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The Vietnam War

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Teaching ActivityTeaching Activity

Primary Source Analysis: Nixon and Vietnam

Contributing teacher: Paul Faeh
Time period: 1968–73

E-Seminar Summary

In the e-seminar The Vietnam War, the seventh in the series America Since 1945, Alan Brinkley discusses the policies and decisions that led to the expansion of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He explains why the United States, the world's strongest military power, failed to meets its objectives, one of which was to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam. He examines four options the United States could have pursued with respect to Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s: abandon Vietnam, do whatever was militarily necessary to win the war, keep the South from collapsing but not necessarily securing a clear military victory, or persuade the North Vietnamese government to agree to a negotiated compromise. The last option is one that several U.S. presidents claimed they had been pursuing since the beginning of the war and that the Nixon administration said it was pursuing most vehemently.

The Lesson

The Goals of the Lesson

This primary source analysis helps students prepare for the non-AP-level DBQ Vietnam and President Nixon, which focuses on President Richard Nixon's policies in Vietnam. In the DBQ prompt, students are asked to examine the extent to which President Nixon was able to achieve the "honorable peace" he promised the American public. The documents in the DBQ range from 1968, when Richard Nixon won the U.S. presidency, through 1973, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed.

This activity will teach students how to analyze song lyrics and a photograph, and, in particular, to

  • pose questions about a primary source's author (or creator), date, and publication
  • identify the point of view expressed in the primary source
  • determine the intended audience of the primary source
  • understand the purpose of the primary source
  • examine the source to identify its style, tone, and persuasiveness
These are steps that historians take when they investigate primary sources in archives and libraries. This and other teaching activities in Columbia American History Online are useful guides for students as they analyze correspondence, documents, interviews, lyrics, political cartoons, and other primary sources that typically appear in DBQs. This activity is directed specifically to students looking to practice the skill of linking evidence from primary sources within a DBQ in support of a thesis topic.

When students are assigned a DBQ, they often write essays based on only one or two of several documents. Often they have difficulty taking information or evidence from each primary source and linking that to an argument or thesis they are trying to prove or disprove. In this activity they will be guided through the process of analyzing documents and interpreting history.

Primary Sources to be Examined

  • Barry Sadler, "Ballad of the Green Berets" (1965). It's a good idea to play the song for your students.
  • Photograph of confrontation between student demonstrators and Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, 4 May 1970

Step 1: Research

It is suggested that the preparatory phase be assigned as homework. Referring your students to their textbooks and to the Brinkley e-seminar The Vietnam War, ask them to collect background information related to the following issues:

  • the 1968 presidential election
  • President Nixon's "Vietnamization" plan
  • the expansion of the war into Cambodia
  • the Kent State shootings
  • the Paris Peace Accords and President Nixon's announcement of "peace with honor"

Step 2: Timeline

To reinforce their understanding of these events, ask your students to create a timeline. They should write a two-sentence annotation for each event. They can consult the timeline in the Brinkley e-seminar The Vietnam War.

In-Class Activity

Step 3: Song and Photograph Analysis

  • Divide students into small groups and distribute copies of the primary sources to each student.
  • Your students will first analyze the lyrics, using the following worksheets, prepared by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA):

Step 4: Guiding Questions: Song and Photograph

After your students have completed their worksheets, dissolve the groups and divide students into pairs. Each pair will answer the guiding questions below, first for the lyrics and then for the photograph.

  1. Who is the author or photographer? How does how does his or her background affect the message of the document?
  2. What are key words or phrases in the song? What are the key details in the photograph? In each case, what makes them key?
  3. What is the tone of the song? What is the tone of the photograph? In each case, is the tone of the document influenced by the point of view of the author or photographer?
  4. What message does each source convey? Indicate evidence in words or phrases (in the song lyrics) or in poses shot or other visual details (in the photograph).
  5. Do you find these sources, one aural and the other visual, more persuasive than a purely text document would have been? What is the information that these sources convey and that a purely text document could not?
  6. How does the unique nature of the information that songs or photographs provide affect their persuasiveness?
  7. How would the unique nature of the information that songs or photographs provide affect the historian's use of them?
  8. How might the answer to question 7 above be useful to you when answering a DBQ?

Step 5: Class Discussion

Comparing and Contrasting Sources

When your students have answered all the questions, assemble the whole class and focus the discussion on question 3 on each of three worksheets (Sound Analysis Worksheet, Written Document Analysis Worksheet, and Photo Analysis Worksheet). For each of the two sources, they should compare and contrast point of view, audience, and message.

The next task will help students contextualize documents by calling on the outside information they gathered in the course of doing research during the research phase of this teaching activity. Even when students understand the message of a picture, poster, or song, they often find it difficult to link the message of one source to that of others.

Additional Activities: Linking Evidence

Step 6: Speech Analysis

Provide students with copies of the excerpt of Richard Nixon's acceptance speech on August 8, 1968, at the Republican National Convention. This speech is Document B from the related DBQ.

The next series of guiding questions will help your students compare some of Nixon's beliefs and goals with those expressed by Barry Sadler.

Guiding Questions: Song and Speech

  1. What message does Barry Sadler convey in his song about the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam?
  2. What message does Richard Nixon convey in his speech about what he hopes to achieve in Vietnam?
  3. Are there any similarities between Sandler's message and Nixon's?
  4. To whom is each appealing in his message?
  5. Do you find their messages appealing?
  6. What events do they address?
  7. How does each represent U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War?

Step 7: Editorial Opinion Analysis

Provide students with copies of the editorial, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 3, 1970), in which Nixon's entry into Cambodia is criticized. The excerpt is Document E from the related DBQ.

The next series of guiding questions will help your students compare Nixon's goals with the messages conveyed in the editorial and the photograph.

Guiding Questions: Speech and Editorial

  1. What events at home and abroad do both sources address?
  2. Compare and contrast the editorial with the message conveyed by the photograph.
  3. What emotions do you feel when reading the editorial? What emotions do you feel when looking at the photograph?
  4. Does one document convey its message more effectively than the other?
  5. What bias might each of these documents contain?

Step 8: Constructing a Thesis Statement

Ask your students to write, for homework, a thesis statement (one paragraph) in which they explain why conditions were such that President Nixon was or was not able to achieve peace with honor. They should specifically cite evidence from each source they have analyzed in this activity. Some students might find it useful to create a chart of columns, one for conditions that would not have prevented the administration from achieving peace with honor and another column for conditions that would have prevented him.

Step 9: Doing the DBQ

When your students are comfortable with comparing and contrasting the sources in this activity, you can assign the related non-AP-level DBQ Vietnam and President Nixon to provide your students with more practice. This will increase their confidence and skill level.

Consider asking your students who are more creative to write an original song from the perspective of an antiwar student and addressed to either Sargent Barry Sadler or President Richard Nixon.

Sources Used

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