The End of the Vietnam War: Conscience, Resistance, and Reconciliation

by Ron Nash

Unit Objective

This unit is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based units. These units were developed to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Through this step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any primary or secondary source material.

Historical Context

Vietnam was “America’s longest war.” While US operations tended to be very limited between 1945 and 1964, escalation in the early months of 1965 eventually led to the deployment of more than 2.5 million military personnel to South Vietnam through 1973.

While the literature on the Vietnam War is voluminous, the issue of draft resistance has either been overlooked or misunderstood by historians. Most people in fact do make a distinction between draft evasion and draft resistance. The virtual omission of draft resistance from the historical accounts of the Vietnam War is a manifestation of the period’s nagging effect on American culture and memory.

In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords officially ended US involvement in the Vietnam War, although the majority of US troops would not leave until August of that year and the fighting between North and South Vietnam would continue until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Americans faced the daunting task of reuniting their own country torn apart by participation in a politically divisive and brutal conflict halfway around the world. The American public had become polarized in a way that it had not been since the Civil War.

In April 1973, Senator Edward Kennedy wrote a letter discussing the need to care for those who served in Southeast Asia and to forgive those who “refused induction” for moral reasons so “that the nation can turn its attention to reconciliation and healing the wounds and bitterness created by this long and costly conflict.”

Although the question of amnesty occupies more than half of the letter, Kennedy made it clear that caring for America’s servicemen was his top priority. The debate over both amnesty and how that issue related to the morality of the war in Vietnam is the focus of the following lesson.

Amnesty was ultimately tackled by Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. On September 16, 1974, President Ford issued a conditional amnesty proclamation for those who had evaded the draft, provided that they reaffirmed their allegiance to the United States and agreed to serve two years in a public service job. In 1977, just one day after his election, President Carter unconditionally pardoned anyone who had avoided the draft.

Unfortunately, Kennedy’s hopes for supporting servicemen returning from Southeast Asia were not realized. Many returned home to hostile receptions, limited mental health care, and a public that did not understand or want to understand the horrors servicemen had faced in combat.

Lesson 1

Objective

The students will analyze a chart and a letter written by Senator Edward Kennedy. They will also use graphic organizers to facilitate a close reading of the text as well as to track their understanding on both a literal and an inferential level. Student understanding of the text will be determined during classroom discussion and by examining the graphic organizers completed by the students.

Historical Context

Richard Nixon was reelected as president in November 1972. By December US troop strength in Vietnam had declined to 24,200. In order to motivate the North Vietnamese to return to the peace talks in Paris, Nixon initiated an intense “Christmas bombing” campaign, an operation called Linebacker II. During an eleven-day period, US bombers dropped over 20,000 tons of ordnance on North Vietnam. On January 2, 1973, the Paris Peace talks resumed and by late January a final agreement was reached. The terms of the final agreement were only slightly different from those offered earlier in 1972. With the stipulation that US combat troops would withdraw, Hanoi had achieved victory. Fighting between the North and South Vietnamese forces would continue until April 30, 1975.

Many issues continued to be debated even though the military operations were winding down. One was the matter of amnesty for those who had either resisted or evaded service. Other men had deserted after they had begun military service. The domestic debate focused on the morality of the Vietnam War.

It is against this backdrop that students and teachers can approach the following documents. At the discretion of the teacher the lesson can flow over one to three days. The simplest format is to engage with only the Kennedy letter and the two charts that illustrate the Vietnam generation and draft categories. If the teacher wants to drill deeper into the issues raised by the Kennedy letter, the class can proceed to the abridged congressional testimonies of John Kerry and John H. Geiger.

Materials

Procedure

At the teacher’s discretion the students may do the lesson individually, in pairs, or in small groups of no more than 3 or 4 students.

  1. Discuss the information in the introduction but don’t give too much away. Remember, we want the students to discover the meaning of text as they read.
  2. Hand out the Chart of Military Service in the Vietnam Generation and the Draft Board Classifications table. Analyze the chart and lead the class through an understanding of military service and draft evasion in the Vietnam era.
  3. Hand out the letter from Senator Edward Kennedy to Mr. Thursby. Decide if the text is at a level that is manageable for your students to read independently. If it is, let them do a close reading of the text and fill out the graphic organizer for the Kennedy letter. If the text level is too challenging, then “share read” the speech with the students by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while the teacher continues to read aloud. This technique will support struggling readers and English language learners (ELL).
  4. The students should now fill in the worksheet for the Kennedy letter. If you are having students work with partners or in groups, let them negotiate what they think would be best to include on the document analysis section. Students can brainstorm in groups but must complete their own organizer in order to complete the assignment.
  5. Students now answer the critical thinking questions on the worksheet. Emphasize that they are to use the author’s own words as evidence for their answers. You may want to consider the first question together as a class.
  6. Class discussion: Have groups or individual students share both their important phrase choices and the answers to the critical thinking questions.

Lesson 2

Objective

The students will read the congressional testimonies of John Kerry and John H. Geiger. Kerry represented Vietnam Veterans against the War, who opposed continuation of the war in 1971, and Geiger represented the interests of the American Legion, who defended the war and opposed a policy of amnesty. The students will also use the graphic organizers to facilitate a close reading of the text as well as to track their understanding on both a literal and an inferential level. Student understanding of the text will be determined during classroom discussion and by examining the graphic organizers completed by the students. This lesson will also assess student understanding through a writing exercise.

Historical Context

The movement of American people against the US government’s actions in Vietnam forms one of the most complex and controversial elements of the war. There is room to raise many questions, but the following two documents focus on two essential ones: Was the Vietnam War an immoral war? Should the men who resisted or evaded the draft have been granted amnesty?

In April 1971 members of the Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) descended on Washington and engaged in what they called Operation Dewey Canyon III, “a limited incursion into the country of Congress” (Dewey Canyon was the code name for an actual military operation in Laos in 1969 and 1971). On April 22 John Kerry, representing VVAW, made a statement before Congress regarding the war experiences of VVAW members.

One year later, Congress heard the arguments of John Geiger, the commander of the American Legion. Geiger’s views on both amnesty and the morality of the war were in stark contrast to those held by Kerry.

Materials

Procedure

At the teacher’s discretion the students may do the lesson individually, in pairs, or in small groups of no more than 3 or 4 students.

  1. Discuss the information in the introduction but don’t give too much away.
  2. Hand out the testimonies of John Kerry and John Geiger.
  3. Decide whether the text is at a level your students can read independently. If it is, then let them do a close reading of the text and fill out the graphic organizers. If the text level is too challenging, then share read the testimony with the students.
  4. The students should now fill in the important phrases and critical thinking questions sections of the worksheets. Students can brainstorm in small groups but must complete their own organizer in order to complete the assignment. Emphasize that they are to use the author’s own words as evidence for their answers to the critical thinking questions.
  5. Class discussion: Have groups or individual students share both their important phrase choices and answers to the critical thinking questions. Compare those with the responses from other groups.
  6. The assessment for this lesson is the assignment of one of the following essays. Remind the students that their arguments must be supported by evidence in the text.

Prompts

  • Given the two testimonies of John Kerry and John H. Geiger, which speaker is the more persuasive on the issues of the morality of the war and a policy for amnesty?
  • Why has the Vietnam War remained so divisive for Americans? Use the testimony by John Kerry and John Geiger as well as the letter by Senator Edward Kennedy.

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