery of the second attack on the USS Turner Joy
  • President Johnson’s message to the public
  • Decision to send the resolution to Congress
Notes from Video Clip
As you view “The USS Maddox Is Attacked,” take notes on the following points:  

  • Which side, South or North Vietnam, first attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin?
  • Briefly describe the North Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox.






As you view “The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” take notes on the following points:

  • Summarize the decision made in President Johnson and Robert McNamara’s conversation.
  • What was the mystery of the second attack on the USS Turner Joy?
  • Summarize President Johnson’s message to the public.






 Questions You Will Ask for Discussion





Decision-Making Analysis
After taking notes on the video segments, think of the purpose, benefits, and consequences of approving the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.