Film Study Guide

  HISTORICITY

When Japanese forces withdrew from Vietnam following World War II, France quickly moved to reassert the imperial power it once held over Vietnam (French Indochina included Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). The ensuing colonial war would eventually become a military and political quagmire for the United States.

In 1950, President Harry S Truman began sending aid in the form of money, advice, and materiel to the French. Truman's decision to support France was strictly political. The United States actually favored an independent Vietnam, but it needed France's cooperation to establish the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), considered a vital tool in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.

France abandoned Vietnam in 1954, whereupon political discord arose between communist-dominated North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam. The United States, which had stepped in to fill the French void, cautiously supported South Vietnam. Over the next several years, amidst rampant political instability in Vietnam, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gradually increased American commitment to resist the communist takeover of South Vietnam. Almost 200 American casualties would be suffered during that period, even though the official stance of the United States toward Vietnam remained advisory in nature.

President John F. Kennedy significantly increased assistance to South Vietnam. So dramatic was Kennedy's covert combat aid that the New York Times proclaimed the United States involvement amounted to an "undeclared war." In late 1961, army helicopters delivered by aircraft carrier to Saigon marked America's first direct military support for South Vietnam's fight against communism.

In 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The measure granted President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded power in Southeast Asia to "repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." In effect, Congress issued the President virtual carte blanche in Vietnam; Johnson interpreted the resolution as a broad congressional mandate to expand the war.

Hence, the United States entered the war in earnest. Johnson began sustained bombing of North Vietnam—dubbed "Operation Rolling Thunder"—in early 1965. Although the President stated his willingness to negotiate an end to the war, conditional to North Vietnamese forces vacating the South, the air attacks would prove to be the foundation for further escalation of America's war involvement. While Johnson assured the public that its young people would not die fighting an Asian war, he acquiesced to the continued requests of General William Westmoreland for additional ground support. That summer, over 100,000 fresh troops were sent to Vietnam; by the end of the year, there were nearly 200,000 American soldiers in the field.

In January of 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a massive series of raids known as the Tet Offensive. Attacking numerous towns and American bases, the communist forces caused chaos throughout South Vietnam. Although communist losses were heavy, and American forces soon dislodged the Viet Cong from most of the positions they had captured, the psychological impact on the United States was so devastating that from this point on the war was a political albatross. By the end of 1968, American troop strength well exceeded half a million; casualties suffered in Vietnam were by then grotesquely out of hand, surpassing the 36,000 mark.

When Richard Nixon entered the White House, he made resolution of the Vietnam conflict a top priority. However, his proposal for a phased withdrawal of all non-South Vietnamese troops, to be followed by an internationally supervised election in South Vietnam, was flatly rejected by North Vietnam. Nixon responded with a program referred to as "Vietnamization"—an attempt to build up the South Vietnamese armed forces so that American troops could withdraw without the South being overrun by the North. Experiencing no success, Nixon waffled between cutbacks and escalation.

The American public, growing weary of the government's general indecision and lack of progress in Vietnam, began to openly protest America's presence in Southeast Asia. College campuses, especially, became grounds of furious demonstrations. Thousands of young men expressed their opposition to the Vietnam War by evading the draft. The United States was now fighting the war on two fronts—militarily abroad and emotionally at home. In short time, it would manage to divide America more sharply than any other single event since the Civil War a century earlier.

By 1970, the United States had clearly lost all enthusiasm for the Vietnam War. The data from several polls indicated the majority of Americans favored a complete withdrawal from Southeast Asia. Bowing to stern public pressure, and realizing the war had become a military debacle, Congress halted funds, forcing Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to negotiate a "peace with honor" cease-fire arrangement in January of 1973. That March, the United States lifted its last combat troops from Vietnam.

With the loss of American military aid, South Vietnam was simply too feeble to maintain the burden of fighting. In 1975, the South Vietnamese government collapsed and was absorbed into a unified communist Vietnam. Not only did America fail to accomplish its objective for interfering in Vietnam, the results were tragic—some 58,000 servicemen killed, over 350,000 wounded, and nearly 2,300 missing and presumed dead. Thus, the failure of the Vietnam experience was complete.

