War Letters offers insights into American history topics including the personal narrative, veterans, wartime service and sacrifice, military actions, and U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.
The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: history, economics, geography, and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.
1. Groups may want to consult the chronology of United States military actions and wars for basic information on their assigned conflict.
2. After students have read their letters, you might want to hold a class discussion on which of the letters in the film the students found most powerful, and why.
1. Locations mentioned in the film include Pearl Harbor, site of the Japanese attack that brought the United States into World War II; the Philippines, captured by the Japanese at the start of World War II but recaptured by the United States in 1945; and Bien Hoa in Vietnam, site of an important American air base near the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, attacked by the Viet Cong.
2. Students may be surprised at the geographic scope of American military involvement or at the number of stars within the present-day United States.
1. Letters might describe rationing, wartime shortages, and symbolic actions of support (such as placing a star in the window of a serviceman's home). To get students started, you might suggest they review the information on rationing in World War II that can be found on the Department of History at the University of San Diego's web site. Students may also wish to visit the National Archives and Record Administration's online exhibit of World War II propaganda posters urging Americans to conserve resources.
2. You might suggest that students select conflicts that are more recent and/or more significant, since finding data on these conflicts should be easier. One example of the type of resource available on the Web is a paper by Alan Gropman, "Mobilizing U.S. Industry in World War II," published by the Institute for National Strategic Studies and loaded with World War II statistics.
1. Students should be cautioned that because their questions may raise painful memories for some people, they must conduct these interviews with respect and tact.
2. Policy statements should be clearly written and should explain the reasons for their positions.
1. To ensure that the class knows the background of major wars the United States has fought, divide the class into eight groups. Assign each group one of the following conflicts: American Revolution, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War. Have each group create a poster that gives the following information about its conflict: causes of the war, countries that participated, years the war was fought, areas where fighting took place, and outcome of the war. When groups have completed their posters, mount the posters on a timeline of U.S. history that extends around the classroom.
2. Read the Featured Letters, which describe what happened to some of the writers of the letters read during the film. Select one of these writers and write your own letter to him or her on a topic of your choice. For example, your letter could explain your feelings upon reading his or her letter or describe events that the writer did not live to see, but that you believe he or she would have wanted to know about. When you have completed your letter, read it to the class.
1. Select three wartime locations that are mentioned in the letters read during the film, or listed in the Featured Letters section of the Web site. Find out about the role that each location played in that conflict. Then draw or photocopy maps showing each of the locations. On each map, write a brief explanation of the importance of that location.
2. Photocopy a map of the world. Then, using the chronology of United States military actions and wars, place a star on each area of the world where American military forces have fought. What do you find most surprising about the map?
1. Choose a major conflict in which the United States participated, such as the Civil War or World War II, and find out what sacrifices civilians on the "home front" made to support the war effort. Using the information you have gathered, imagine that you are a family member or friend of a soldier in that war. Write a letter to "your" soldier explaining what you and other civilians are doing to support the soldiers.
2. Select a conflict from United States history (you may wish to consult the chronology of United States military actions and wars for ideas) and do research to find data about that conflict, such as comparisons between the size of the opposing armies, the number of a particular type of weapon the United Stats produced during the war, or the value of war-related goods the United States produced during the war. Present this data in two or three graphics, such as line graphs, bar graphs, or tables.
1. Interview a family member, neighbor, or family friend who is a veteran of a foreign war or who exchanged letters with a veteran. What does he or she recall about the importance of exchanging letters during wartime? Was any single letter he or she read or wrote especially memorable, and if so, why? Did people exchanging these letters sometimes avoid difficult topics in order to keep from upsetting their correspondent? Write a summary of what you learned from the interview. (If the interviewee has any of these letters, you might describe to him or her some of the techniques for preserving family documents in the video interview with conservator Linda Edquist.)
2. Read the interview on wartime censorship. In your opinion, should letters from soldiers be censored during wartime? If not, why not? If you do approve of censorship, what kinds of statements do you believe should be censored? (For example, should all specific geographic information about a soldier's whereabouts or combat be censored? What about criticisms of military leaders or the United States government? What about statements that the United States cannot, or should not, win the war?) Present your conclusions in the form of a presidential "Policy Statement on Wartime Censorship."
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Winner, 2010 Peabody Award --- The 1968 My Lai massacre, its subsequent cover-up, and the soldiers who broke ranks to bring the atrocity to light.