Within two years for the start of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, the number of American military he had inherited grew to 11,300. These advisors were empowered not only to teach the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—the ARVN—to fight a conventional war, but to accompany them into battle. In this activity, students will view a selected video segment from The Vietnam War that describes the battle of Ap Bac. Students will follow the progress and outcome of the battle and evaluate the effectiveness of the US military advisors’ work with the ARVN.
Period Covered: 1961-1963
- Examine the strategic importance of the battle of Ap Bac.
- Explore the US military’s misunderstanding of the enemy and terrain in its preparations for battle.
- Examine the lessons learned by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong from the battle.
- Analyze the assessment that US military officials made about the outcome of the battle at Ap Bac and its effect on the American role in Vietnam.
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.
1. Have students view the video segment and then discuss the following questions in small groups or as a class. The final question could be presented in written form or as a debate for a final assessment:
- Summarize the major events of the battle of Ap Bac. What went according to plan for the Americans and South Vietnamese? What went awry?
- What were the major misunderstandings for the United States as a result of this battle?
- What questions might have American military commanders been asking themselves after the battle?
- What were the lessons learned by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese 1 about their own capabilities and that of their enemy?
- How did the posters serve as effective propaganda for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong in building morale and recruiting more soldiers?
- How can it be said, as General Harkins did, that the battle of Ap Bac was a victory for the United States? How can it be said that it was, at worst, a momentary setback?
- Did the battle of Ap Bac help to clarify America’s role in Vietnam? Why or why not?
Using a chalkboard or whiteboard, draw a “line of opinion” on the battle of Ap Bac. On one end, label the battle as “a defeat”; on the other end, “a victory”; and in the middle, “a momentary setback.” Have students stand next to their characterization of the battle’s outcome. In whatever groups they positioned themselves, have the group members develop a statement justifying their position. Then, have each student write a paragraph declaring his or her position and explaining why his or her view is correct and the other two views are not.