In this lesson, students will 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.
1. Understand the feelings of many Americans regarding American exceptionalism.
2. Explore President Kennedy’s belief that a limited war would be enough to keep South Vietnam out of communist control.
3. Understand the resolve of the North Vietnamese government to unite the South with the North under a communist regime.
4. Analyze the limits of America’s limited war strategy.
For more detail on the Kennedy administration’s deliberations on expanding US effort in Vietnam, refer to Notes on the National Security Council Meeting, November 15, 1961.
About The Author
Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise and various Ken Burns productions including The War, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, The Central Park Five, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and Jackie Robinson. He is the winner of the 2007 American Educational Publishers Award.
To give students enough background and information to successfully conduct the risk assessment, have them watch the video clip “Growing American Presence in Vietnam” and discuss the corresponding questions below. Then, show them “Conflicting Visions and a Life of Uncertainty” and discuss its corresponding questions. Afterward, conduct the risk assessment activity.
Discussion Questions for “Growing American Presence in Vietnam” video clip:
- How does the testimony of John Musgrave embody the words of President John F. Kennedy when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”? Why do you think so many people of Musgrave’s generation felt so strongly about the president’s message?
- President Kennedy’s first few months in office did not go well—the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s intimidation, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the president’s refusal to take action in Laos. What conclusions can you draw from Kennedy’s foreign policy record in the first few months?
- In response to the communist challenge posed in South Vietnam, Kennedy rejected sending ground troops, but he supported a “limited war” strategy to confront and contain the threat. What were the tactics used in a limited war in South Vietnam? How did a limited war differ from a conventional war? Why did Kennedy believe this tactic was the better way to fight a Cold War?
- Why was support for the South Vietnamese Army so crucial to confronting communism? How did Kennedy escalate the extent of the war while still keeping it limited? Why do you think he kept this escalation of US military advisors a secret from the American people?
Discussion Questions for “Conflicting Visions and a Life of Uncertainty” video clip:
- By 1963, the people of Vietnam had been living in a state of war for nearly 20 years. What impact did that have on their resolve to fight a war for freedom? How might their resolve have differed from that of the Americans? How do the comments from Huy Duc reveal the desire of the North Vietnamese to reunite their country?
- Describe the image Ho Chi Minh presented to the Vietnamese people and why this image was successful in conveying his message of unrelenting resolve to defend Vietnam.
- According to Duong Van Mai of Saigon, how did many South Vietnamese people feel about their government and military? Describe the impression many North Vietnamese had regarding the US presence in Vietnam and the commitment they felt to reject it.
- Do you agree with Tom Vallely’s assessment that when you think about the American strategy, it was inevitable that it wouldn’t turn out well? Explain.
Complete the Risk Assessment Activity:
Form students into small groups. Explain to students that they will conduct a risk assessment to help advise President Kennedy on whether the US should be more or less involved in aiding the South Vietnamese government. Explain to students that a risk assessment is a process for evaluating potential risks that may result from action(s) taken. In this case, students will review six areas of potential risk that President Kennedy faced when deciding the degree of American involvement in Vietnam.
Distribute the handout “Kennedy’s ‘Limited War’ Campaign” to all groups and briefly review it. Have students assess the six areas of potential risk that President Kennedy faced when he determined how involved America should be in Vietnam. Below each potential risk is the range of possibilities. Students should review the possibilities of each risk and then determine the likelihood of each risk on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = very likely possible, 5 = nearly impossible). Students should circle the level of likelihood for each risk and discuss their ratings with their group members. Groups should then make a recommendation to President Kennedy on how involved the United States should be in Vietnam.
After groups have assessed each pair of risk topics, have them present their recommendation and its rationale to the class.