Communism, Colonialism, and Hypocrisy: Identifying the Effects of Institutional Power on the Lives of Minorities in the Vietnam War (by Alison Lee)

Communism, Colonialism, and Hypocrisy: Identifying the Effects of Institutional Power on the Lives of Minorities int he Vietnam War

Historical-Social Science Content Standards
11.9 Students analyze U.S. foreign policy since World War II.
11.10 Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights.
11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues of contemporary American society.
Reading standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies
1. 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.
2. Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
3. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

The purpose of this lesson is to analyze the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. By examining the motives behind U.S. interference, students will gain insight into the intersections of colonialism, communism and institutional power. Primary sources such as press releases about the organization of international days of protest by the Vietnam Day Committee and a pamphlet by the American Friends Service Committee question the morality of U.S. interest and critique the U.S.’s interference of countries’ self-realization by highlighting hypocrisy. One of the secondary sources, entitled “William O. Douglas and the Vietnam War: Civil Liberties, Presidential Authority, and the ‘Political Question’”, focuses on the fear of communism as one of the main reasons for U.S. participation.

The final primary source is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” His outlook is similar to those of the previous primary sources in its rejection of the Vietnam War, however, King also condemns the war due to the expected devotion of Black lives to the war effort, without guaranteed freedom at home. Furthermore, King critiques the diversion of funds from Federal programs that mostly benefitted Blacks to the war effort. Many of the secondary sources highlight the controversy surrounding the Anti-war movement and underline a generational divide as well as a political one. These sources emphasize the presence of the ideology that involvement in war efforts could lead to domestic equality, ultimately placing older generations at odds with younger, anti-war generations. This divide is also clear in the NAACP’s emphasis on the separation between civil rights and war rights. These secondary sources provide more context in order to better understand the landscape in which the Anti-war movement took place.

Through primary and secondary sources, this lesson hopes to analyze the effects of colonialism and fear of communism on foreign policy, while also examining domestic policies for hypocrisy and inequality. Overall, this lesson seeks to encourage students to analyze the ways institutions and governments create policy to further secure their own power, while often exploiting minorities in the process of doing so.

Students will analyze a variety of primary and secondary sources in order to analyze how different anti-Vietnam War groups highlighted and utilized hypocrisy within U.S. foreign and domestic policies to gain a greater understanding of the effects of institutional power on the lives of minorities.

1. How did the anti-war movement exacerbate generational divides? What commonly understood ideologies about war and status were questioned as a result of Anti-war movement messages?
2. What was the U.S.’s main motivation for their involvement in Vietnam? In what way were these motivations related to communism and the Cold War?
3. How were Federal programs such as the War on Poverty and the Great Society affected by the United States’ focus on foreign issues? In what ways did Anti-war groups question the reach of government power?
4. During the Vietnam War, how did the U.S. government act to preserve its own power, while effectively hurting its own citizens in the process?
5. In what ways do the narratives told by these historical documents differ from common narratives about the Vietnam War?

Colonialism – the policy of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, and claiming authority over its people and territories, ultimately to exploit it economically.
War on Poverty – the War on Poverty is the informal term used to describe President Johnson’s legislation that was originally intended to reduce the national poverty rate, which at the time was about 19%.
Great Society – a set of domestic programs launched by President Johnson, which included major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, rural poverty, and transportation. These programs mainly helped poor minorities.
Institutional Power – the power yielded by entities such as governments, churches, and corporations.
Communism – a political theory advocating taking resources from the rich, ultimately leading to a society in which all property is publicly owned. Communism can be seen as the main reason for the Cold War.
Cold War – a period of geopolitical tension and hostility between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II.
Domino Theory – a theory which claimed that the fall of one Southeast Asian country to communism would lead other countries to follow suit.

In 1945, political leader Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces arose against French educated Emperor Bao Das after the defeat of Japan in World War II and formed communist North Vietnam. Under the guise of the “domino theory”, President John F. Kennedy increased U.S. aid to south Vietnam in 961. By November 1967, there were more than 15,000 American casualties and 105,000 wounded, with almost 500,000 American troops in Vietnam. Although the United States signed a final peace agreement in January 1973, fighting between North and South Vietnam continued until April 30, 975. By the end of the war, more than 2 million Vietnamese were killed, 12 million became refugees, and the country’s infrastructure and economy were demolished.

