History Through Film: The Vietnam War – Syllabus

HIST A375 |  USC Aiken | Maymester 2021 | M–F: 12:30–4:00
Dr. Sarah King | Email: Sarah.king@usca.edu

Course Description

This course will explore the Vietnam War, the antiwar movement, and the war’s contested legacies through television and film clips, documentaries, and feature films. We will consider both American and Vietnamese perspectives of the war, and discuss how the war affected Americans and Vietnamese along lines of race, class, gender, and nationality. A key theme of the course is Hollywood’s role in shaping Americans’ memory of the war. 

This is a 3-credit course. It can be applied to the Humanities general education and History major/minor requirements.

Course Objectives

This course involves not only learning about historical developments, but also developing critical reading and historical thinking skills. Throughout the course, students will: 

  • demonstrate course-specific knowledge of the Vietnam War, including its historical context, as well as key actors and major developments
  • discuss a range of American and Vietnamese perspectives 
  • demonstrate close reading and critical analysis of written primary and secondary sources
  • critically analyze films in terms of representation and argument
  • critically analyze the ways in which sources are shaped by their authors, intended audiences, and historical context
  • practice speaking and writing clearly and with reference to evidence 
  • practice listening respectfully to peers and engaging in respectful debate
  • demonstrate their understanding of academic honesty by selecting and accurately citing sources in original written work

Assessment of Course Objectives

The course objectives will be assessed using different graded evaluation tools: discussion, daily writing assignments, two film reflections, and one film review.

Course Format

The course will combine lecture, discussion of readings and films, and in-class film screenings. Students are expected to come to class prepared to discuss the readings in full. Readings and assignments are listed underneath the day they are due. Readings should be completed before class, and students should alwaysbring the assigned readings to class.

Required Texts

Robert J. McMahon, ed., Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 4th ed (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2008). 

*** Additional readings on Blackboard and linked on the syllabus

*** Students will need access to a Netflix account to watch one film in week 2. Students will also need to watch one additional film of their choosing (see the list of eligible films on p. 4). This may entail paying to stream or rent the film.

Grading Breakdown

Attendance and Participation  — 30%

Daily Readings Summaries (10 x 3%)  — 30%

Reflection on film from week 1 — 10%

Reflection on film from week 2. — 15%                 

Reflective film review (due May 28) — 15%

*** Students must complete the three major assignments and attend at least 60% of classes in order to pass the course.

A)  Attendance and Participation

  • Class attendance is mandatory and attendance will be taken daily.
  • I will excuse absences on a case-by-case basis if you are seriously ill or have a family emergency. Except in emergency situations, out-of-town trips cannot be excused. If you are quarantined and cannot attend class, but are well enough to work from home, you are expected to keep up with the readings and make up missed classes. (See section “D” below for information on making up missed classes so they do not count as absences.)
  • Your attendance and participation grade is based on both your attendance and your contributions to class discussions. To participate effectively, you must be prepared, which means that you have completed the readings before class begins and you have the readings with you. Blackboard readings should be printed out and read ahead of time or be accessible on a device (not a phone) you bring to class.
  • Your participation grade is also dependent on showing respect for others in the classroom. It is important to listen attentively when others are speaking and to silence your phone and not check it during class. If you have an emergency and need to check your phone, please let me know before class begins. Lateness will also affect your participation grade. If you know that you will be late or need to leave early for a particular class, please inform me ahead of time.

B) Assignments

  • In this course you will write ten daily summaries of the readings due each day. These summaries are due at the beginning of class; they cannot be submitted after class. You have 11 opportunities to write 10 of these summaries. These should be 1 page, single-spaced.
  • You will also write 2 reflections on films we watched in class. You are encouraged to write these soon after the film so the material is fresh. These should be 2 to 3 pages, double spaced, and should respond to the “Film Reflection” prompts on Blackboard.
  • Your final assignment is to write a film review. You may choose any film from the attached list. (See section “C” below.) You will need to stream, rent, or buy the film, watch it on your own, and write an original review of the film. Your review should be 3 to 4 pages, double spaced, and it should respond to the prompt and guidelines titled “Film Review” on Blackboard. 
  • The reflections and review must be submitted to Safe Assign (via Blackboard) on the due date. Each day that an assignment is not uploaded to Safe Assign will count as late.
  • The reflections and review should use Chicago-style citations. Please use the citation guide within the Film Review instructions on Blackboard. You may also use this link to the Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide.
  • You must seek permission to use outside sources. As a rule, you should not consult websites for definitions, ideas, or facts. If you need to define a term or provide historical context, use the textbook or your lecture notes or email me with questions. 
  • Late assignments will receive a 3% deduction per weekday.

