Ken Burns Classroom

The United States Becomes further Involved in South Vietnam: A Case Study

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

Students will view selected segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and analyze how French withdrawal from Vietnam, and the pressures of the Cold War, increased America’s commitment to South Vietnam.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Understand US political leaders’ belief in the Domino Theory.
  • Explore the role of the United States in the Domino Theory.
  • Analyze political and military options involving further US involvement in Vietnam.
  • Make recommendations to President Eisenhower.


Activity Procedure

  1. View the segment “US Involvement in Indochina” as a class or in small groups. Ask students what they learned from the clip or what surprised them from the clip.
  2. Discuss the following questions as a class:
    • Briefly explain Eisenhower and Nixon’s assessments of the situation in Southeast Asia and how the Domino Theory applies. According to this theory, what role should the United States play? 
    • Listen to Senator Kennedy’s luncheon remarks and summarize his feelings on US involvement in Vietnam. What conditions does he suggest need to be made for the United States to support South Vietnam? 
    • Eisenhower noted in his diary that he believed no military victory was possible in Vietnam, yet why do you think he secretly sent military aid to the French to support the desperate French troops at Dien Bien Phu? 
  3. Explain to the class that despite secret American aid, the French forces were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. President Eisenhower asked his advisors what the United States should do next. Form students into small groups to act as President Eisenhower’s advisors. Have them read the CIA document from November 1954 and summarize its main points. Then have them make a recommendation on one of the following courses of action, explaining why they believe their choice is the best one:
    • United States should send troops to fight any aggression from the communist North Vietnam. 
    • United States should send only military advisors into Vietnam to help enforce the Geneva Agreement. 
    • United States should pull out of South Vietnam completely and let the South Vietnamese government defend itself. 
  4. Have each student advisory group share its recommendations. 
  5. Next, view the video segment “Ngo Dinh Diem’s Rise to Power” as a class and discuss the following questions:
    • How did Ngo Dinh Diem assuage the doubts many Americans had about him after the French left Vietnam? Why do you think Diem’s actions impressed the Eisenhower administration?
    • Senator Kennedy’s speech at the Willard Hotel not only sent a ringing endorsement of Diem but also provided a strong rationale for further US involvement in South Vietnam. Which parts of his speech made this argument?
    • Why did the United States feel compelled to take over for the French in Indochina?

6. Have students formulate statements that either support or reject further American involvement in South Vietnam at this time, identifying what degree of responsibility nations have in helping foster a peaceful world order.

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.