About this Activity
Suggested for grades 9-12
1. What were some of the factors that motivated some Vietnamese to take up arms against U.S. forces during the Vietnam War?
2. How does examining a broad historical event at the individual level lend new insight into the event?
Try using this activity when teaching about...
- The Vietnam War
- Vietnamese Civilian and Soldier Perspectives
- Oral History
Common Core Connections
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.
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.
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.
Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
This activity uses oral history interviews from a North Vietnamese soldier and a South Vietnamese civilian to examine some of the factors that motivated many Vietnamese to take up arms. Oral histories allow us to understand the experiences of people whose voices may not have been heard in the past and see what the soldiers and civilians on the ground felt and thought about the conflict. Drawing on these personal experiences also provides insight into the challenges that the United States faced in cultivating the support of the Vietnamese people at large, a substantial factor in the failed U.S. military campaign.
The interviews used in this activity were conducted in 1981 as part of the PBS documentary Vietnam: A Television History. Almost one hundred Vietnamese personal narratives have been archived online in the WGBH Open Vault. The first interview features Duong Long Sang, a southerner who joined the northern military forces after the Geneva Accords and returned to Saigon to fight with the NLF against the United States and South Vietnamese Army. His story illustrates how the arbitrary partition of the nation in the Geneva Accords split families and cut across political alignments. The second interview reinforces this perspective. Nguyen Thi Sinh, a villager in the south, describes her experience in an agroville (also known as a "Strategic Hamlet") and how the brutality of the Diem regime prompted her to become aligned with the NLF against the government of South Vietnam and its American supporters.
Listening to the stories of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians shows that Vietnamese motivations for involvement in the war ranged much more widely than U.S. perceptions of their motivations, at that time and even today. Although it is important to consider the bias underlying these interviews – it is highly likely that Duong Long Sang and Nguyen Thi Sinh were only given permission by the government to be interviewed in 1981 if they were able to support the standard party narrative of the war – the material presented here reflects a perspective that is sometimes overlooked. This activity encourages students to reconsider the outcome of the war through the eyes of a different group of its combatants.
|Agroville||Fortified settlements in South Vietnam started by Diem in 1959 to build large-scale "agricultural towns" in the Mekong Delta. Agrovilles involved forced relocation and forced labor and were guarded by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to isolate southern villages against communist infiltration.|
|Strategic Hamlet||Implemented by the U.S. military and South Vietnamese government in 1962 to fortify existing agrovilles in South Vietnam to hamlets under the control of ARVN in an attempt to isolate villagers from the NLF.|
|National Liberation Front (NLF)||Established in December 1960, this organization was created by the Communist Party of Vietnam as a united front for all people against Ngo Dinh Diem's regime. Although it is unclear how much NLF actions were dictated by the government in Hanoi (North Vietnam), the NLF was responsible for supporting southern resistance and offensive campaigns against the U.S. military and ARVN forces.|
|ARVN||Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Also known as the South Vietnamese Army, or SVA, which fought alongside the U.S. military.|
|Ngo Dinh Diem||Fervent anti-communist who ruled South Vietnam from 1954 to 1963. Diem had initial support from the U.S. government and military, however, his Catholicism and oppressive rule alienated many South Vietnamese, particularly Buddhists, and the U.S. supported a military coup d'état against him in 1963.|
|Corvée||Unpaid labor. Associated with labor in medieval France, the term was used in Vietnam when a local authority enacted work from a villager for little or no pay.|
|Geneva Accords||Agreements produced at an international conference in Geneva in 1954 which ended the First Indochina War between France and the Viet Minh. The accords split Vietnam at the 17th parallel into northern and southern "military regroupment zones," with the north under the control of the Viet Minh and the south under control of the State of Vietnam, a French-backed anti-communist Vietnamese government. The division was supposed to last only until national reunification elections were held in 1956; however, both the U.S. and the State of Vietnam refused to support these elections and they were never held, resulting in the de facto separation of the country into North and South Vietnam.|
|Cu Chi||A district located in the province adjacent to Saigon. Tunnels were built in this region to support the NLF offensives.|
|Saigon||The largest city in Vietnam and the capital of South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Communist takeover in 1975.|
- Why Vietnam? film
- Computer and LCD projector
1. The perspectives expressed in the Vietnamese oral history interviews differ greatly from the United States government's portrayal of why the Vietnamese were fighting the war. To provide a point of comparison, explain that you will be showing students excerpts from the film Why Vietnam? Prior to viewing, explain to students that the film was produced by the United States Department of Defense and aired in 1965 on a television program called "The Big Picture." Explain that the film shows a view of the Vietnam War that the United States government wanted to portray to the America people. (You might want to consider whether or not the film could be classified as propaganda and, if you have used the Why We Fight series from World War II, you could compare this film to that work.) Ask students to look for the reasons that the United States is fighting in Vietnam according to the film and to identify the reasons that the Vietnamese people are fighting in the war.
2. Show students the film excerpts. The film clip in this link is 9 mins 52 secs long. You could show the film clip from minute 4:06 to 9:52 if you would like to show a shorter excerpt. The entire film is about 50 minutes long and is available on WGBH Open Vault.
3. After students have watched the film excerpt, discuss students' observations and the film's argument for why the U.S. and the Vietnamese were fighting. [The film describes U.S. involvement in Vietnam as an action against the spread of communism and portrays the North Vietnamese as an arm of an international communist organization. South Vietnam is portrayed as a peaceful and democratic country.]
