Grade: Middle
Subject: Social Studies/History

Essential Question

How were American’s divisive opinions over the Vietnam War articulated by musicians in the 1960s and early 1970s?


In the years following World War II, a brief period of American euphoria gave way to fear of a new antagonist: communism. Though the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies during the war, Soviet efforts to rebuild Eastern Europe in its own image led to an American fear of ever-spreading communism and caused a rift between the two countries. Allies no longer, the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in an indirect conflict known as the Cold War from 1947 until the communist government collapsed in 1991.

Regardless of tensions, the United States and the Soviet Union, now the world’s two nuclear superpowers, knew that a direct war would lead to “mutually assured destruction” in which both countries would lose. Therefore, each nation sought to pursue its aims “by proxy” in other nations. In 1956, with the aid of the Soviets, the League for the Independence of Vietnam overthrew the U.S.-supported French colonial government in Vietnam, leaving the country divided into a Soviet-backed communist North and U.S.-backed republic South. Fighting erupted between the two sides in the early 1960s.

What began as an envoy of U.S. “advisors” to South Vietnam in 1964 quickly escalated, and by 1969, 500,000 U.S. troops were involved in the conflict. As the American body count rose–nearly 17,000 U.S. soldiers died in 1968 alone–Americans became divided on the war’s merit. The pro-war “Hawks” feared loss in Vietnam would signal a victory for the Soviet Union, and that protecting the United States from the perceived “communist threat,” wherever it might appear, was one’s patriotic duty. The anti-war “Doves” felt the war was barbaric, and the casualties on both sides served little to no purpose. In 1970, division over the Vietnam War reached a point of crises: in May that year, the National Guard shot and killed four anti-war student protesters at Kent State University.

Today, the tragedy at Kent State might not be best remembered through a news article, but a song: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio,” which powerfully articulates the moment when the violence of the Vietnam War was turned inward, upon American students. But “Ohio,” was one of many songs in the 1960s and 1970s that signified the cultural division between the Hawks and Doves.

In this lesson, students examine how Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio,” Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and Edwin Starr’s “War” articulated the divisive feelings Americans had about the war in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To supplement these songs, students will also watch clips from CNN Soundtracks and analyze polling data, news articles, and photographs from the era. 

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  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Seminal events during the Vietnam War, including the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, The Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, the election of Richard Nixon, and the Kent State shootings
    • The feelings Americans had about the Vietnam War, including the division between the “Doves” and “Hawks”
    • The way popular music either directly contributed to discussions about the Vietnam War, or was appropriated by pro- and anti-Vietnam War groups 
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to define the differing political viewpoints Americans had during the Vietnam War by examining the music, journalism, and photography of the era.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Pass out Handout 1 – “4 Kent State Students Killed by Troops” and read the article aloud as a class. Ask students to clarify the “5 Ws” of this event:
    • What is being discussed in this article?
    • Where did the shootings occur?
    • When did they occur?
    • Who were the principal actors in this event?
    • Why did the shootings occur?
  2. Play Clip 1, “Ohio,” and ask students:
    • What does the story of the song “Ohio” say about the effect the Vietnam War era had on musicians?
    • In what ways do you think the song “Ohio” might have been a more effective method of expressing shock and opposition than any journalism could have been? (Encourage students to consider the emotional power of a song, the ability to sing “four dead in Ohio” as the chorus, and the power of popular culture.)
  3. Display Image 1, Ohio Lyrics on the board and ask:
    • Who might Neil Young be referring to in the line “found her dead on the ground”?
    • What do you think Neil Young means in the song with the lyric “we’re finally on our own?”
    • In what ways does this song represent an “in your face” protest? What is it calling into question? (Encourage students to consider the placement of the President of the United States as a predator towards his own citizens; the war has been shifted from Vietnam to Ohio.)
    • Do you think everyone agreed with Neil Young’s view of what occurred at Kent State? Why do you think “Ohio” might have also been a “touchstone of opposition” for people that supported the Vietnam War?


