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LINK: Social Studies in Action Home Image of a high school student in the classroom.
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Classroom Profile | Lesson Background

Read this information to better understand the lesson shown in the video.

Content: The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War remains one of the most controversial events in American history, so much so that there is no one source that is considered objective, no one description that can be agreed on by everyone. Students and teachers will need to consult a variety of references, keeping in mind the background, motives, and assumptions of the authors. However, the following is a very brief explanation of the role of the United States in the war, followed by some of the major events covered in the video lesson.

In 1954, French Indochina was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. By 1964, the United States was involved in a conflict in Vietnam that was viewed by some as a war of liberation against colonial powers, and by others as a war to contain the spread of communism. America supported the government of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in its fight against Ho Chi Minh's communist government in North Vietnam and his allies (the Viet Cong) in the south. More than 500,000 Americans fought in the war between 1965 and 1973, when U.S. involvement officially ended.

Tonkin Gulf Resolution (August 7, 1964)
On August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly fired at the USS Maddox, a destroyer positioned in the international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack allegedly occurred against the USS C Turner Joy on August 4. These events are referred to as the Tonkin Gulf Incident. In response, President Lyndon Johnson ordered air strikes against the North Vietnamese and asked Congress for authority to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." After two days of debate, Congress passed the resolution overwhelmingly, and in doing so, shifted the power to determine United States actions in Vietnam from Congress to the president. The two dissenting senators argued that the framers of the Constitution gave that power to Congress alone.

As a result of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, President Johnson sent the first ground troops to Vietnam in 1965, launching the beginning of full-scale U.S. involvement in the war. Whether the U.S. destroyers were ever under attack, and if so, whether the alleged attacks were provoked, remain points of debate. In 1970, Senator Robert Dole led the effort to repeal the Tonkin Gulf Resolution; Congress repealed the resolution in 1971.

Australian Troops Leave for Vietnam (May 26, 1965)
On May 26, 1965, 800 Australian troops left for Vietnam and were joined by troops from New Zealand in an effort to contain communism in Southeast Asia. Australia and New Zealand's involvement underscore the perceived threat of communism at the time and the fear of its spread (the "domino effect") in the Pacific region. Over the course of the war, 47,424 Australian troops served. Other than France, who withdrew from the war in the 1950s, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia were the only countries who sent troops to Vietnam. Australia also instituted the draft, and some Australians -- like their American counterparts -- protested the war. The last Australian troops withdrew in 1972.

Paper with image of Dak To battle.Battle Near Dak To (November 3-22, 1967)
This was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. It took place in the central highlands near Dak To and involved 6,000 North Vietnamese troops and 4,500 American troops. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) withdrew after losing 1,455 troops; 285 American soldiers were killed and 985 were wounded. At the time, the United States was reported to have "won" the battle, but some war scholars argue that the goal of the NVA was not to kill but to wound enemy soldiers, since it takes more resources to care for the wounded than for the dead.

Tet Offensive (begun January 30, 1968)
Named for the traditional Vietnamese lunar New Year celebration during which the offensive took place, this surprise attack on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces was the largest launched by the Viet Cong. It came as a surprise because Tet was traditionally a time of cease-fire. During the offensive, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces attacked cities and provinces in South Vietnam, including its capital, Saigon. Within days, American forces retaliated and recaptured most areas. The Tet Offensive was considered a military victory for the United States, but it took a huge political and psychological toll on the nation. Americans watched news coverage of Viet Cong guerrillas breaching the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon, and bloody American soldiers fighting in Hue. These shocking images dramatically contradicted optimistic claims by General William Westmoreland that the war would soon be over. Coverage of the Tet Offensive ultimately weakened public confidence in United States involvement in Vietnam.

My Lai Massacre (March 16, 1968)
My Lai village, located in the South Vietnamese district of Son My, was a heavily mined area of Viet Cong entrenchment. In February and early March of 1968, members of the U.S. Charlie Company had been maimed and killed in that area. Under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, an American infantry battalion killed between 200 and 500 Vietnamese civilians. When news of the massacre reached the American public in November of 1969, it shocked an already divided nation. Lieutenant Calley was ultimately convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was released on parole in 1974.

Teaching Strategy: Testing Predictions Against Different Sources
High school students are ready and often eager to express their opinions and participate in discussions about provocative topics. Asking students to make a prediction at the beginning of a lesson can draw them into the content. Predictions are generally one of the most effective kinds of classroom "activators" because they instantly give students an investment in the outcome of the lesson. Students want to know "how they did" with their predictions. Using a variety of sources to test students' predictions enables teachers to teach history through a variety of viewpoints, and helps students identify cultural biases in historical accounts. Ms. Morrison used the following sources and teaching devices to engage her ninth-grade students in the lesson:

  • data cards to explain key events
  • opinion spectrums (students line up along a continuum to illustrate the range of opinions)
  • video clips of news footage
  • music that reflected the political climate
  • interviews with people who remember the war
  • opinion poll results

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