Ken Burns Classroom

Truman’s Decision to Aid the French—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 Overview

Students will view selected video clips from THE VIETNAM WAR that examine the various forces that influenced post-WWII American policy to turn away from Vietnam and support the French. Students will engage in a decision-making activity that analyzes the circumstances, explores the president’s 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.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Understand the motivations for a potential alliance between the United States and Vietnam.
  • Examine Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to bring independence to Vietnam.
  • Analyze the similarities and differences between the Vietnamese and US Declarations of Independence.
  • Analyze the purpose, benefits, and consequences of honoring the French request for aid to regain control of Vietnam.
  • Make policy recommendations to President Truman.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Distribute the graphic organizer handout to all students and prepare to view the video segments “Ho Chi Minh’s Quest to End French Colonial Rule” and “Truman Faces a Cold War” as a class.
  2. Before you begin, review the summarizing points in the handout with students. Have them take notes in the middle section of the handout as they watch the video segments.
  3. After students watch the video and take notes, they should meet in small groups; they should use the summarizing points and their film notes to write questions for discussion in the third section of the handout. When they’ve completed their questions, bring the student groups back to a whole-class discussion and have students ask their questions to the class and discuss together.
  4. At the end of the discussion, ask students to speculate on how US foreign policy toward Vietnam might have gone differently had the United States followed Lt. Col. Peter Dewey’s recommendation to promote Vietnamese independence.
  5. Next, explain to students that after Ho Chi Minh declared independence with unofficial US support, the French returned to Vietnam to reclaim their colony at the end of World War II. Vietnamese forces rose up to resist French control, and within a few years the conflict became a stalemate. The French asked for US aid in regaining control of Vietnam. Tell students: Faced with a decision, President Truman has asked you to make a recommendation.
  6. Have students meet in small groups to discuss these four options:
    • Support the French in regaining Vietnam.
    • Support the Vietnamese independence movement.
    • Stay neutral and don’t support either side.
    • Try to negotiate a settlement between the French and Vietnamese.
  7. Once student groups have decided on an option, take a tally of which option the groups chose and then show the last video segment, “Truman and Vietnam,” which reveals what Truman decided to do and why. Students will compare and contrast their decisions with that of Truman; they will then write a brief analysis of Truman’s and their own decisions.

Optional Culminating Activity

Have the groups review Truman’s decision with theirs, and then have students discuss the following questions:

  • What is your opinion of President Truman’s decision? Explain.
  • In what ways might the increase in tensions in the Cold War have influenced Truman’s decision? What might have been the outcome if he had chosen a different option, like negotiating a settlement between France and Ho Chi Minh or supporting Vietnamese independence, or doing nothing?
  • Why do you think President Truman chose not to inform the American public about the increase in aid to the French in Vietnam? Do you think they should have been informed? Explain.

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: Truman Ponders Whether to Aid the French Graphic Organizer

Directions: 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.

Summarizing Points
  • US and Vietnamese motivations to form an alliance
  • Actions Ho Chi Minh took to position Vietnam for independence after the war
  • The importance to the Vietnamese of seeing American OSS officer with Ho Chi Minh when he reads Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence
  • Similarities and differences between Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence and the United States’ Declaration of Independence
  • Truman under pressure to return France and Vietnam to pre-war arrangement
Notes from Video Clip
As you view the clips covering the points above, think of the purpose, benefits, and consequences of aiding the French to regain control of Vietnam.










Questions You Will Ask for Discussion






Additional Notes during Discussion