Americans Respond to the Vietnam War: A Document Based Question Activity

Essential Question

In what ways and to what extent did the Vietnam War change American culture, society, and values?


In this activity, students examine ten primary source documents to consider the ways the United States’ involvement in Vietnam affected the culture and values of the country. This activity is based upon a Document-Based Question (“DBQ”), which is an assessment method commonly used in upper division and advanced placement courses. In a DBQ, students are presented with 6-10 documents from varied sources, and are asked to synthesize the documents with their own knowledge to write a coherent thesis-driven essay. The goal of the activity is to challenge students to think critically and to consider viewpoints that are frequently inconsistent and contradictory.

The documents for this activity are drawn from those that might be typically found on an advanced placement history test, supplemented by materials featured in Teachrock lessons. As such, this activity may be used as a means to prepare students for an advanced placement test, or as an assessment tool at the end of a Vietnam War unit. A variety of approaches are provided that allow teachers to use the documents to engage their students in the classroom.   

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Upon completion of this activity, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Beret”
    • President Lyndon Johnson
    • The Gulf of Tonkin incident
    • Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”
    • Activist Paul Potter
    • Weatherman Underground
    • Photographer Bernie Boston
    • The Inauguration of Richard Nixon
    • Pentagon Papers
    • Journalist James Reston
    • Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogie”
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will evaluate the extent to which the Civil Rights Movement acted as a turning point in United States history by analyzing a variety of historical documents.



  1. Pass out to students Handout 1 – “Americans Respond to Vietnam: A Document-Based Question.” Teachers may then choose from a variety of activities that draw upon the handout:

Activity 1: AP Test Preparation

  1. Students follow the directions on the handout and individually craft an essay in the allotted time.

Activity 2: The DBQ Timeline

  1. Before class, make copies of the documents and cut them so that each one is on a separate piece of paper. In addition, print slips of paper with major events from the time period the DBQ covers. For instance, the slips might include:
    • The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
    • The Geneva Accords
    • Battle of Dien Bien Phu
    • The 1968 Democratic National Convention
    • The Tet Offensive
    • Kent State Shootings
    • Fall of Saigon
    • The Pentagon Papers
    • Operation Rolling Thunder
    • US Withdrawal from Vietnam
    • My Lai Massacre
    • Any other important event your class studied during the Vietnam War period
  2. Have students work in small groups to arrange the primary sources and the events in a timeline. After they have successfully completed the timeline, ask them to reflect (either orally or in writing) on one or both of these questions:
    • How did the Vietnam War progress through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s? Were there any major defeats or victories, for either side? Support your response with at least three pieces of evidence from your timelines.  
    • How did America’s role in Vietnam change over the course of the war? Did musicians’ views on the war change? Find examples from the documents that support your response.

Activity 3: HIPPO Analysis

  1. Split the class into 3-5 groups, and assign each group 1-2 documents from Handout 1. In addition, pass out Handout 2 – “The HIPPO Technique for Analyzing Documents.”
  2. Ask student groups to analyze the document(s) assigned to them using the HIPPO process.
  3. Have each group explain their document(s) to the class, based upon their HIPPO analysis.

Activity 4: The Cocktail Party

  1. Cut out the documents and give each student a single one.
  2. Tell students they have eight minutes to analyze their assigned document. Students should examine and research some or all of these elements of their document:
    • Who created it? (Students should research the authors’ backgrounds if possible.)
    • When was it created? Was it created in response to any particular historical events?
    • Does the author discuss any other issues present at the time, outside the Vietnam War?
    • Where was it created? Is there any significance to that place?
    • What is the content of the primary source? What is the author’s main point? Is there anything surprising?
  3. Tell students they may write notes on their primary sources to help them remember the key points, but encourage them to become ‘experts’ on their documents.
  4. After the eight minutes have expired, it is time for the cocktail party. Students will circulate amongst themselves in order to learn about the documents from one another.
  5. Explain these ground rules:
    • Meet in pairs only
    • The person with the earliest birthday discusses his/her document first
    • No talking to yourself . . . or someone who read the same document as you did
    • At the end of one minute, it is time to move on. (Teacher should monitor time and give a 30-second warning.)
  6. When students have had the opportunity to meet with readers of all the other documents, have them return to their seats. Depending on the size of the class, you can have students discuss as a whole or you can have them work in small groups. Pose the following questions in order to debrief and highlight the purpose of the activity:
    • How did intellectuals, writers, and musicians feel about the U.S.’s engagement with Vietnam? Were there differences in their opinions?
    • Was there a significant change over time, as evidenced in the documents, in the reactions to the Vietnam War? Why do you think those changes occurred or failed to occur?