The war was heavily protested at home. Groups focused on tensions abroad questioned the morality of U.S.interest and critiqued U.S. interference in Third World countries’ self-realization processes. Many groups, such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Vietnam Day Committee, concluded that U.S. interference in other countries’ self-realization is at contrast with American ideas. Anti-war groups attempted to highlight the true motivation behind U.S. intervention, gathering that its attempt to stop the spread of communism was truly an attempt to protect its economic power, at the cost of Vietnamese and American lives.

The war faced further opposition at home as, over the course of 8 years, the U.S. spent more than $120 billion on war efforts. Due to increased inflation, stagnant tax rates, and high costs, President Johnson was pushed to decrease spending for Great Society programs during the Vietnam War. His successor, President Reagan, followed suit by continuing to cut Great Society funding. Decreased spending in Great Society programs mostly affected poor minorities, forcing them to turn to other sources of income. Martin Luther King Jr., like many other anti-war activists, found fault with the diversion of funds from Great Society programs. King also condemned the war due to the expected devotion of Black lives to the war effort without guaranteed freedom at home. King’s rejection of the Vietnam War led him to be at odds with many older generations who believed that involvement in war efforts could lead to domestic equality.

Ultimately, the actions of the federal government both before and during the Vietnam War serve as examples of how the insitutiitions interact with minorities. More importantly, it highlights the way minorities often have no choice in how they interact and take part in decisions made by institutional powers. The federal government’s decisions during the Vietnam War underscore the necessity by institutions to preserve their power as well as the disregard for minorities in the process.


  1. We Have to Ask – Why? And Why Not? – American Friends Service Committee (p. 10-11)
  2. “News from the Vietnam Day Committee” – Press Release from Students for Democratic Society Papers (p. 92-93)
  3. “There’s money enough to support both of you – Now does that make you feel better?” – Herbert Block
  4. “You Can Be Black, and Navy Too” – Navy Recruiting
  5. “Beyond Vietnam” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
  6. The Vietnam War: The Veneer of Civilization
  7. What Were LBJ’s Great Society Programs?

Analyzing U.S. Interference Abroad
Section 1: Colonialism and Communism
1. Lesson will begin by watching Episode 7 in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary series on the Vietnam War, titled “The Veneer of Civilization” (CW: This documentary discusses rape and violence, but the ultimate goal of the documentary is to highlight the wavering faith and questioning of morality within troops and across the country).
2. Teacher will lecture and give a short background on the Vietnam War, and will touch on topics such as the domino effect and the Cold War.
3. Teacher will introduce the primary sources, “We Have to Ask – Why? And Why Not?” and “News from the Vietnam Day Committee.”
4. Students will discuss and share out how information from the documentary and primary sources vary from common narratives.

Domestic Effects of the Vietnam War
Section 2: The Great Society and The Vietnam War
1. Students will watch the video “What Were LBJ’s Great Society Programs?” as an introduction to the Great Society.
2. Students will be given a copy of “There’s money enough to support both of you – Now does that make you feel better?”. Students will be encouraged to discuss the meaning of the cartoon, and will write a short response to be turned in the next day analyzing the meaning of the cartoon.
3. Students will be split into two groups to debate whether the Vietnam War or Great Society programs should be funded. During this debate, students will be given a chart in which they will fill out the pros and cons of funding the Great Society versus the Vietnam War.
4. Teacher should pay special attention to make sure students make note of the effects on minority lives.

Section 3: Highlighting Hypocrisy and Generational Divides
1. Students will have previously read a transcript of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam”.
2. In class, teacher will give a quick lecture, focusing on the disproportionate amount of young men of color who enlisted, were ultimately killed in the war.
3. Students will be given a copy of the Navy recruitment poster titled “You can be Black, and Navy too”. Students will be moved into small groups and asked to discuss what the poster implies and how it relates to MLK’s speech.


Fry, Joseph A. “Southerners and the Debate over the War’s Conduct, 1967.” In The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie, 193-238. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

Lucks, Daniel S. Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

Moses, James L. “William O. Douglas and the Vietnam War: Civil Liberties, Presidential Authority, and the “Political Question”.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1996): 1019-033.