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Lesson Plan

Human Consequences of U.S. Foreign Policy Decisions

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FILM: This lesson plan is designed to be used with the film The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), which tells the story of members of a Laotian family whose father and husband helped the United States wage a so-called "secret war" in Laos during the Vietnam War, only to face imprisonment or execution after the United States withdrew its forces. This family's story represents the experiences of many Laotians and is an excellent case study for showing students how U.S. foreign policy decisions have the potential to impact generations.

Note: This film makes use of English subtitles at times. It also contains some disturbing images of death and destruction associated with war. Please be sure to preview the film prior to classroom screening.

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OBJECTIVES

By then end of this lesson, students will:

  • Used viewing skills to understand and interpret video clips.
  • Completed a Viewing Guide that captures historical information about the U.S. "secret war" in Laos during the Vietnam War.
  • Examined a case study for what happened to many Laotian families after the U.S. withdrawal from Laos.
  • Recognized cause/effect relationships by organizing historical events on a chart.
  • Discussed what lessons current U.S. leaders should learn from the human consequences of the "secret war" in Laos during the Vietnam War.
  • Conducted research and written a position paper that explains how these lessons should apply to current U.S. foreign policy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

GRADE LEVELS: 9-12

SUBJECT AREAS: Civics, World History, U.S. History, Geography

MATERIALS

  • Method of showing the entire class online video clips and a website
  • Map showing the location of Laos and its proximity to Vietnam
  • Handout: Viewing Guide (PDF file)

ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED: One 50-minute class period

SUGGESTED CLIPS:

Clip 1: "U.S. Involvement in Laos/Family Introduction" (length 2:09)
The clip starts at 7:31 with the King of Laos walking with soldiers. It ends at 9:40 with the quote "I thought he was executed."

Clip 2: "President Kennedy Describes U.S. Role in Laos" (length 0:52) The clip begins at 10:50 with a monk at a temple before President Kennedy begins to speak. It ends at 11:42 with a jet flying overhead.

Clip 3: "Why Thavi's Father Helped the U.S./President Nixon" (length 1:17)
The clip begins at 12:18 with a Lao man in uniform shaking hands with a man in western dress. It ends at 13:35 with a shot of armed helicopters flying away.

Clip 4: "The U.S. Pulls Out of Laos" (length 1:44)
The clip begins at 16:34 with bombs dropping from airplanes and ends at 18:20 when Thavi says, "The U.S. just left in the middle of the war."

Clip 5: "Punished for Helping the Americans" (length 1:01)
The clip begins at 20:39 with Thavi's mother saying, "Right after they took over . . ." and ends at 21:40 when Thavi says, "That was the last time I can remember seeing my father."


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BACKGROUND

From 1964 to 1973, the United States recruited, armed and trained groups in Laos to fight communist forces, gather military intelligence for the United States, rescue downed U.S. air crews and perform other duties in the interest of the United States. In addition, American forces heavily bombed Laos to cut off supply lines to U.S. enemies in Vietnam. (According to the film, the United States dropped 260 million bombs on Laos, or one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for more than nine years.) Because the United States denied any significant involvement in Laos, these activities became known as a "secret war."

After the United States withdrew from Laos, the communist Pathet Lao political movement took control of the country and launched a campaign to punish or eliminate those who had allied with the United States. Many Laotians were persecuted and sent to "reeducation camps." Fearing for their safety, as much as 10 percent of the population of Laos fled the country &mdash mostly to Thailand — and sought refugee status. Over the next 20 years, approximately 250,000 Laotians were brought to the United States from refugee camps.

The father of the Phrasavath family was one of the soldiers in Laos who assisted American forces. At home, his wife cared for their 10 children, including a son named Thavisouk, known as Thavi. The Betrayal tells the story of what happened to this family after the U.S. withdrew from Laos. Thavi's father was taken away by soldiers; Thavi himself fled to Thailand, where he was eventually joined by the rest of his family, with the exception of two sisters who had been left behind in Laos in the rush of the family's escape. The family struggled as refugees and was later resettled in the United States. There, they faced new battles stemming from poverty, attempts to fit in and changes in their relationships with one another. The family also experienced additional betrayals, which include learning that Thavi's father had survived the reeducation camp in Laos, but had since started a new family with another woman. The film presents both an emotional story of survival and an excellent case study for showing students how U.S. foreign policy decisions have the potential to impact generations.

