Investigative Question

How was the war in Vietnam similar to and different from other Cold War struggles? How did the war in Vietnam affect movements for equality at home?

Two questions can guide students' investigations of the war in Vietnam: How was the war in Vietnam similar to and different from other Cold War struggles? How did the war in Vietnam affect movements for equality at home? After escalation of the war following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Resolution, along with Johnson's re-election in 1964, the U.S. military embarked on an air and ground war that aimed to eliminate the communist threat from South Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of American service members volunteered and were drafted to fight in the war, which government and military leaders portrayed as an extension of broader Cold War struggles. During the first year of the war, American casualties started to mount, progress seemed elusive, and the ways of achieving success were muddled. In the haze of war, American journalists reported on television what urban warfare and guerrilla fighting entailed; in this context, Americans started to call into question the principles on which the war was fought. By the time of the Tet Offensive and My Lai Massacre in early 1968, American public opinion had turned against the war effort. According to Senator William Fulbright: "We are trying to remake Vietnamese society, a task which certainly cannot be accomplished by force and which probably cannot be accomplished by any means available to outsiders. The objective may be desirable, but it is not feasible . . ." Moreover, when it became clear that American minorities were fighting and dying disproportionate to their representation in the country, many radicalized rights groups loudly protested the war on the grounds that, to them, it represented one more form of oppression — of minorities at home — and abroad. Inside the antiwar and rights protest movements, a "counterculture" emerged with its own distinctive style of music, dress, language, and films, which went on to influence mainstream social and cultural sensibilities. Those that participated in the counterculture believed that true equality could be realized only through a revolution of cultural values; thus hippies decided to "check out" from mainstream society as a way of rebelling against the mainstream middle-class American values and seeking true happiness. Counterculturalists rebelled by calling into question Cold War values and even American principles. According to Mario Savio, a pioneer of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964: There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

This inquiry set includes images, letters, and interviews that highlight the effects of the Vietnam War. Students will explore how the war in Vietnam was different from other wars and Cold War struggles. The documents encourage students to explore the impact of the war on diverse groups of Americans. Students will also examine how growing opposition to the war ignited discussions about racism and oppression of people of color and fueled movements for equality at home. Taken as a group, these documents help students to develop a multidimensional response to the question, How did the war in Vietnam affect movements for equality at home?

The first two documents in this inquiry set — a photograph of a ceremony honoring dead soldiers and a photograph of a college student asking people to register as conscientious objectors — highlight the intimacy with which young people experienced the war. After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, President Johnson secured a resolution authorizing an escalation of the conflict, which quickly became an air and ground war. Over 1965 and 1966 tens of thousands of young men enlisted in the military voluntarily and through the draft. By 1966, thousands of American men had lost their lives fighting in Vietnam. As the body count increased, those who were subject to the draft began questioning the grounds upon which the war was being fought in the first place. College campuses became central to the student-led antiwar protest. Havens of free speech, by the mid-1960s many college campuses served as physical and ideological meeting places for activists. Labor organizers, civil rights protesters, free speech activists, and now antiwar protesters attended the same universities and learned from one another.

The third and fourth documents highlight how Americans at home began to question their government and then started to link the oppression of people of color at home with people of color abroad. Source 3 highlights the frustration that some Californians faced in trying to uncover information about the conduct of the war. Known as the first "television war," many Americans tuned in to see the destruction of the war, yet the government's messages about progress on the war increasingly diverged from what was shown on television. This widening gap — which has become known as the credibility gap — caused many Americans to question the reliability of their leaders and the premise of the war. Moreover, when antiwar activists began to question the premise under which the war was being fought, they started to frame the war as less of a Cold War conflict and more of a colonial occupation and attempted conquest. This kind of thinking led these activists to call for a Third World liberation movement that would link oppressed and colonized people around the world. American activists who called for this kind of antiwar protest explicitly linked decolonization efforts in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia with the American movements for civil rights.

The final three documents display the consequences of the war for people of color — at home and abroad. Source 5, an interview with a Japanese American student whose friend was killed in the war, highlights the struggle of a previously oppressed population in the United States being asked to make more sacrifices for this country. Sources 6 and 7 highlight the refugee population that was displaced by the war.

Taken as a group, the documents in this Vietnam inquiry set provide students with an overview of the way in which a diverse group of Californians experienced the war in Vietnam.

English Language Development Activity (Source 4, Letter from Robert Allen):

Teacher background:

Robert Allen, a Black graduate student living in the Bronx, submitted this letter on August 1, 1965, in response to his draft notice, expressing his opposition to the war and unwillingness to be drafted. The letter may be challenging for many students due to some vocabulary terms, some moments of passive voice that obscure agency, and potentially confusing references to various participants within the text. This literacy activity, then, will help students (1) acquire new vocabulary through the use of a glossed text, (2) notice and analyze moments of passive voice, (3) match noun phrases (including pronouns) to the participants they reference to help highlight pertinent details and characterizations for each participant, and (4) use these details and characterizations to reflect on how and why Allen objects to the war and what we can infer from his letter about the war's impact on movements for equality at home.


  1. Provide context.

    a. Provide context about the text. Point out the information about Allen at the top of the handout in order to give students a beginning understanding of who he was and why he wrote this letter. It may also be helpful to review any information the class has already learned about the experiences of American minorities in the war.

    b. Provide context about the literacy strategy. Explain to students what they may find difficult about the text (difficult words, passive voice, confusing participants) and tell them that the purpose of this literacy strategy is to help them decode the text, but also to help them notice pertinent details and descriptions so they can better understand Allen's viewpoint and his objections to the war.

  2. Interpret and discuss text.

    a. Guide students through an initial reading of the text. Looking at the first page of the handout, read the text aloud (or ask a strong student volunteer to read). As this is meant as a first pass, refrain from offering too much explanation of the text at this point. Point out the footnotes offering vocabulary support at the bottom of the page. Clarify as needed.

    b. Guide students through the analysis of the text.

    i. Looking at the second page of the handout, read the directions with students and model (with student interaction) on a few lines of text the process of color-coding for the three participants listed in the chart.

    ii. If students are comfortable with this process, ask them to work in pairs or very small groups to continue with the remainder of the text before debriefing as a whole class. (This structure will maximize student opportunities for discussion and to negotiate meaning with one another.) You could assign groups of students to focus on different participants, or on different portions of the text. Debrief this work as a class and discuss any disagreement or ambiguity.

    iii. With the first row of the chart, model the process of finding details about participants in the text and summarizing Allen's characterization of them. The remainder of the chart can be completed as a whole class or in pairs/small groups.

    c. Guide students through synthesis and reflection. Ask students to write and then talk (or talk and then write) in response to the questions on the last page of the handout. As these responses build on one another, it will be most useful to debrief each one before moving on to the next. The third question will ask students to combine what they know about this particular text with other knowledge to make an inference about the Vietnam War's influence on movements for equality at home.

  3. Extend the learning. The process of identifying major participants and coding noun phrases for each participant can be a useful way of sorting out relationships, details, and descriptions in any future class text in which understanding the author's viewpoint toward multiple subjects or groups of people is important.


11.9 Vietnam Student Handout

11.9 Vietnam Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.

  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.

wartime trauma, violence, displacement