  1. Show Image 2, Poll on Vietnam. Ask students:
    • What is this chart showing?
    • What does the orange line represent?
    • What does the blue line represent?
    • What do the numbers on each line represent?
    • What general trajectory do you see in this chart? What is happening over time?
  2. Show Image 3, Vietnam Poll with Timeline. Read over each timeline entry as a class. Then ask:
    • At what point does the public view on Vietnam change? What events might have prompted that change?
    • Why might have Americans been increasingly against the Vietnam War after 1968? What sort of events occurred which might have furthered their disapproval?
  3. Tell students that during much of the Vietnam War, Americans were split between groups known as the “Hawks,” and the “Doves.” Ask students:
    • Based on the label, what might have the “Doves” believed about the Vietnam War?
    • What line on the chart might have been represented most strongly by the Doves?
    • What might have the “Hawks” believed about the Vietnam War?
    • What line on the chart might have been represented most strongly by the Hawks?
    • According to the poll, when were there more Hawks? When were there more Doves?
  4. Divide students into groups, and pass out to each student Handout 2 – Comparing Hawks and DovesTell students they will be watching clips from Soundtracks and doing a Gallery Walk to examine more closely how the Hawks and Doves differed.
  5. Place the Hawks and Doves Gallery Walk images around the classroom, and show Image 4, Gallery Walk Guiding Questions. Have students examine each image and make notes on their handout on the differences they see between the Hawks and Doves, using the questions displayed as a guide.
  6. Play Clip 2, “Okie From Muskogee,” and then display Image 5, Lyrics to Okie From Muskogee. Ask students:
    • The clip mentions that Nixon, in his election, made an appeal to the “Silent Majority.” What kind of people might he have been referring to with this term? What sort of people was he NOT referring to?
    • How might Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” also speak for “The Silent Majority”?
    • Craig Werner describes the song as “Directed against the excesses of the Anti-war movement.” Based on the lyrics, how does Merle Haggard describe such excesses? How does he characterize the anti-war movement?
    • Do you agree with Craig Werner’s assertion that the song was not a pro-war song, but an anti-anti-war song? Is there a difference between these two type of songs? Why or why not?
  7. Play Clip 3, “War.” Ask students:
    • As Roger Steffens mentions, Richard Nixon campaigned for president on the promise to end the war in Vietnam. According to the clip, what happened instead? (Nixon expanded the war by invading Cambodia).
    • According to the clip, was Kent State the only school in which the national guard shot students? Where else were students shot?
  8. Display Image 6, Quotes by Edwin Starr and Muhammad Ali. Ask students:
    • What might Edwin Starr be referring to when he says “neighborhood and racial wars?”
    • What might Muhammad Ali mean when he says “We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.” Who is he referring to?
    • Based on the quotes and the clip, how might the anti-war movement had particular relevance to African Americans? Are there any ways it might have been less relevant for them?
    • Both Edwin Starr’s “War” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” were not originally intended to be about the Vietnam War. What was it about the songs that led to their appropriation by the Hawks and Doves?

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask student groups to review the notes they took on Handout 2, and complete the following sentences:
    • “The Doves opposed the Vietnam War because. . . .”
    • “The Hawks supported the Vietnam War because. . .”
  2. Have each student group read their sentences out loud, and discuss the ways the statements between groups may be similar or different.

Extension Activities:

  1. Watch the full Soundtracks episode on Kent State and the Vietnam War here. Choose another song discussed in the episode, and some further research on it. Did it represent the feelings of the Doves, Hawks, or neither?
  2. Humans have a strong, powerful, and motivating need to belong. Throughout history, this need has caused some to ignore factual information that contradicts their beliefs, searching instead for opinions that support their own views. This concept can be illustrated with these six psychology terms. Research and apply one to three of these Social Psychology concepts to the polarization occurring during the Vietnam War. How might have these concepts strengthened the divide between the Hawks and the Doves?
    • Confirmation bias
    • Belief perseverance
    • Availability Heuristic
    • Fixation
    • Conformity
    • Groupthink


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Craft and Structure 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Craft and Structure 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Text Types and Purposes 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • Language 2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 5:  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 10: Civic Ideals and Practices

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.1 Compare and contrast the ways in which different artistic media (television, newspapers, magazines, and electronic media) cover the same commercial content.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.1 Identify and compare how film, theater, television, and electronic media productions influence values and behaviors.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B7.4 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the actor and performance artist in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.

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