To find out what has happened to the Phrasavath family since filming ended, watch POV's video update. For more information on the U.S. role in Laos, please see the Resources section.

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ACTIVITY

1. Show students where Laos is on a map and point out the country's proximity to Vietnam. Tell students that while Laos was officially neutral during the Vietnam War, the country was used as a transportation corridor to supply U.S. enemies in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese government also armed and trained communist fighters in Laos called the Pathet Lao. At the same time, the U.S. recruited, armed and trained groups in Laos to fight these communist guerillas, gather military intelligence for the U.S., rescue downed U.S. air crews and perform other duties in the interest of the United States. American forces also heavily bombed Laos to cut off their enemies' supplies. Because the United States denied any significant involvement in Laos, these activities became known as a "secret war." The father of the Phrasavath family was among the soldiers in Laos who assisted American forces. At home, his wife cared for their 10 children, including a son named Thavi.

2. Tell students that they are going to watch a series of video clips that describe these events and introduce the class to Thavi and his mother. Then, show clips 1 through 5. Ask students to complete the Viewing Guide as they watch.

3. Discuss student answers to the Viewing Guide. Emphasize that when the United States withdrew from Laos, the communist Pathet Lao group was able to take over Laos and then launched a campaign to punish or eliminate those who had assisted the United States The families of these men also feared for their safety.

4. Explain that after Thavi's father was taken away by soldiers, Thavi fled to Thailand, where he was eventually joined by the rest of his family, with the exception of two sisters who were left behind in Laos in the rush of the family's escape. The family struggled as refugees. After a time they resettled in the United States, where they faced new battles stemming from poverty, trying to fit in, changes in their relationships with one another and the involvement of some family members in gang activities. Tell the class that the second photograph from the beginning of the lesson was taken after the family made its journey to the United States.

5. Organize these historical events into a domino chart to help students recognize how one event led to another. (Create your own on the board or have students draw one like this (PDF) on the backs of their Viewing Guides.) The chart might have a phrase such as "U.S. withdraws from Laos" in the first box. Then it might have "Communist Pathet Lao take over Laos and seek to punish or execute those who helped the United States" in the second box, "Father taken away from his family" in the third, "Family is forced to flee home and country, leaving two children behind" in the fourth and so on. Emphasize the far-reaching impact that the U.S. decision to withdraw from Laos had on the Phrasavath family.

6. Tell students that the Phrasavath story represents the experiences of many Laotian families. Ten percent of the population fled Laos and sought refugee status after the Pathet Lao gained control of the country. Most fled to Thailand. Over the next 20 years, approximately 250,000 Laotians were brought to the United States from refugee camps.

7. Discuss what lessons current U.S. leaders should learn from these human consequences of the "secret war" in Laos during the Vietnam War.

8. For homework, have students conduct research and write position papers that explain how these lessons should apply to current U.S. foreign policy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

ASSESSMENT SUGGESTIONS

Students can be assessed on:

  • Detail given in responses to the questions on the Viewing Guide handout.
  • Contributions to class discussions.
  • Clarity of position and understanding of issues discussed in the position paper.

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EXTENSIONS & ADAPTATIONS

  • Look behind the scenes of the making of The Betrayal (Nerakhoon). The POV website features an interview with filmmaker Ellen Kuras and her production journal, which documents the 23-year production of the film. Explore these materials and then have students meet in small groups to discuss how knowledge of the film's production process might affect one's experience as a viewer. Also, how did Kuras's collaboration with Thavi shape the film's development? What did he bring to the process? What did she bring? How does tracking a subject for such a long period of time affect the film's credibility? How neutral is the film? How does a film like this one compare to news stories, reality television or entertainment-based films? What distinguishes each genre? After a period of dialogue, have a reporter from each group summarize its discussion for the rest of the class.

  • Examine what draws young people to join gangs. Begin by watching a section of The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) that shows some of the struggles of the Phrasavath family upon arriving in the United States. Begin about 43 minutes into the film, when we see the apartment where the family first lived. Continue watching for 10 minutes until the boy says, "Life's too short. You've got to die for this color." (Note: This clip contains some graphic descriptions of crimes committed by gang members. Please preview before classroom use.) Also, watch some extra footage of the film on the POV website that shows two young people discussing why they joined a gang. Then read the Violence Prevention Institute article "Why Young People Join Gangs and What You Can Do". Select strategies that the class thinks will help to prevent or reduce gang activity in your area and implement them.

