Ken Burns Classroom

The Theory and Reality of a War Strategy

Ken Burns Film: The Vietnam War

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1 class period


Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and examine the tactical plans laid out by the US military command to find and destroy enemy forces. They will then see the reality on the ground as soldiers speak of their experiences and assess the effectiveness of the US military plan.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine US military strategy in capturing and controlling various parts of South Vietnam.
  • Examine the military tactics of the US and North Vietnamese/Viet Cong forces.
  • Analyze the misunderstanding between the US military command and the situation on the ground.

Activity Procedure

  1. Show students the two video segments and then discuss the following questions:
    • What was the overall military goal of dividing South Vietnam into four sections
    • What are your thoughts on this plan? Does it seem to be well conceived and effective? Explain.
  2. Why was General Westmoreland so concerned about protecting the northern provinces? What was the role that US Marines were to play in seven locations along the DMZ?
  3. How were these plans compromised on the ground when the Marines established themselves along the border? What advantages did the enemy have to counteract the Marines’ placement? How did their close-quarter battle tactics neutralize the Americans’ airpower?
  4. What was the misunderstanding between the US military command and the situation on the ground?

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.