Theme 5: How the War Was Fought—All Sides
The Vietnam War Lesson Guide
Initially, the US strategy was to fight a conventional war, but this war had no conventional front line. The US started with a strategy of fighting a limited war and discovering it would be an incremental war. The Vietnamese enemy fought primarily a guerilla war (tenacity and resourcefulness), and showed that they were willing to pay a heavy sacrifice, America was not prepared to fight this kind of war militarily or politically. Problems resulted from this for the US: the strategies/tactics were not static, but evolved over the duration. Military preparedness and political messaging had to adjust to the fluid conditions. All this amidst the overarching threat of heightened tensions in an atmosphere of nuclear weapons. Lessons will explore these conditions and the ethical questions on the war’s conduct from the perspectives of soldiers, leaders, and civilians on both sides. The atrocities and dehumanization and racially charged language that dehumanized the enemy. What does it mean to take another life, and how does that ethical equation change when the life that is taken is for a cause one does not believe in? When does one sacrifice for the greater good? How can we understand and live with loss?
- How did the United States and the Vietnamese understandings about the each other impact their war efforts at different times during the war?
- Why is it important for a military and a society to adjust to the fluid situations they are subjected to during a war?
- Kennedy’s “Limited War” Campaign—Risk Assessment Activity—Students view selected video segments from The Vietnam War and examine the Kennedy administration’s deliberation over whether to escalate the effort in South Vietnam, weighing all contingencies of the Cold War, American exceptionalism, containing communism, and the uncertainty of the enemy.
Time period: 1961
- Fallout after the Diem Coup—Students view selected video segments from The Vietnam War and examine the situation after the coup of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Students will assess the South Vietnamese government’s ability to defend itself against the insurgency of North Vietnam after the coup.
Time period: Late 1963-Early 1964
- Both Sides Escalate Their Efforts—Students view selected video segments from The Vietnam War and examine the war strategies and political tactics of both North Vietnamese leader Le Duan and US President Lyndon Johnson in the war’s early stages.
Time period: Early 1964
- Early War Strategy: Comparisons of US and North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong Military Tactics—Students view selected video segments from The Vietnam War and examine communist forces and US military battle tactics during the battle in the Ia Drang (Yuh Drang) River valley. Students will then discuss the results of this pivotal battle and the lessons learned by the North Vietnamese and the Americans.
Time period: Fall 1965
- Questioning the Mission—Students view selected video segments from The Vietnam War that examine the concern held by some Johnson administration officials, Congress, and even President Johnson himself over US involvement in Vietnam. Students will view excerpts from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings that took place in 1966 as well as the testimony of various experts about the war’s progress. Students will then consider whether to support future funding for the war.
Time period: January 1966
- Trying to Find the Right Formula-- US General William Westmoreland believed the key to a winning strategy 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 view selected video segments from The Vietnam War and evaluate the crossover point strategy and the use of overwhelming force in fighting the war.
Time period: 1966
- Reassessing Rolling Thunder—Students view selected video segments from The Vietnam War and examine the effectiveness of the bombing campaign known as “Rolling Thunder,” which directed air attacks against Hanoi and Haiphong in hopes of forcing North Vietnam to negotiate a peace settlement.
Time period: First half of 1966
- Reassessing the Crossover Point-- Students will view selected video segments from The Vietnam War and examine General Westmoreland’s “crossover point” strategy and his request for more troops to end the war.
Time period: Mid-1967
- The Theory and Reality of a War Strategy—Students 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.
Time period: Mid-1967
- The Things They Carried-- In The Vietnam War, Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien reads from his book The Things They Carried. In this lesson, students analyze O’Brien’s writing, using literature to learn about soldiers’ experiences in war. They try their hand at writing about the things they themselves carry, and what those things say about them.
Time period: 1968-1970