Download this lesson plan, including handouts, in pdf format.
Subject Area: US History after World War II
Time Required: One class period
In the winter of 1963, the eyes of most Americans were not on Vietnam, though it would soon become a battleground familiar to all. In this lesson, students analyze a letter to President Kennedy from a woman who had just lost her brother in South Vietnam and then consider Kennedy’s reply in which he explains his rationale for sending US military personnel there.
What were the origins of US involvement in Vietnam prior to its engagement of combat troops?
- analyze primary sources.
- discuss US involvement in the Vietnam conflict prior to 1963.
- evaluate the “domino theory” from the historical perspective of Americans living in 1963.
Connections to Curriculum (Standards)
National Standards: National Center for History in the Schools
Era 9 - Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s), 2B - The student understands United States foreign policy in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Era 9, 2C - The student understands the foreign and domestic consequences of US involvement in Vietnam.
Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework
US II.T3 (12) - Summarize the diplomatic and military policies on the War in Vietnam of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon and explain the intended and unintended consequences of the Vietnam War on the Vietnamese and Americans.
Students should have a working knowledge of the Cold War. They should be able to analyze primary sources.
Historical Background and Context
After World War II, the French tried to re-establish their colonial control over Vietnam, the most strategic of the three states comprising the former Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos). Following the defeat of the French, Vietnam was partitioned by the Geneva Accords of 1954 into Communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam, which was non-Communist, but divided on religious and political lines. The United States supported a military government in the South and the decision of its leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, to prevent free elections which might result in the unification of the country under the control of the Communists. In an effort to take over South Vietnam, the Communist North supported attacks by guerrilla forces on the South. The Geneva Accords quickly began to crumble.
American foreign policy after World War II had been based on the goal of containing Communism and the assumptions of the so-called "domino theory”—that if one country fell to Communism, the surrounding countries would fall, like dominoes. The Eisenhower administration was concerned that if Vietnam fell under Communist control, other Southeast Asian and Pacific nations, including even the Philippines, would fall one by one. In response to that threat, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed in 1955 to prevent Communist expansion. President Eisenhower sent some 700 military personnel as well military and economic aid to the government of South Vietnam. This effort was foundering when John F. Kennedy became president.
In May 1961, JFK authorized sending an additional 500 Special Forces troops and military advisors to assist the pro Western government of South Vietnam. By the end of 1962, there were approximately 11,000 military advisors in South Vietnam; that year, 53 military personnel had been killed. The president would soon send additional military advisors to support the South Vietnamese Army. By the end of 1963, the numbers had risen to 16,000.
(All materials included in the downloadable pdf.)
- “Historical Briefings: JFK, the Cold War, and Vietnam”
- February 18, 1963 letter from Bobbie Lou Pendergrass to President Kennedy
- March 6, 1963 letter from President Kennedy to Bobbie Lou Pendergrass
- Have students read “Historical Briefings: JFK, the Cold War, and Vietnam” and answer the following questions:
- What was the Cold War?
- How and when did the Korean War begin? What forces were fighting?
- How did the conflict in Vietnam become part of the Cold War?
- Why did Eisenhower send military personnel to South Vietnam beginning in 1955?
- What were the military advisors sent to South Vietnam to do?
- Provide students with the February 18, 1963 letter from Bobbie Lou Pendergrass to President Kennedy and his March 6, 1963 reply.
- Discuss the following:
- What are Pendergrass’s main concerns about troop involvement in Vietnam? (It’s not like World War II or the Korean War: “They were wars that our country were fighting, and that everyone here knew that our sons and brothers were giving their lives for their country. Half of our country never heard of Vietnam. Our solders can’t even fight back. Is the small number of military in Vietnam sufficient to win there? What justifies the loss of life there?")
- How does JFK respond to these concerns? (Vietnam must not fall under Communist control. If South Vietnam becomes Communist the whole region may be lost to the Communists--which would ultimately threaten our country).
- Put students in pairs. Using these documents as the basis for a script, have students create a phone conversation between the President and Mrs. Pendergrass in which she raises the questions she poses in her letter and he responds.
- Have each pair of students perform these skits for the class.
For homework, have students write an imaginary diary entry for Mrs. Pendergrass that she might have written in which she describes her conversation and discusses to what extent she was convinced by President Kennedy’s arguments. Students may include outside research as part of this assignment.