The Vietnam War, Ken Burns, and 7 useful resources
I still remember the week of The Civil War by Ken Burns. It was early in my first teaching position as an 8th grade US history teacher in Derby, America. And it was amazing. So Ken and I have continued to hang out over the last few decades.
Jazz. Baseball. World War II. The Roosevelts.
And now . . . Vietnam.
But this one feels different somehow. Still mesmerizing. Still great production values. Still engaging. Still solid history. But maybe it just feels too recent to be comfortable history.
The projects of Ken Burns are designed to illuminate the past and, thereby, illuminate the present. You can’t watch, say, The Civil War and not see the barely papered-over fault lines that still exist in American politics, and a miniseries like Baseball could present a different prism through which to consider what America cares about.
Many Ken Burns projects are easy to leave in their space — earnest, occasionally dusty chronicles of the past. They reflect the present, but in ways that usually allow us to say, “Well, things have certainly changed since then.” You might find them intensely moving or graceful, but you may not return to them much after you’re done watching. You’ll think of them fondly when you stumble upon them on Netflix or a DVD shelf.
But The Vietnam War, the filmmaker’s latest, which he co-directed with Lynn Novick, reflects the present in ways that can be uncomfortable. It’s about an unpopular president — actually, two unpopular presidents — who stews about unfair treatment from the press and protesters. It’s about a country that seems on the brink of fracturing over very different ideals of what that country should be.
The Vietnam War is, in some way, about right now, while also being about something else entirely. I don’t know if it’s the best film Burns has ever made, but it’s certainly the one I’ve thought most about.
Perhaps that’s why we all need to watch it. The series is about right now. And I know, depending on your scope and sequence, the specific history content of the series may not align with your unit designs. But there are still conversations that could be had around Constitutional issues, First Amendment rights, or responsibilities of the media. The duties and rights of American citizens. The duties of elected and appointed officials. Hubris. There are fiction and nonfiction tie-ins to books such as The Things They Carried and We were Soldiers Once . . . And Young.
Yes. It’s 10 episodes and 18 hours. So you’re going to have to plan this out but it’ll be worth it.
The PBS Vietnam War site gives you the ability to stream entire episodes or video snippets. The site provides a solid reading list to accompany the series. They’ve also provided an option for viewers to record and listen to oral histories which I think will provide some powerful moments for your lessons. Your kids can listen to the Spotify soundtrack and explore the music of the period.
There are other resources that can help as you plan your own professional learning or design lessons. This is just a start. Do some of the Googling for yourself to find even more.
PBS has extensive lesson plans and resources including:
- The Soldier’s Experience in Vietnam: Using Oral Histories to Draft an Historical Narrative
- Teaching the Vietnam War
- The Last Days in Vietnam
The National Archives has a variety of primary resource based materials:
- DocsTeach has a variety of web-based lesson and activities.
- The War in Vietnam: A Story in Photographs
EDSITEment always has excellent resources:
The National History Education Clearinghouse posted a helpful article with multiple resources:
The New York Times Teaching the Vietnam War with Primary Sources has extensive ideas and suggestions.
Facing History and Ourselves developed a lesson around the documentary Regret to Inform You:
And you can find hundreds of oral histories at the Texas Tech Vietnam Center and Archive.