4. Ask students to think about why the U.S. government would produce this film (e.g. to gain popular support for the war, a view in Washington that the war in Vietnam was truly connected to global communist expansion, etc.) and to think about other possible reasons that the Vietnamese people might be involved in a war (e.g. for independence, civil war, etc.).
5. Tell students to think about the U.S. government's position when they examine the oral history interviews in the following activity.
Primary Source Activity
- Interview with Duong Long Sang, 1981
- Interview with Nguyen Thi Sinh, 1981
- Printed copies of the interview transcripts (class set)
- Computer with LCD projector
- Chart Paper
1. Explain to students that they are going to watch and read oral history interviews with a Vietnamese soldier and civilian to consider why many Vietnamese felt motivated to fight against U.S. forces in Vietnam. [If you did the pre-learning activity, tell students that they will compare the perspectives in these interviews with the perspective of the U.S. government film they watched.]
2. Watch and read the transcript of the interview with Duong Long Sang. Prior to viewing, explain to students that he was born in the south in Saigon but that he moved to the north when the nation was partitioned. He then returned to the south with the NLF to support southern uprisings against the U.S. and ARVN military forces. [You may have to provide more details about the NLF, ARVN, and the U.S. military's role in the conflict, depending upon how much your class has covered related to the war.] The interviews presented here are in Vietnamese without subtitles, although a printable transcript is provided for each interview. You can "sync" the transcript with the video, but that may not be the best method for whole class instruction. We recommend playing a short clip of each video in order to provide an authentic context, and then use the written transcript (written in English) to analyze the content of the interview. You can print out a transcript of the interview by clicking on the word "PRINT" located above the video transcript.] The entire clip is 23 minutes long, but we suggest using the first 5 minutes of his interview (up to "605 Take 2 Clapstick") and, if time permits, the last three minutes beginning at 20:16 and ending at 23:09. You can complete the activity by just using the first 5 minutes.
3. Watch and read the transcript of the interview with Nguyen Thi Sinh. Prior to viewing/reading, explain to students that Nguyen Thi Sinh was a civilian who lived in South Vietnam. She was forced by Diem's government to relocate to an agroville ("strategic hamlet") and supported the NLF resistance in the south. [You may have to explain the strategic hamlet program, depending upon where you are in your study of the war.] Follow the same structure of the first interview by watching a few seconds of the video and then read the remainder of the interview transcript. The entire interview clip is 3:41 mins.
4. Assess students' understandings of the interviews through a class discussion. You may want to ask a few of the following questions:
- Duong Long Sang constantly uses the word "enemy" in his interview. How does he use it? Who is the enemy? What does he think about the enemy? [This is not a straight-forward question. "Enemy" is a broad category that includes South Vietnamese police and officials as well as American soldiers and civilians. You may need to help students carefully examine the transcript to get at the different ways the term is used.]
- Who does Nguyen Thi Sinh refer to when she uses the term "enemy"? Is it the same "enemy" that Duong Long Sang considers?
- What were the subject's motives? What motivated him/her to fight? What were their grievances against "the enemy"? How much do you think their motivations were shaped by outsiders (political figures whipping up their hatred or shaping their thinking with slogans, etc.) and how much do you think they came from personal experience?
- Consider this quote: "In Saigon, while the enemy appeared to control the population, in reality the people were secretly supportive of the revolution…each to his or her ability. …the people put us up in their houses, fed us and protected us so as to enable us to carry out our activities." Why did so many Vietnamese develop a dual or duplicitous identity? Do you think the strongest explanation relates to individual personality, cultural orientation, or external factors/circumstances? Why?
- These interviews were conducted in 1981 with the permission of the Vietnamese government. Although it is impossible to know based on the information in these interviews, Duong Long Sang and Nguyen Thi Sinh, were most likely members of the communist party, or, at the very least, expressed views that were consistent with the party's stance. How might this influence what they said during the interviews?
5. After you have discussed the interviews, engage students in a deeper reading of the interview text with this quotation activity.
- Write a series of statements on chart paper about the Vietnamese perspectives on or experiences in the war (i.e. "Dividing Vietnam at the 17th parallel split families," or "Villagers resisted ARVN in the south because of repressive government and military policies"). These statements could be generated by the teacher or students. Write each statement on a separate piece of chart paper.
- Divide students into small groups and assign one of the interviews to each of the groups. Provide copies of the interview transcripts to students. Ask students to find quotations from their interview that support the different statements written on the chart paper. (Each group could look for quotes that relate to all of the statements or you could assign a statement to each group.)
- Students should write their quotes on the chart paper with the statement, or cut the quotes out of the transcript and tape or paste the quotes to the chart paper.
- Look over each statement and quotes as a class and have students describe how the interview quotes support the statements.
6. If you did the pre-learning activity, discuss how the views expressed in the oral history interviews compare or contrast to the perspective portrayed by the U.S. government in the Why Vietnam? film.
Have students write a brief reflective paragraph on the following:
- How does examining the Vietnamese perspective influence your understanding of the Vietnam War?
- What new questions do you have about these interviews, Vietnamese experiences, and/or the war?
About the Authors
Susan Zeiger is a Program Director at Primary Source. Prior to joining Primary Source, she was the chair of the History Department at Regis College for ten years. She is the author of books and articles on topics that include immigration and race, international relations, and gender, war and peace movements. Her most recent book, Entangling Alliances: Foreign War Brides and American Soldiers in the Twentieth Century, examines race and gender in foreign and domestic relationships. Zeiger holds a Ph.D. in U.S. History from New York University.
Ann Marie Gleeson is a Program Director at Primary Source. She holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Boston College, specializing in social studies and museum education. Ann Marie has taught U.S. history and pre-service social studies methods.