Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Presidential Decisions for War
Janell Cinquini
US History 1945-present
Time Frame:
One 90 minute period plus 30 minute follow-up next class

Grade Levels:

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • Cooperative learning assignment with students using primary sources to analyze the role of Presidents for four different wars.

  • I want to find a way for students to objectively analyze Presidential decisions for war in a way that will allow them to move away from political arguments and personal leanings. Sometimes, more recent conflicts are difficult to separate from politics, but this should set up the framework for more thoughtful discussion.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

All of these are from Oregon State Social Studies Standards for High School.

  • SS.HS.HS.05.21 Understand the causes and impact of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
  • SS.HS.CG.03.03 Identify and understand the powers and limits to power of the Presidency.
  • SS.HS.CG.07.02 Understand the purposes and functions of the United Nations, and the role of the United States in the United Nations.<
  • SS.HS.HS.01.02 Interpret the relationship of events occurring over time.


2. Continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States and the world

6. Relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions

7. The use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, documents)


Benchmark 3: The student uses a working knowledge and understanding of individuals, groups, ideas, developments, and turning points in the era of the Cold War (1945-1990).

3. (A) evaluates the foreign policies of Truman and Eisenhower during the Cold War (e.g., establishment of the United Nations, containment, NATO, Truman Doctrine, Berlin Blockade, Korean War, Iron Curtain, U-2 incident).

Benchmark 4: The student uses a working knowledge and understanding of individuals, groups, ideas, developments, and turning points of the World Since 1945.

(A) analyzes the Cold War as the competition between two competing ideologies or world views and its impact on various regions of the world. (e.g., roots in WWII, Mao’s China; the Cold War in Europe; NATO, Warsaw Pact, and the competition for nonaligned nations; collapse of Communism in Europe)

Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.

1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time.
2. (A) develops historical questions on a specific topic in United States history and analyzes the evidence in primary source documents to speculate on the answers.
3.(A) uses primary and secondary sources about an event in U.S. history to develop a credible interpretation of the event, evaluating on its meaning (e.g., uses provided primary
4. (A) compares competing historical narratives in United States history by contrasting different historians' choice of questions, use of sources, and points of view, in order to demonstrate how these factors contribute to different interpretations.

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

Korea Folder

Truman Doctrine speech

Telegram announcing invasion

Memorandum of Conversation - State Department (6/26/1950)


Directive to MacArthur (9/27/1950)


Time Magazine Article (7/10/1950)

UN Resolutions



MacArthur Statements


Battle Map


Vietnam War

State of the Union Address (January 1965) - part would be sufficient

National Security Action Memoranda #328 (4/6/1965)

Security Council Meeting Minutes - in binder provided at conference – could not find digitally.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution


NY Times Article on Gulf of Tonkin

http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0807.html - article

UN Resolution Lists 1964/1965 (shows no action on Vietnam)

Security Council - http://www.un.org/documents/sc/res/1964/scres64.htm

General Assembly - http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/18/ares18.htm

Persian Gulf War



National Security Directive 54


http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/research/nsd.php (on this site, you have to scroll down and click on #54.  I couldn’t get a web address directly to the document.)

President Bush’s letter to family 12/31/1990

http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/research/archives.php (on this site, you have to click on the last document.  I couldn’t get a web address directly to the document.)

President Bush’s speech announcing end of hostilities


NY Times Article (2/28/1991)


United Nations Resolution 668 (Many resolutions are passed; this one authorizes "all necessary means" to remove Iraq from Kuwait.)


 Congressional Resolution

Iraq War

France’s arguments against war<

State of the Union Address (1/29/2002)

Congressional Resolution


Participants in the Coalition of the Willing

Colin Powell to the Security Council

http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/02/05/sprj.irq.powell.transcript/index.html  (This is an extremely long speech.)

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=6079&Cr=iraq&Cr1=inspect (You may choose to use this news article instead.)

President Bush's 48 Hour Ultimatum Speech


Full description of activity or assignment.


This lesson could be used to teach Presidential Powers (especially as Commander in Chief), but I will be using it to connect the past events we have studied (Korean War, Vietnam War) to more recent events (Persian Gulf War and Iraq War).

"Think, Pair, Share" Class begins with a free write by students.

The question is "What is a president's role in the United States going to war? What should they do What should they not do?"

After 5-7 minutes of writing, the students can discuss with a partner and then with the class as a whole. 

This will lead into the assignment for the day.

Cooperative Learning Activity with Primary Sources 

Students will receive the attached matrix. Every student will be responsible for filling out the matrix, but they will work in small (ideally, no more than 3 or 4) groups to read through the documents.

Groups will be spread out at tables so that they have room to lay out the documents and study what they have to answer the questions. To start, each group will receive a folder for a specific war that holds the primary documents related to it. They will read through the documents to find the answers to the questions on the matrix.  Some documents may help answer more than one question.  Answers need to be as specific as possible, not just yes/no responses.  As a group completes the matrix for one war, they can trade in their folder for another one.

As students work, I will be moving between groups answering questions and helping students with the documents.  I will also be verifying that students are all working on documents and that answers are complete enough to reach understanding of the big picture. After the groups have completed all of their work, I will bring them back to a class discussion on what they see as the similarities and differences between the presidents and their decisions. 


Students will write a 1-2 page paper on the question, "Evaluate the presidents and their pre-war decisions. What would you say were "good" decisions that were made?  What about poor ones?  Why do you evaluate them to be so? What was the impact of these decisions?"  

Next class, I would spent 20-30 minutes discussing these questions. The students would start out with different groups than the class period before and have a few minutes to talk there before we open it up to an entire class discussion.

Students would have another 5 minutes to write after the class discussion to add things to their homework. Homework would then come in.  The matrix could also be completed for evaluation, but it also could be kept by the student to prepare for a future exam. The analysis piece is the important one for evaluation. 

War/ President Arguments for War?

Congressional Approval?

International Support?

Clear Objectives?

Korea/ Truman

Vietnam/ Johnson

Persian Gulf/ Bush I

Iraq/ Bush II 

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

See above