  • Watch and discuss other POV films that relate either to the immigrant experience in the United States or the aftermath of war, including Lost Boys of Sudan, Rain in a Dry Land, My American Girls and Bronx Princess. Each film has companion website resources and educator activities to support its use in the classroom.

  • Explore the so-called "secret war" in Laos from the perspective of U.S. soldiers. Read the book, Covert Ops: The CIA's Secret War in Laos by James E. Parker Jr. and another American soldier's account of "secret war" activities provided on the POV website. Use these sources to write news articles about the legacy of the "secret war" in the lives of U.S. soldiers.

  • Draft a policy regarding what the United States should provide to those in other countries who, like Thavi's father, have supported U.S. military efforts. Consider options such as compensation during time of service, food, material goods, U.S. citizenship, U.S. veterans benefits, post-service academic scholarships to U.S. universities, infrastructure improvements in their countries, positions of power in new regimes, etc. Discuss the value, ethics and possible outcomes of each option and determine a hierarchy for which types of actions would merit each reward. Have students organize and formalize their ideas into a detailed policy statement.

  • Study the ongoing impact that cluster bombs are having on the people of Laos. Read the April 26, 2008 Times article "A Deadly Harvest of Cluster Bombs in Laos" Students might also enjoy taking a look at the lyrics of the rap song, Clusterbombs Laos by Alltruisms. Learn more about the ban on cluster bombs sought by the International Committee of the Red Cross and hold a debate on whether or not the United States should support such a ban.

  • Develop designs for a memorial that would honor the contributions that Laotians made during the U.S. "secret war" in Laos during the Vietnam War. Begin by discussing the purposes of memorials and reviewing the main events of the "secret war." Then, have students submit their design ideas and suggestions for a location for the memorial. Next, conduct a virtual visit to the actual Laos Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. What is this memorial's key message? How do the actual memorial and its location compare with the ideas for a memorial and location put forward by the students?

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RESOURCES

Afghanistan: Post-war Governance, Security and U.S. Policy (PDF file) — This Sept. 29, 2008 Congressional Research Service report for Congress provides details on current U.S. activities in Afghanistan.

Background Note: Iraq — This State Department feature provides information on Iraq and its relations with the U.S.

Ho Chi Minh Trail — Visit Encarta's entry about the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a route through Laos and Cambodia into Vietnam that was used by the communist government of north Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Independent Lens: Death of a Shaman — This page describes the Mien tribe's involvement in the U.S. "secret war" in Laos. A historical timeline is also provided.

Laos Cultural Profile — This site provides in-depth information on the culture, history, minority groups, language, religion and other aspects of life in Laos.

The Online NewsHour: Vietnam's Legacy — As part of the 25th anniversary of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Gwen Ifill interviews a panel of experts about the impact of the war on U.S. history, including an interesting discussion of confidence in what the U.S. government tells its citizens about its military activities.

The Split Horn: The Journey — This page gives a brief, student-friendly synopsis of U.S. involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War and the impact of that involvement. The rest of the website provides details on Hmong culture.

The Times: "A Deadly Harvest of Cluster Bombs in Laos" — This April 26, 2008 article reports on the danger that hundreds of millions of cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. on Laos continue to pose for civilians.

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STANDARDS

These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning) at http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/.

Civics
Standard 22: Understands how the world is organized politically into nation-states, how nation-states interact with one another and issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy.

Geography
Standard 9: Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on the Earth's surface.

Standard 13: Understands the forces of cooperation and conflict that shape the divisions of the Earth's surface.

Historical Understanding
Standard 2: Understands historical perspective.

Language Arts
Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

U.S. History
Standard 27: Understands how the Cold War and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam influenced domestic and international politics.

World History
Standard 44: Understands the search for community, stability and peace in an interdependent world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers) and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Background Sources
» Background Note: Laos. U.S. State Department. April 2009. Laos. CIA World Factbook. April 23, 2009.
» https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/LA.html
» "Old U.S. Allies, Still Hiding in Laos." The New York Times. Thomas Fuller. December 17, 2007.

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