C) List of Eligible Films for the Film Review Assignment (due May 28, 15%)

The Green Berets (1968)

M*A*S*H* (1970)

Winter Soldier (1972)

Hearts and Minds (1974)

Little Girl of Hanoi (1975)

Coming Home (1978)

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

First Blood [Rambo I] (1982)

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Platoon (1986)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Hamburger Hill (1987)

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Casualties of War (1989)

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Heaven & Earth (1993)

We Were Soldiers (2002)

The Quiet American (2002)

D) Making up Missed Work/ Obtaining Extensions

  • If you have an absence that is not excused under the attendance policy (see “A”), you may, in consultation with me, make up your absence by submitting a 1-page, single-spaced summary of the film we watched that day. You are responsible for renting the film if it is not available through the library. Please note that by submitting a summary you are still missing lecture content and the benefits of discussion, so this is not a perfect substitute for attending class; however, it does allow you to make up missed classes in terms of your attendance and participation grade.
  • If you think you might need an extension on a film reflection, ask for an extension ahead of time.

E) Bonus Points

  • Bonus points will frequently be awarded to students who have the required readings with them in class. Having the readings with you, therefore, will not only help you participate more effectively, but will result in bonus points added to your daily participation grade. 

F) Letter Grades

Letter GradeNumerical GradeExplanation
A<90-100Excellent
B+<85-89Very Good
B<80-84Good
C+<75-79Above Average
C<70-74Average
D+<65-69Below Average
D<60-64Poor
F<0-59Failing

Content Advisory

We will be reading, watching, and discussing historical events that are disturbing. While I will try to provide specific content warnings, students are advised that numerous sources in this course discuss or depict disturbing events or mature content.


Please note: In this version, I have removed several boilerplate, Covid-related, and institution-specific sections from the actual syllabus, including Communication Policy, Accessibility, Academic Integrity, and Additional Rules and Guidelines, and a Covid-19 Addendum.


Course Schedule

WEEK 1

Monday: Introduction; The Vietnamese Struggle for Independence to 1960
In-class film: The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (2017), Episode 1 (85 minutes)

Tuesday: Postwar American Society, the Cold War, and the Best and the Brightest 
In-class film: WWII film clips; The Vietnam War, Episode 2 (86 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Major Problems, “Eisenhower Explains the Domino Theory, 1954” (p. 84-5); “Eldridge Durbrow Assesses the Diem Regime, 1957” (p. 89-90); “An Early U.S. Army Advisor Remembers His Experiences (1962-63), 1981” (p. 126); Seth Jacobs, “The Religious Roots of U.S. Support for Ngo Dinh Diem” (p. 104-11)
    • John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961
    • Hand in readings summary (1)

Wednesday:    Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam
In-class film: selections from Path to War (2002; 165 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Major Problems, “John F. Kennedy Criticizes the South Vietnamese Government, 1963” and “Kennedy Reaffirms the Domino Theory, 1963” (p. 129-31); “The Johnson Administration Assesses the Attitudes of Allied and Nonaligned Nations, 1964” (p. 481-2); “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, 1964” (p. 161); “George Ball Dissents, 1965” (p. 168-71); Fredrick Logevall, “Choosing War” (p. 191-96) 
    • Hand in readings summary (2) 

Thursday: The American War in Vietnam and at Home: 1965–67   
In-class film: Two Days in October (2005; 82 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Major Problems, “‘Dear Mom,’ 1966” “Infantryman Salvador Gonzalez’s Letter Home, 1969” and “A Soldier’s Perspective on Combat in Vietnam, 1977” (p. 239-42); “Ho Vows to ‘Fight Until Complete Victory, 1966” (p. 291-92); “Students for a Democratic Society Opposes the War, 1965” (402-3); Melvin Small, “The Peace Movement on the Campuses” (p. 416-21)
    • Hand in readings summary (3)

