How Has Vietnam Impacted the Way War Is Initiated? Discussion Guide

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How Has Vietnam Impacted the Way War Is Initiated?

Discussion Guide

Introduction: The policies and decisions on whether to engage in foreign conflict that are set by our nation’s leaders have far-reaching impacts. The legislative mechanisms by which the US became involved in Vietnam continue to impact discussions of war today.

This lesson plan will involve a review of the ways in which wars have been declared in 20th century America. Students will analyze and debate the responsibilities accorded by the nation’s founding documents, and whether executive and legislative leaders have followed or changed the original mechanisms for declaring war.

Pre-visit activity

  1. Break students into groups and have each group research one event or action commonly thought to have led to the War of 1812, with students documenting:

    • When did it occur?

    • Who did it involve?

    • What was the central issue of the event/action?

    • What do you think your opinion on this event/action would have been if you were an American citizen at the time?

      • Restrictions on trade and the Orders in Council

      • Impressment and the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

      • British support of Native American resistance and the Battle of Tippecanoe

Possible reference to use:

  1. Ask student groups to read President Madison’s statement to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Great Britain (available at: Ask them to highlight the language that refers to the event/action/issue their group has been assigned.

  1. Ask student groups to read the text of the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812 (text available at: and discuss:

What does the document authorize the President to do?

What can be understood from reading this document about the role of Congress in making decisions on war?

In the classroom

Ask students: When was the last time the US made a declaration of war? Students may answer with Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., but in fact the last time that the US formally declared war was in 1941, with the onset of World War II. Our founders intended for war to be initiated through a specific procedure, but that hasn’t always been the case, particularly in the last 50+ years.

View slides 1-2 in the presentation. The Constitution addresses how war should be initiated—in Article I, Section 8, the text states that “Congress shall have the Power to declare War.” This indicates that the authority to initiate war lies with Congress—how has this legislative authority played out in the 20th century?

In slide 3, you see an image from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Before this attack, American citizens largely supported a policy of non-intervention in foreign conflicts. Over 2000 Americans lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the tragic and seemingly unanticipated event galvanized the American public.

Watch the video included on slide 4, which is President Roosevelt’s now famous address to Congress concerning the attack and the prospect of war against Japan. What language does the President use 1.) to justify the need for armed intervention as a response to the attack and 2.) to bolster confidence in and support for an armed intervention? How does this address seem to maintain the founders’ intentions regarding the initiation of war? On December 8, Congress passed a resolution formally declaring war against Japan (slide 5).

In 1964, a series of events with some familiar elements unfolded and ultimately resulted in US armed intervention in a foreign conflict. On August 2 and 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson received reports of attacks by North Vietnamese forces on the USS Maddox in the Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin. Many have suggested that the incident, the details of which have come under dispute, merely served as an excuse to advance President Johnson’s policy toward Vietnam, an inclination toward proactive military action that used the lessons of the Munich Conference as an analogy (“Nor would surrender in Viet-Nam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.”)

On August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Ask students to read the excerpt from the resolution included on slide 7. What words stand out to you? Do you see the word “war” anywhere? Through this resolution, President Johnson was able to commit large numbers of additional troops to Vietnam without receiving a formal declaration of war from Congress, and some have interpreted this as being an unconstitutional way to initiate war at a full scale, or an overexpansion of executive authority as commander-in-chief.

As the war progressed, from 1964 onward, Americans became increasingly disillusioned with the war in Vietnam. Only an average of 40% of Americans approved Johnson’s handling of the war in Vietnam in 1968 (Gallup), and the approval rating increased to only 54% when Nixon announced a withdrawal of some troops in 1969 (Gallup).

(Slides 8 and 9) In mid-1970, Nixon authorized an invasion of Cambodia, purportedly to secure the border with Vietnam as a preemptive measure in the move toward Vietnamization (to expand South Vietnam’s role in the war while reducing the US’s role). This action was authorized without the approval of Congress and the American public learned about it after the fact through a speech by President Nixon on April 30, 1970. Unrest grew among the public (protests at Kent State against the invasion of Cambodia led to killing of 4 students by National Guard) and Congress responded by passing the Cooper-Church amendment, which immediately ended US operations outside the Vietnam borders.

