The Vietnam War

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13575

The Vietnamese people were in a war for independence for over a century before the U.S. got involved. Suddenly this tiny country in the Far East was the center of a war against communism. How and why?


People and Their Environment, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson seemed likely to win his re-election campaign and be elected for another four years. However, he made a big announcement in March, just months away from the November election.

Watch Reel America Preview: LBJ Announces He Won't Run 3/31/1968 from C-SPAN:

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  • Why might he have decided to do this?

Long before Lyndon Baines Johnson even became president, the Vietnamese were fighting a war for independence.

French Occupation

Vietnamese postman stamp, 1900

In the 19th century, France realized it was trailing other European powers and became determined to add Vietnam as a colony to its empire. The promise of plentiful raw resources in this coastal nation convinced Napoleon III that it could bring prosperity.

To see how French culture took over all three provinces in Vietnam, watch French Colonisation - The Vietnam War, from Discovery UK:

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During this occupation, France developed the colony and its infrastructure with the sole purpose of reaping as much profit for itself as possible, showing little concern for the native peoples. The Vietnamese sought independence from the French almost immediately.

During World War II, the French lost control of not only France but many of its colonies abroad; so once the war was over, France was determined to come back stronger than ever.

  • What did this mean for Vietnam?

With the creation of the United Nations, European nations were expected to relinquish control of their colonies in the name of freedom and self-governance around the world. In the case of Vietnam, President Franklin Roosevelt even said in 1944:

"Indochina should not go back to France… France has had the country—thirty million inhabitants—for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning… The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that."

Despite this viewpoint, once FDR died in 1945, France faced significantly less opposition.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, 1946

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

During World War II, Ho Chi Minh was the unchallenged leader of the colony. Once Japan came to occupy in 1941, he was instantly supported by FDR and the United States to lead a resistance movement.

However, by the time the resistance won their war and Vietnam issued their Declaration of Independence, FDR was gone. The new President, Harry Truman, was convinced by his cabinet to support France in suppressing the independence movement.

Only at this point did Ho Chi Minh begin to ally with communist countries because they were now the only ones who would financially support the cause that the United States had supported only a few years earlier.

Ngo Dinh Diem

Ngo Dinh Diem

Image by Horst Faas, via manhhai on Flickr, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

By 1954, the minor involvement of the U.S. and French had pushed Ho Chi Minh's army out of the south of the country. As a result. Vietnam was split in half at the 17th parallel, and a new government was established in the south under President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Diem began reforming the country in the model of western states, but he also used increasing military force to suppress any opposition. The United States supplied aid expecting its interests to be maintained.

  • What were American interests in Vietnam?
  • Why were they willing to spend so much time and money on the tiny country?


domino effect

The fight against communism compelled the United States to get involved in countries all around the world. After the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War, the U.S. was no stranger to conflicts with the Soviet Union; however, directly fighting each other would be incredibly dangerous.

After the invention of nuclear weapons, the only fights these two superpowers would engage in were proxy wars, where each power supported communist and democratic causes around the world.

Once communist countries like the U.S.S.R. and China began funding Ho Chi Minh, U.S. policy in Vietnam shifted from simply crushing its independence movement to stopping the expansion of communism.

In the 1954 words of President Dwight Eisenhower:

"You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is that it will go over very quickly."

This policy of containment was also called the Domino Theory, and it encouraged involvement anywhere communism existed.

John F. Kennedy

JFK, 1956

Image by United Press International, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Prior to 1963, only 11,000 active American troops had been sent into Vietnam, and much of their work was to help train the Vietnamese.

However, when Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated by the increasingly active Viet Cong group, the coup frightened U.S. forces because it seemed likely that South Vietnam would fall to the north and Ho Chi Minh.

To see exactly what JFK thought about this event, listen to his personal memo in the video below. Pay attention to how Kennedy describes Diem's regime.

Listening In: JFK on Vietnam (November 4, 1963) from JFK Library:

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JFK said Diem was having trouble, meaning he managed to keep the country together, but toward the end, he was using increasingly harsh tactics to quell resistance.

Only 18 days after this recording, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, making it the job of his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, to respond to this transgression.

Lyndon B. Johnson

LBJ, 1964

Image by Arnold Newman, WHPO, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Only months after Diem's assassination in August, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred. When the U.S. Congress heard the report that two North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked U.S. ships, it gave President Johnson the power to go to war.

Some critics speculated that this indicent may have been fabricated in order to give the United States an excuse to go to war. Regardless of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson moved quickly to mobilize troops.

To see what powers Congress granted the president in this time of emergency, watch this clip from The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Freedom Forum:

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Johnson was able to take any measure he thought necessary in the fight for peace in South Asia.


Vietnam War US soldiers

From 1964 to 1968, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam rose from to 23,300 Americans to 536,100. The public was not fully aware of this massive escalation; however, people knew the war was getting out of hand.

  • What did people think of this conflict?

We often think college students were the first people to oppose the Vietnam War, but in reality it was the older generations who initially heavily opposed the war.

Those who had lived through the massive sacrifices made during World War II did not want another war. The Korean War had already proven the U.S. was willing to get involved in a considerable way to stop communism, but many Americans just wanted the wars to stop.

Yet, the moment the Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred, most Americans fully backed the President in whatever he did.

With this support back home, military divisions were sent to South Vietnam to try to establish autonomy in the country. As you watch the video clip below showing what it was like for these young men sent off to war, pay attention to the location of the several battles that are highlighted.

  • Are they pushing back against an enemy line?

1st Infantry Division in Vietnam 1965 -70 (Restored Color) from ZenosWarbirds:

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The Viet Cong resistance was borderless. Many people were hopeful initially, but there was no way to get an advantage when you never knew where your enemy was.

By 1968, Vietnamese civilians were increasingly becoming casualties in the war for multiple reasons, and the anti-war movement was gaining traction.


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The success of the anti-war movement convinced many Americans that the war had to end.

In order to pay for the war, Lyndon Johnson had to end his social program project, The Great Society. Eventually, he accepted that he could not succeed in the war either.

With Johnson declining to run for re-election, the Democratic Party fractured when many decided to vote for Republican Richard Nixon who was seen as a 'law and order' candidate. He harnessed the fear Americans had of unrest at home and their commitment to the Vietnamese people.

Richard Nixon, 1971

Image by Oliver F. Atkins, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

By the early 1970s, the Vietnam War was coming to a close. The U.S. had largely removed itself, and Nixon managed to obtain a peace treaty with the resistance fighters.

This agreement allowed the United States to maintain the Southern Vietnamese military as it stood dollar for dollar. This meant, if a gun broke, the U.S. could provide the Vietnamese military with a replacement gun, thereby limiting any further involvement in Vietnam while also ensuring its government did not completely convert to communism.

To gain more clarity on this peace agreement and to learn how it fell apart, watch The Truth about the Vietnam War from PragerU:

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Although the Vietnam War began with the goal of eliminating communism in the entire country, this agreement would have at least stopped the extension of communism in South Vietnam.

As we head to the Got It? section, let's consider how this conflict affected America in general.

  • Did we learn anything from this decades-long war?
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