  DATA

Platoon stars Charlie Sheen as Chris Taylor, a college drop-out and American soldier sent to join Bravo Company, 25th Infantry "somewhere near the Cambodian border" in 1967. It is through his eyes that the movie's fictional drama shows the true intensity of the nightmarish Vietnam fiasco. His platoon's allegiance is split between two sergeants, played by Tom Berenger (as Barnes) and Willem Dafoe (as Elias). Barnes, a gung-ho fanatic, is bent solely on destroying the Viet Cong. Elias has lost faith in the war, but not in mankind, and prefers to fight the enemy in a different fashion. Friction between Berenger and Dafoe provides most of the film's storyline, supposedly drawn from the personal combat experience of director Oliver Stone.

Platoon was awarded Best Picture in 1986. The powerful production is rated R owing to graphic violence and rough language necessary to realistically portray the horrors of the Vietnam War. The widespread use of marijuana and other drugs among the American troops is clearly shown.

  QUESTIONS
Select the best response for each item according to information learned from viewing Platoon, as well as through lecture and assigned reading.
  1. The major American military action in Vietnam took place during:
    1. 1950-1975
    2. 1954-1969
    3. 1961-1973
    4. 1964-1980

  2. All of the following hit songs from the Vietnam War era are included on the Platoon soundtrack except:
    1. "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane
    2. "Okie from Muskogee" by Merle Haggard
    3. "Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
    4. "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival

  3. The chief reason the United States became so embroiled in the affairs of Vietnam was to:
    1. exert pressure on Vietnam to join NATO
    2. resist the spread of communism into South Vietnam
    3. retaliate against North Vietnam for its unwarranted attacks on American bases throughout Southeast Asia immediately after World War II
    4. protect American citizens there who were endangered by violent mobs angry at the present Vietnamese communist government

  4. All of the following typical conditions for the American combat soldier in Vietnam were depicted in Platoon except:
    1. having to shoot first and ask later because friend and foe were often virtually indistinguishable
    2. endless trudging through dense jungles and soggy rice paddies teeming with insects, rodents, and snakes
    3. the emotional anguish of seeing buddies killed by snipers and booby traps of a highly elusive and seemingly invisible enemy
    4. spending countless nights on patrol in driving rain and sub-zero temperatures

  5. The commander of the American military forces in Vietnam was:
    1. Daniel Ellsberg
    2. J. William Fulbright
    3. John McNamara
    4. William Westmoreland

  6. The division of Vietnam was marked by the:
    1. Equator
    2. 17th Parallel
    3. Ho Chi Minh Trail
    4. Mekong River

  7. The American military involvement in Southeast Asia peaked during the presidential administration of:
    1. Dwight D. Eisenhower
    2. John F. Kennedy
    3. Lyndon B. Johnson
    4. Richard Nixon

  8. The general foreign policy of the United States with regard to the spread of communism throughout the globe following World War II was known as:
    1. "containment"
    2. "brinkmanship"
    3. "escalation"
    4. "appeasement"

  9. The episode in Platoon in which American soldiers quarrel over treatment of some apparently docile Vietnamese villagers is reminiscent of the true incident at:
    1. Dien Bien Phu
    2. Phnom Penh
    3. My Lai
    4. Ben Tre

  10. The neighboring country least affected by the Vietnam War was:
    1. Cambodia
    2. Laos
    3. Malaysia
    4. Thailand

  11. Platoon plainly shows all of the following except:
    1. frustration and confusion of American soldiers fighting an enemy seldom seen
    2. frequent use of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant sprayed in Vietnam jungles
    3. American soldiers fighting for personal survival rather than for a common cause
    4. failure of President Richard Nixon's Vietnamization policy to bring American troops home

  12. President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported President Ngo Dinh Diem's refusal to allow national elections throughout Vietnam, as promised, because:
    1. the cost of administering the elections would have been astronomical
    2. both leaders feared that communist leader Ho Chi Minh would emerge as the victor
    3. significant political pressure was applied on the United States by several NATO countries
    4. Congress had expressed approval of the present regime under Diem

  13. "Whereas the naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam...have...attacked United States vessels lawfully present in international waters...Congress approves and supports the determination of the President...to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." This excerpt is taken from the:
    1. Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
    2. formal declaration of war against North Vietnam
    3. Pentagon Papers
    4. War Powers Act

  14. By 1967, all of the following prominent Democrats in Congress had become critical of President Lyndon B. Johnson's actions in Southeast Asia except:
    1. Mike Mansfield (Montana)
    2. Frank Church (Idaho)
    3. George McGovern (South Dakota)
    4. Henry Jackson (Washington)

