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THE

V I E T N A M WA R A DISCUSSION GUIDE

G E O F F R E Y C . WA R D AND K E N B U R N S

1. FOLLOWING WORLD WAR II, French president Charles de

Gaulle insisted that Vietnam continue as a French colony despite the fact that Ho Chi Minh had declared the countr y’s independence in 195. After eight years of fighting the Viet Minh guerrilla army, the French were defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. What were the lessons the U.S. could have learned about conflict in Vietnam from the French experience? 2. IN THE INTRODUCTION to The Vietnam War: An Intimate

History, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick write, “This was a war of many perspectives, a Rashomon of equally plausible ‘stories,’ of secrets, lies, and distortions at every turn. We wished to try to contain and faithfully reflect those seemingly irreconcilable outlooks.” What techniques were used to present those multiple points of view? Were they successful? 3. THE VIETNAM WAR was the first U.S. conflict that

received extensive television coverage. The very visual on-the-scene T V reporting broug ht the c o n f l i c t i nt o o ur l i v i n g rooms. How do you think this kind of journalism–which continues in our overseas conflicts today–affected policy makers and the people on the home front? 4. ARMY VET PHIL GIOIA SAID, “The Vietnam War drove a

stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country as it had probably never been polarized since before the Civil War, and we’ve never recovered.” Did the news coverage play a role in this polarization? Do you think that the war exacerbated divisions that were already there? In what ways is our country still suffering from the effects of the war?

5. THE SUBTITLE OF THE BOOK, An Intimate History, comes

from the many personal stories and photographs of people on both sides of the war. Which of those stories and/or photographs were most meaningful to you? Were you disturbed by any of the material you saw or read? 6. DID READING THE BOOK change any ideas you had about the

war? Did it make you want to learn more about the war or the history of Vietnam? 7. BEGINNING WITH PRESIDENT KENNEDY, presidents and

policymakers were concerned that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, it would reflect on the prestige and honor of the U.S. military. Policymakers wanted to avoid–at all costs–the impression that we lost the war. How did this affect the way the war was conducted? Did it affect the outcome of the war? And did it prove successful in protecting America’s reputation? 8. FOR THOSE READERS who lived through the Vietnam War

era, was there anything that surprised you or changed your point of view? 9. FOR THOSE READERS AND VIEWERS who are too young to

remember the Vietnam War, what did you learn from the book? Do you think about the war differently now? 10. DRAFT-ELIGIBLE YOUNG MEN who were opposed to the Vietnam War but could not qualify as conscientious objectors faced a difficult decision. Some went to Canada, some faked medical conditions, others didn’t show up for induction. How do you feel about the “draft dodgers,” as they were called? Was President Carter right to grant unconditional amnesty in 1977?

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11. SOME WHO SERVED IN THE MILITARY opposed the war but felt

17. WHEN THE SOLDIERS RETURNED HOME from Vietnam, many

it was their patriotic duty to serve their country. The stories of Jack Todd, John Musgrave, Tim O’Brien, and nurse Joan Furey reveal the thoughts and opinions of those who were disaffected but served anyway. What would you have done if you were opposed to the war? How do we balance our duties to ourselves and our fellow citizens?

were met with anger and disdain. Some people on the home front weren’t able to separate their feelings about the war from the soldiers who risked their lives in battle. How do you feel about the way the returning soldiers were treated?

12. APPROXIMATELY 25 PERCENT OF THE MEN who served in Vietnam

were draftees. The draft was a major cause of antiwar protests. Now, with a large standing army at the ready, is it easier to send our military off to fight? And what are the responsibilities of regular citizens in a post-draft age? Do you believe there should be a national service requirement? 13. THE ORIGINAL RATIONALE FOR THE WAR was the “domino

theory,” the need to prevent Communism from making gains in Southeast Asia. U.S. policy was intended to support the creation and growth of democratic governments. In retrospect, did the “domino theory” represent a real threat? Has our foreign policy changed since Vietnam or is it much the same?

18. THE USE OF THE DEFOLIANT HERBICIDE Agent Orange (and other

chemicals) affected U.S. soldiers who were exposed to them. The debilitating health effects were initially denied by the U.S. government. It wasn’t until 1991 that Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, making veterans eligible to receive treatment. What could the government have done differently? 19. THE U.S. HAS DIFFERENT WAYS OF HONORING ITS SOLDIERS. Many

towns and cities have Vietnam War memorials. What kind of experiences do the best memorials provide? There was significant controversy over Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Have you visited the memorial? How would you compare it to the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York?

14. IF YOU HAD THE OPPORTUNITY NOW to speak to any of the

significant policymakers in the conduct of the war, e.g., Presidents Johnson and Nixon, General Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams, or Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, what would you want to say to them? 15. MAO ZEDONG’S WORDS guided the North Vietnamese

guerrilla fighters: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy halts, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” The U.S. military was at a disadvantage in this kind of guerrilla warfare. General Westmoreland repeatedly requested more soldiers, and many tons of bombs and chemicals were dropped on North Vietnam. Could the war have been fought differently?

DISCUSSION GUIDE WRITTEN BY ROSALIND REISNER

Rosalind Reisner is a librarian and the author of the awa rd-winning Jewish American Literature : A Guide to Reading Interests and Read On . . . Life Stories : Reading Lists for Every Taste. She chaired the selection committee for the Great Group Reads/ National Reading Group booklist from 2009 to 2013. Reisner speaks and writes about readers’ advisory services, Jewish literature, and memoirs, and blogs at www.areadersplace.net

16. THE U.S. GOVERNMENT kept the nature of our support for

Vietnam secret in the late 1950s and early 1960s; later, other aspects of the war were kept hidden from the public; eventually the information came out, due, in part to the release of the Pentagon Papers. At the beginning of the war, people felt that the president knew best what needed to be done. When the secrets came out, it eroded trust in the government. Is this lack of trust part of the ongoing legacy of the war?

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The Vietnam War Readers Guide  

Download this readers guide to Ken Burns's The Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War Readers Guide  

Download this readers guide to Ken Burns's The Vietnam War.