As a measure to check executive power in committing forces and, arguably, as a way to reconcile the mistake that was made in passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, on November 7, 1973, the War Powers Resolution passed by Congress became law. The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours upon sending troops into military action, and it forbids military personnel from remaining in a state of conflict for more than 60 days without authorization from Congress for a formal declaration of war.

Ask students to read the excerpt from the War Powers Resolution included on slide 10. Do you think this new resolution is constitutional or unconstitutional? The Constitution names the President as the Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces, and yet it also gives the power to declare war to Congress. The War Powers Resolution is still in effect today and is intended to guide decisions on the initiation of war.

(Slides 11 and 12) On September 11, 2001, a series of coordinated attacks by Al Qa’ida, a global militant group, killed nearly 3000 Americans at the World Trade Center in New York, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon in the Washington, DC area. The September 11 attacks marked the single largest loss of life on American soil by foreign attack. The event stunned the nation and on September 18, 2001, Congress passed Public Law 107-40. Read the excerpt from PL 107-40 included on slide 13. How does this statement compare with the statement read earlier from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? Would you interpret this law as being in keeping with the War Powers Resolution?

In September of 2014, President Obama authorized limited airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as Da’esh) as part of a “counterterrorism strategy,” using the language of PL 107-40 as justification for military action. A CBS news poll has indicated that six in ten Americans believe that US military intervention in Syria requires congressional approval. (Optional activity: Ask students to read the following Washington Post article: What does the author of the article suggest as the reason(s) for the strikes not having received formal approval from Congress? How might some of those reasons relate to the precedent of Vietnam?)

View the video on slide 15 of President Obama’s speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2012. What does President Obama state should be the prerequisites to entering into war? How do his words reflect a reference to the Vietnam War? Do you think the US has learned its lessons from Vietnam? Is executive authority being expanded once again, or is the presidency simply continuing on the path set by Lyndon Johnson? Because it is always a significant decision to commit forces to conflict, it is important to understand and evaluate political decisions associated with past conflicts.

Post-visit activity

  1. Divide students into groups and assign each group an example of prolonged US military intervention since Vietnam that is not commonly referred to as war:

Operations in Grenada (1983)

Operations in Panama (1989-1990)

Operations in Bosnia (1993-1995)

Operations in Haiti (1994-1995)

Operations in Somalia (1992-1995)

Operations in Kosovo (1998-1999)

Operations in Libya (2011)

Ask each group to identify and explain:

The impetus for US military involvement;

The legal justifications used (was the War Powers Resolution invoked, or were other resolutions authorizing military force passed?);

The public perception of the conflict (via public opinion polls and/or news articles of the time period).

  1. Ask students to respond to the following statement, either through discussion or through writing, with evidence from the above lessons and above research used as support:

It has become more difficult to initiate war in the US since the Vietnam War.

Agree or disagree, and provide concrete historical support for your argument.

Further Suggested Reading

Fisher, Louis. Presidential War Power. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2013.

Lantis, Jeffrey S. US Foreign Policy in Action: An Innovative Teaching Text. Hoboken: Wiley, 2012.

Terry, James P. The Commander-in-Chief. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 2015.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards


Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.


Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.


Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.


Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.


Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.


Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.


Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).


Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.


Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Standards

D.1.1.9-12 Explain how a question reflects an enduring issue in the field.

D1.5.9-12 Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple viewpoints represented in the sources, the types of sources available, and the potential uses of the sources.

D2,Civ,3,9-12 Analyze the impact of constitutions, laws, treaties, and international agreements on the maintenance of national and international order.

D2.Civ.4.9-12 Explain how the US Constitution establishes a system of government that has powers, responsibilities, and limits that have changed over time and that are still contested.

D2.His.2.9-12 Analyze change and continuity in historical eras

D2.His.16.9-12 Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.

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