  15. The Tet Offensive of January 1968 led to:
    1. realization by President Lyndon B. Johnson that further escalation of the war was senseless
    2. support in Congress for sustained bombing of North Vietnam
    3. elections throughout South Vietnam to determine its fate relative to communism
    4. immediate withdrawal of American troops in Southeast Asia

  16. "Six Guardsmen, including two sergeants and Captain of Troop G, stated pointedly that the lives of the members of the Guard were not in danger and that it was not a shooting situation...We have some reason to believe that the claim by the National Guard that their lives were endangered...was fabricated subsequent to the event." The incident of subject in this excerpt from an official United States government report is the:
    1. assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem during a CIA-assisted coup d'état in 1961
    2. North Vietnamese attack on the destroyer USS Maddox in 1964
    3. shooting of several students at Kent State University during a campus protest precipitated by President Richard Nixon's 1970 Cambodian incursion
    4. frantic evacuation of the United States embassy compound during the fall of Saigon in 1975

  17. All of the following are reasons why the United States lost the war effort in Vietnam except:
    1. North Vietnam's superior armed forces
    2. unsatisfactory American military strategy
    3. poorly trained South Vietnamese troops
    4. demoralizing effect of Viet Cong guerrilla tactics

  18. The publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers revealed that:
    1. America was actually on the verge of a solid military victory when President Richard Nixon settled instead for a negotiated peace
    2. President Lyndon B. Johnson favored ending the war, but gave in to the wishes of his Joint Chiefs of Staff to escalate the fighting
    3. American bombing of North Vietnam exceeded levels dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II
    4. government leaders, including former Presidents, had frequently deceived the American public regarding conditions in Vietnam

  19. All of the following were clearly indicative of the American public's increasing disdain for the Vietnam War except:
    1. thousands of draft-dodgers fleeing the United States to avoid recruitment
    2. numerous demonstrations on university campuses across America
    3. the solid defeat of George McGovern by the incumbent Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1972
    4. songs such as "War" by Edwin Starr, "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye, and "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

  20. The brunt of the public's negative reaction to the Vietnam War was felt most by:
    1. American troops returning from the war
    2. powerful communist nations such as China and the Soviet Union
    3. United States government foreign policy makers, especially Congress and the President
    4. foreign diplomats from Southeast Asian countries conducting business in the United States

  21. All of the following conditions awaited many American servicemen returning home from Vietnam except:
    1. alcoholism and drug addiction
    2. emotional trauma often severe enough to cause suicide
    3. homelessness resulting from difficulty finding gainful employment
    4. widespread public compassion and understanding

  22. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by:
    1. Senator Charles Mathias from Maryland and Senator John Warner of Virginia
    2. Maya Ying Lin, an American of Chinese descent who was an architecture student at Yale University
    3. Vietnam veterans Jan Scruggs, Bob Doubek, and John Wheeler
    4. Florida Congressman Douglas Peterson, a former Air Force pilot and POW

  23. The United States granted full diplomatic recognition to Vietnam under President:
    1. Jimmy Carter
    2. Ronald Reagan
    3. George Bush
    4. Bill Clinton

  24. All of the following have helped the American nation heal its deep Vietnam War wounds except:
    1. public awareness of the hardships endured in Vietnam by American troops
    2. communist North Vietnam's absorption of South Vietnam in 1975
    3. President Jimmy Carter's blanket pardon for all Vietnam draft-dodgers
    4. construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC

  25. The movie Platoon is best described as a/an:
    1. dramatic production that portrays the Vietnam War in a realistic manner
    2. story based on actual characters and events
    3. highly fictionalized version far removed from true historical analysis of the Vietnam War
    4. accurate account of a specific incident in history


  EXTENDED RESPONSE
Choose one of the following. Your response should be 3-5 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).
  1. Describe and contrast the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the Eisenhower Doctrine as devices to achieve American objectives in the Cold War.

  2. "Had he not had to deal with foreign affairs, Lyndon B. Johnson might very well have gone down as one of the greatest Presidents of the twentieth century." Assess the validity of this statement.

  3. "War has united Americans more closely than any other national activity." Assess the validity of this statement by using references to United States history during any two of the following periods of time—1783-1800; 1812-1824; 1865-1877; 1898-1917; 1919-1929; 1945-1962.


"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it."


Click here to learn more about the Vietnam War.