America at War: Vietnam and Today

A Historical Inquiry Project by Katie Coleman

Compelling Question

How did the Vietnam War change the way the United States engages in war?

Supporting Question #1

What made the Vietnam War different than previous wars America was a part of?

Supporting Question #2

How does the Vietnam War relate to wars being fought today?

TEKS: 5th/ 6th Grade

5.24 Social Studies Skills

The student applies critical thinking skills to organize and use information acquired from a variety of valid sources, including electronic technology. The student is expected to:

c. organize and interpret information in outlines, reports, databases, and visuals, including graphs, charts, timelines, and maps

d. identify different points of view about an issue, topic, or current event

6.15 Culture

The student understands the similarities and differences within and among cultures in various world societies. The student is expected to:

f. identify and explain examples of conflict and cooperation between and among

Background Information: The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War is the commonly used name for the Second Indochina War, 1954–1973. Usually, it refers to the period when the United States and other members of the SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) joined the forces of the Republic of South Vietnam in contesting communist forces comprised of South Vietnamese guerrillas and regular-force units, generally known as Viet Cong (VC), and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The U.S. had the largest foreign military presence and basically directed the war from 1965 to 1968. For this reason, in Vietnam today it is known as the American War. It was a direct result of the First Indochina War (1946–1954) between France, which claimed Vietnam as a colony, and the communist forces then known as Viet Minh. In 1973 a "third" Vietnam war began—a continuation, actually—between North and South Vietnam but without significant U.S. involvement. It ended with communist victory in April 1975. The Vietnam War was the longest in U.S. history, until the war in Afghanistan that began in 2002 and continues today. It was extremely divisive in the U.S., Europe, Australia and elsewhere. Because the U.S. failed to achieve a military victory and the Republic of South Vietnam was ultimately taken over by North Vietnam, the Vietnam experience became known as "the only war America ever lost." It remains a very controversial topic that continues to affect political and military decisions today.

Background Information: The War on Terror

In response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States initiated an international military campaign known as the War on Terror (or the War on Terrorism). Led by the United States and the United Kingdom with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) support, the War on Terror was waged initially against al-Qaeda and other militant organizations but soon expanded to include Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

The attacks, carried out by 19 members of a fundamentalist Islamist group called al-Qaeda (“the base”), killed a total of about 3,000 people. On September 17, President Bush formally identified al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden as the mastermind behind the attacks. A wealthy member of a prominent Saudi Arabian family, bin-Laden had operated out of Afghanistan since the mid-1990s, under the protection of a group called the Taliban. The Taliban (which means “student”) followed an extreme version of Islamic law, and had seized control in Afghanistan in 1998.

In addition, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an advisor and financier of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was identified as a principal planner of the 9/11 attacks. Mohammed admitted his involvement in April 2002. Speaking to a joint session of Congress on September 20, Bush demanded the Taliban hand over bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders and dismantle terrorist training camps within Afghanistan. President Bush stated, “Our ‘war on terror’ begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

The phrase “War on Terror “was first used by U.S. President George W. Bush and other high-ranking U.S. officials to denote the global military, political, legal and ideological struggle against organizations designated as terrorist and government regimes that providing them with support or posed a threat to the U.S. and its allies. The central aims of the War on Terror include:

  • Defeat terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and destroy their organizations

  • Identify, locate and destroy terrorists along with their organizations

  • Deny sponsorship, support and sanctuary to terrorists

  • Diminish the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit

  • Defend U.S. citizens and interests at home and abroad

  • Ensure an integrated incident management capability

Vietnam vs. Iraq/ Afghanistan

Primary Sources: photographs from the Vietnam War and War on Terror


Visitors to the Wall

Honoring the men and women who served in the controversial Vietnam War, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial chronologically lists the names of more than 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in service to their country

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Names on the Memorial

The names of every person who died in the terrorist attacks of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001 are inscribed in bronze around the twin memorial pools. Occupying eight of the 16 acres at the World Trade Center, the Memorial is a tribute to the past and a place of hope for the future.

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The Survivor Tree

A Callery pear tree became known as the "Survivor Tree" after enduring the September 11, 2001 terror attacks at the World Trade Center. In October 2001, the tree was discovered at Ground Zero severely damaged, with snapped roots and burned and broken branches. The tree was removed from the rubble and placed in the care of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. After its recovery and rehabilitation, the tree was returned to the Memorial in 2010. New, smooth limbs extended from the gnarled stumps, creating a visible demarcation between the tree’s past and present. Today, the tree stands as a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth.

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Multiple Perspectives: Teaching the Vietnam War and the War on Terror to Students

Historical/ Political/ Social Impact for the U.S. :

Vietnam War-

1. The end of the draft

2. 18 year-olds granted the right to vote

3. Banding together of military families

4. War: Getting out is tougher than getting in

5. The rise of China and the toll of the Watergate scandal

War on Terror-

1. War Debt and the negative effect on the economy

2. Troops still in the Middle East

3. Department of Homeland Security- Immigration and Deportation

4. Air Travel

5. War in the "Cyberworld"


Primarily, there is the Vietnam (and now Iraq) lesson, which cautions that "getting out of a war is much more complicated than getting into conflict, especially for a democracy such as our own". During the Reagan years, the Pentagon offered a doctrine on military engagement requiring clear policy objectives, public support before engagement and a predesigned exit strategy. Indeed, President George H. W. Bush held to many of these principles during the 1991 Persian Gulf War by ceasing military operations and exiting once the core military objective of liberating Kuwait had been achieved. But a decade later, "the painful lessons of Vietnam surfaced again as U.S. forces went back to Iraq and found themselves locked into a ground war that lacked a clear political and diplomatic solution."


Marine Perspective:

"Vietnam was an escalation in conflict, which was an attempt to follow a containment strategy, not a victory strategy." ~Daniel Bowers (former Marine)

Security Perspective:

"The World Trade Center attack on 9/11 not only changed the way we think, but from an organizational perspective how we are to function in the future. Law Enforcement, in my judgment, will at some point transform itself to meet the terrorist threat in ways that are not yet seen. [This requires] most importantly developing collaborative relationships." ~Andy Coleman (Security Executive)

(below is a Quizlet to help study and learn more about the general events, dates, and people involved in both the Vietnam War and the War on Terror)

Personal Reflection

I learned from my research and organizing of this project that these two major events in our history, the Vietnam War and the continued War on Terror, are more similar than I would have ever thought. They say that history tends to repeat itself and in this case, I would have to agree. Our government, military, and citizens have reacted to both wars in parallel ways, although the tactics and resources used may vary. It is also amazing to me all of the untruth that is out there about each of these wars. As a future classroom teacher and educator of young American citizens, I want my students to know the truth of our history and reality of our future. Yes, I think the United States of America is one of the, if not the, best country on Earth, but nothing is perfect and we cannot be afraid to acknowledge that.


Defining the War on Terror. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from

How 9/11 Changed America: Four Major Lasting Impacts. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from

National September 11 Memorial & Museum | World Trade Center Memorial. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from

Opinion: How Vietnam War changed America. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from

United States. National Park Service. (n.d.). Vietnam Veterans Memorial (U.S. National Park Service). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from

Vietnam War | HistoryNet. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from