Friday: American Soldiers in Vietnam
In-class film: Da 5 Bloods (2020; 154 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Kimberley L. Phillips, “Machine Gun Blues: Black America and the Vietnam War,” War! What Is It Good For? Black Freedom Struggles & the U.S. Military (2012) (on Blackboard)
    • Hand in readings summary (4)

WEEK 2

Monday: The Antiwar Movement, 1968, and the Chicago Seven
In-class film: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020; 130 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Watch Bobby Kennedy for President, Episode 3 (2018; 63 minutes; on Netflix)
    • Major Problems, “Martin Luther King, Jr., Declares His Opposition to the War, 1967” (p. 403-6; “Proclamation of Antidraft Resistance, 1967” (p. 407-8); “Walter Cronkite Criticizes a Policy ‘Mired in Stalemate,’ 1968” (p. 321-23); “A U.S. Air Force Nurse Remembers the Tet Offensive (1968), 1987” (p. 327-28); “Clark M. Clifford Remembers His Post-Tet Questions (1968), 1969” (p. 330-32)
    • Hand in readings summary (5)

Tuesday: My Lai and Vietnamese Civilians
In-class film: selections from Little Girl of Hanoi (1975); My Lai (2010; 83 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Major Problems, “Herbert Carter Testifies about the My Lai Massacre, 1969” and “Varnado Simpson Testifies About the My Lai Massacre, 1969” (p. 242-46); “A South Vietnamese Girl Becomes a Viet Cong Supporter (c. 1961), 1989” (p. 284-88)
    • Hand in readings summary (6)

Wednesday: Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the Winter Soldier Investigation, and the
GI Movement

In-class film: selections from Winter Soldier (1972); Sir! No Sir! (2005; 85 minutes)

Thursday: Nixon, Vietnamization, and the Pentagon Papers 
In-class film: The Post (2017; 116 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Major Problems, Melvin Small, “Nixon’s Flawed Search for Peace” (p. 379-93)
    • Hand in readings summary (8)
    • Deadline to hand in Film Reflection 1 on one of Path to WarTwo Days in October, or Da 5 Bloods

Friday: Antiwar Activism and Popular Culture  
In-class film: selections from The Smothers Brothers (1967-69); F.T.A. (1972; 96 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Excerpt from Kimberley L. Phillips, “Sing No More of War: Black Freedom Struggles and Antiwar Activism, 1960-1973,” War! What Is It Good For? Black Freedom Struggles & the U.S. Military (2012) (p. 259-72, on Blackboard)
    • Hand in readings summary (9)

WEEK 3

Monday:        The End of the American War in Vietnam; and Myths, Revenge, and Realism in Hollywood Films: the First Decade
In-class film: selections from Coming Home (1978); Apocalypse Now (1979); First Blood (1982); Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985); and Platoon (1986)

  • Readings:
    • Excerpt on Coming Home and The Deer Hunter from Andrew J. Huebner, The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era (2008) (on Blackboard)
    • Excerpts from From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, ed. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud (1990) (on Blackboard)
    • Hand in readings summary (10)
    • Extra Credit Opportunity: Major Problems, “A South Vietnamese Pilot Reflects on His Country’s Defeat (1975), 1990” (p. 448-9); “A North Vietnamese General Celebrates the ‘Great Spring Victory’ (1975), 1977” (p. 451-54); “Jimmy Carter Sees a ‘Profound Moral Crisis,’ 1977” (p. 513-14) *** worth 5 points

Tuesday:       Legacies of the Vietnam War, Part I: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Hollywood, 1980s–Present 
In-class film: Born on the Fourth of July (1989; 145 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Major Problems, “An American Veteran Helps to Dedicate the Vietnam War Memorial (1982), 1985” (p. 515-17); Arnold R. Isaacs, “Competing Memories” (p. 523-28)
    • Hand in readings summary (11)
    • Deadline to hand in Film Reflection 2 on one of The Trial of the Chicago 7My LaiSir! No Sir!, The Post, or F.T.A.

Wednesday:     Legacies of the Vietnam War, Part II: Vietnam since 1975, US-Vietnamese Relations
In-class film: selections from Heaven and Earth (1993; 142 minutes)

  • Readings:
    • Work on your film review!
    • Hand in Film Review by Friday at midnight

Please check out my Notes on History Through Film: The Vietnam War (coming soon!) and the Film Review Assignment.

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