The Vietnam War Lesson Guide

Theme 5: How the War Was Fought—All Sides

Theme Overview

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?

Essential questions:
  • 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? 
The lessons
  •  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

    Video Clip:

  • 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

    Video Clips:

  • 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

    Video Clips:

  • 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

    Video Clips: