Why was the United States involved in Vietnam?
Eighth edition. March 2014.

The Limits of Power: The United States in Vietnam takes students back in history to evaluate how successive U.S. administrations between the late 1940s and early 1970s perceived the situation in Vietnam, weighed the stakes, gauged the options, and implemented policy decisions. In the central activity, students become decision-makers wrestling with four distinct policy options that confronted the Johnson administration in the summer of 1965.


The background readings prepare students to consider the policy debates surrounding the Vietnam War. Students explore the period following World War II, when communist Vietminh forces defeated the French, and consider the relevance of the Cold War to U.S.-Vietnam relations. Students then examine the shifting values underlying U.S. policy in Vietnam and the lessons that have been drawn from the United States’ involvement in the war. The unit relies heavily on primary sources, including speeches, newspaper articles and editorials, political cartoons, songs, and policy memoranda.


The 1954 Geneva Conference

In a simulation of the 1954 Geneva Conference, students articulate the viewpoints of the primary conference participants: Britain, the People's Republic of China, France, Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Vietminh), and the United States.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution

Students consider the Gulf of Tonkin event and weigh the possible responses.

Oral History

Students interview veterans and non-veterans who lived through the Vietnam War to understand the human dimension of war and consider different viewpoints on the same historical event.

The Four Options

Students engage in a simulation revolving around U.S. policy in Vietnam during the summer of 1965.

Songs of the Vietnam War

Students explore the relationship between political events and popular culture by interpreting Vietnam War-era songs from the United States, France, and Vietnam.

Retracing America's Withdrawal

Analyzing primary source documents, students examine key U.S. policy decisions from 1968-73.

Applying the Lessons of Vietnam

Students investigate lessons from the Vietnam War that historians and politicians have developed over the years. Based on their own opinions and knowledge, students then determine which lessons are valid and how the lessons can or should inform foreign policy today.

Misinterpretation and Failed Diplomacy

Through close examination of two critical events, students evaluate North Vietnamese and U.S. perceptions of each other and identify sources of misunderstanding.

Political Cartoon Analysis

Students identify the techniques used by political cartoonists and then analyze four political cartoons published during the Vietnam War.
What were the Geneva Accords of 1954?
What are the different ways to approach understanding the Vietnam War?
How did the US approach to Vietnam change when Lyndon Baines Johnson became president?

Supplemental Resources

Additional reference material for added context and support in teaching the teaching the curriculum.


Appy, Christian. Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From all Sides (New York: Viking Press, 2003). 604 pages.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1991). 768 pages.

McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995). 414 pages.

McNamara, Robert S., James G. Blight, and Robert K. Brigham with Thomas J. Biersteker and Herbert Y. Schandler. Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (New York: Public Affairs, 1999). 479 pages.

Sheehan, Neil. The Pentagon Papers (New York: Bantam Books, 1971). 677 pages.

This lesson provides an alternative perspective to the "American" war and its aftermath.
Newly released documents and analysis of events relating to the Vietnam War, much from the Chinese perspective.
Transcripts and audio recordings from Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, plus online exhibits to help students and teachers navigate the volume of material available.
PBS website with primary sources, maps, teacher guides, and more that complements the series Vietnam: A Television History.
Provides a list of over one hundred YouTube videos featuring songs from the Vietnam War-era.
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