Ken Burns Classroom

Trying to Find the Right Formula

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

In the effort to find the right strategy for winning the war, US General William Westmoreland believed the key was to destroy the North Vietnamese Army and stop its infiltration into South Vietnam. He believed if he could reach a “crossover point” where US and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces were killing more enemy troops than could be replaced, then North Vietnam would have to stop and negotiate for peace. Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and evaluate the crossover point strategy and the use of overwhelming force in fighting the war.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Analyze four military strategies open to the United States in 1966.
  • Evaluate the merits of the four US military strategies conducted in 1966.

NOTE: Teachers might want to seek out additional information on search-and-destroy missions, descriptions of the military strategy of search and destroy, and some of the misconceptions that surround it through reputable online resources.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Tell students that in this activity they will examine the point when the United States began to significantly escalate its military involvement in the Vietnam War. The US commanding general, William Westmoreland, introduced his concept of the “crossover point”—the point where US and ARVN forces were killing more enemy troops than could be replaced.
  2. Distribute copies of the handout to all students and then view the video segments as a class.
  3. Review the summarizing points in the handout with students. Have students take notes in the second section of the handout while viewing the segments.
  4. After students watch the video segments and take notes, students should meet in small groups to complete the third section of the handout.
  5. Ask students to use the summarizing points and their film notes to write two questions in the fourth section.
  6. When they are ready, bring groups back to a whole-class discussion. Have students ask their questions and the class respond in a general discussion.
  7. At the end of the discussion, ask students to evaluate the merits of the four US strategies presented in the video segments:
    • The crossover point
    • Search-and-destroy missions
    • The use of body counts in measuring American success of the war
    • Bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail
  8. Students can write a paper, make a digital presentation, or conduct a debate with one side supporting the strategy and the other rejecting it.

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: Trying to Find the Right Formula Graphic Organizer

Directions: The top section lists the summarizing points of the video clip. Take notes on the topic 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
  • General Westmoreland’s “crossover point”
  • South Vietnamese hamlet search-and-destroy missions
  • The military’s fixation with body count
  • The bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Notes from Video Segments
As you view the video segments that cover the points above, think of the purpose, benefits, and consequences of the following points.

Crossover Point Search-and-Destroy Missions Body Count Bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail




































Questions You Will Ask for Discussion







Additional Notes during Discussion