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The Sixties: Notes from the Ho Chi Minh Trail
What were the rationales for fighting the Vietnam War? How did it become so controversial?
In this lesson, students watch a clip from the episode Vietnam Diary that introduces them to the diary of a member of the Communist Youth Party and soldier from North Vietnam. They then analyze arguments for and against the Vietnam War to determine what made this war so controversial.
Related Episode: Vietnam Diary Investigation
Bob Fraser is a Vietnam War veteran. During the war, he found a diary laying next to a dead Vietnamese soldier. He picked it up and has had it ever since. Now, Fraser wants to return it to the soldier’s family. Host Wes Cowan sets out to find out exactly whose diary this was and return it to its rightful owners.
Suggested Grade Level
This lesson was written for grades 9-12 and could be placed within a curriculum on the Vietnam War or the 1960s, but could be adapted for grades 6-8. Suggestions for adaptation include: supply students with sentence starters on the “Debate Planner” reproducible; highlight important information in LBJ’s Message to Congress; provide grade-appropriate secondary sources describing the Vietnam War (see Resources).
Translating the Diary
Wes Cowan talks with translator Merle Pribbenow, who translates passages from the diary.
History Detective Wes Cowan talks with translator Merle Pribbenow, who translates passages from the diary of a Vietnamese soldier. The diary tells of the soldier’s grueling journey through Laos, over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and reveals his personal motivations for fighting.
Archive footage of Vietnam War protesters in 1966
To view Lyndon B. Johnson Message to Congress slideshow, click here.
To print slideshow, click here.
Estimated Time Required
1-2 class periods
The Vietnam War has roots going back all the way to the 1890s, when Vietnam was a French colony. At the end of World War II, Vietnam declared itself an independent republic under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. France, however, set up another “independent” government in South Vietnam. Civil war broke out between the two governments and continued, in various forms, until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. The Vietnam War was a central conflict in the Cold War between the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union. According to the “domino theory,” the United States believed that if Vietnam fell to communism, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow. The United States supported the democratic government of South Vietnam, while the Soviet Union supported the communist government of North Vietnam. The United States gradually increased its involvement in the conflict, first providing military advice, then conducting a bombing campaign, and finally sending thousands of ground troops to fight alongside the South Vietnamese army. Prompted by the Gulf of Tonkin incident, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked for and received permission from Congress to escalate US involvement in the war. There were massive protests against US involvement in the war in Vietnam and against the draft. By 1968, public opinion was turning against the war. The Tet Offensive, a bloody series of battles staged by the North Vietnamese, surprised American forces and was widely televised, further turning opinion against the war.
- Print a class set of the Vietnam War Debate Role Cards. (Note: the lesson depends on using the “President Lyndon B. Johnson” and “Vietnam War Protester” roles. Add more roles as required by your particular class.)
- Label the four corners of the room with posters that say the following: “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree.”
Have students watch the video Translating the Diary while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the following questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion:
- What do we know about the writer of this diary?
- What was the Communist Party Youth Group?
- What did he experience as a soldier in the war?
- What is the significance of death anniversaries in Vietnamese culture?
- Make a guess: Why did this soldier think it was important to fight the war?
After showing the clip from the History Detectives episode Vietnam Diary, explain to the class that this diary represents the narrow view of a single individual and in order to paint a complete picture, a historian has to look at all sides of the picture. Brainstorm with the class the limitations of using a diary to study history; answers might include bias, limited understanding by the diary’s author, and unclear motivations for writing. Tell studetns that they will be researching the rationales behind fighting the Vietnam War and the opposition the War created in order to participate in a “four-corner debate.” Refer to Four Corners Debate for a detailed explanation of the procedure.
Have students begin their research with the following assets:
- Lyndon B. Johnson Message to Congress. In this memo, LBJ asks Congress to wage war, citing that America is obligated by treaty (Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty) to support democracy in southeast Asia, the future of the whole region depends on our involvement, “our purpose is peace,” and the struggle is “a struggle for freedom.”
- Anti-War Protesters. In this video, various people speak to their reasons for protesting the Vietnam War, including opposing the draft, believing the war in Vietnam is a Revolution and should be left to the Vietnamese, the United States is propping up a disliked administration, and the United States is playing a chess game with people as pawns.
Optional: If you have assigned more than two roles, ask students to conduct further research into their roles by consulting the following sites. (Also see “Resources.”)
- The Gulf of Tonkin Timeline Exhibit
- Vietnam War, Through Eddie Adams’ Lens
- The Vietnam War From All Sides
- GI Movement [Against the War]: Underground Newspapers
- 1961-1973: GI Resistance in the Vietnam War
- Vietnam War from the Communist Perspective
- Guerilla Tactics: An Overview
Once students have finished their research, make a series of statements about the war and ask students to move to the corner of the room that best represents the opinion of the role they researched. Allow students time in their corners to discuss with one another why they chose the corner, then have them defend their rationales for choosing the corner they did.
- The Vietnam War is a civil war. It should be settled internally by the Vietnamese.
- The North Vietnamese are trying to take over South Vietnam, which is an independent country. The Vietnam War is about preserving democracy for the South Vietnamese.
- The Vietnam War is a war to defeat communism. It is America’s duty to stop the spread of communism.
- It is unconstitutional to forcibly enlist American citizens in the military. Military enrollment should be on a volunteer basis only.
- The American government is using the soldiers in Vietnam—both American and Vietnamese—as pawns in an international chess game.
- The people of Vietnam, both North and South, support the North Vietnamese government of Ho Chi Minh. The United States’ support of the South Vietnamese government goes against the wishes of the majority of the Vietnamese.
- If the United States does not intervene, the whole of Southeast Asia will fall to communism.
- The United States is bound by the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty to defend South Vietnam from the aggression by North Vietnam.
After the activity, give students time to answer the following questions independently, then lead a discussion about why the Vietnam War prompted such controversy.
- Why was this war so controversial?
- Why do you think more recent wars, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have not prompted protest and debate the way the Vietnam War did?
Ask students to work individually or in pairs to write one-minute speeches for a Vietnam War rally. They can choose to defend or attack the war. Hold the mock rally and lead a discussion about why the debate about the Vietnam War is still relevant today. What questions raised by the War in Vietnam are applicable to modern-day conflicts (Afghanistan, Syria, conflicts in the Arab Spring)? Should the United States get involved in foreign wars? When and why?
More on History Detectives
Use the following episodes or lesson plans from History Detectives to support/enhance the teaching of this lesson in your classroom.
Vietnam Online.PBS companion website to Vietnam: A Television History.” Includes primary documents, reflections from participants on both sides of the war, and a timeline feature.
About the Vietnam War. Extensive site from University of Illinois with essays, maps, photos and a timeline
Vietnam War Project. Collection of resources for teaching the Vietnam War in an eighth grade classroom
The Vietnam War: Slideshow. Slideshow giving basic rundown of entire Vietnam War for middle school students
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Audio of Johnson's remarks upon signing joint resolution #1145 to Promote Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia
National History Standards
2. Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources
3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation
4. Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research
US History Content Standards, Grades 5-12
Era 9: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)
- Standard 1: The economic boom and social transformation of postwar United
- States Standard 2: How the Cold War and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam influenced domestic and international politics
Common Core State Standards
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.3 Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
CCS.ELA-literacy.RH.11-12.1Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.