Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

From Neutrality to War: The United States and Europe, 1921–1941 (4 Lessons)

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The Unit

Overview

In the years after World War I Americans quickly reached the conclusion that their country's participation in that war had been a disastrous mistake, one which should never be repeated again. During the 1920s and 1930s, therefore, they pursued a number of strategies aimed at preventing war.

At first the major players in this effort were American peace societies, many of which were part of larger international movements. Their agenda called for large-scale disarmament and an international treaty to abolish war. Their efforts bore fruit, as 1922 saw the signing of a major agreement among the great powers to reduce their numbers of battleships. Six years later most of the world's nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, in which the signatories pledged never again to go to war with one another.

However, events in the early- to mid-1930s led many Americans to believe that such agreements were insufficient. After all, they did not deter Japan from occupying Manchuria in 1931, nor four years later did they stop the German government from authorizing a huge new arms buildup, or Italy from invading Ethiopia. The U.S. Congress responded by passing the Neutrality Acts, a series of laws banning arms sales and loans to countries at war, in the hope that this would remove any potential reason that the United States might have for entering a European conflict.

When in 1939 war did break out between Germany on the one hand, and Britain and France on the other, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dutifully invoked the Neutrality Acts. However, he believed that this was a fundamentally different war from World War I. Germany, he believed (and most Americans agreed with him) was in this case a clear aggressor. Roosevelt therefore sought to provide assistance for the Allies, while still keeping the United States out of the war. He began by asking Congress to amend the neutrality laws to allow arms sales to the Allies. Later on, after German forces overran France, the president asked Congress for a massive program of direct military aid to Great Britain—an initiative that Roosevelt dubbed "Lend-Lease." In both cases the legislature agreed to FDR's proposals, but only after intense debate.

The question of how involved the United States should become in the European war deeply divided the country. On the one hand, Roosevelt and the so-called "internationalists" claimed that a program of aid to Great Britain and other countries fighting against Germany would make actual U.S. participation in the war unnecessary. On the other side stood those who were called "isolationists," who believed that the president's policies were making it increasingly likely that the country would end up in another disastrous foreign war. This debate was still raging when Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At this point it was clear that, like it or not, the United States would be a full participant in the Second World War.

Guiding Questions

  • How did Americans' disillusionment with World War I help to shape U.S. foreign policy during the 1920s?
  • Did the neutrality laws of the 1930s represent an effective U.S. response to world affairs?
  • How did the American conception of "neutrality" change during the first fifteen months of World War II in Europe? Was this change a positive or a negative development?
  • Which side offered the better approach to U.S. foreign relations—the "internationalists" or the "isolationists"?

Learning Objectives

  • List the main reasons for the growth of antiwar sentiment after World War I.
  • Identify the U.S. foreign policy initiatives of the 1920s that aimed toward the prevention of war.
  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Five-Power Treaty and the Kellogg-Briand Pact as means of preventing war.
  • Explain the "Merchants of Death" thesis and how it shaped the U.S. approach to neutrality.
  • List the main terms of the neutrality laws passed during the 1930s.
  • Identify the major events of European history between 1935 and 1941, and how they shaped the debate over U.S. neutrality.
  • Assess the overall effectiveness of U.S. neutrality policy during this period.
  • Explain Roosevelt's concept of neutrality in the context of the European war.
  • Articulate how Roosevelt sought to revise the neutrality laws in line with this understanding.
  • Explain the arguments both for and against Roosevelt's decision in late 1940 to extend military aid to Great Britain.
  • Articulate the main arguments used in 1941 for and against greater U.S. involvement in the European war.
  • List the Roosevelt administration's major foreign policy initiatives regarding the war in Europe, and explain the significance of each.
  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the "internationalist" and "isolationist" positions, and advance an argument as to which was the better approach.
  • Identify on a blank map the locations of the major events in Europe from 1935 to 1941.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plans in the unit. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in these lessons. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDFs.
  • Download the Text Documents for the lessons, available as PDFs. These files contain excerpted versions of the documents used in all each lesson, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Finally, familiarize yourself with the interactive timeline "America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931-1941" that accompanies this lesson. This timeline will, through text and maps, guide students through the major events in Europe from 1933 to 1941, and will ask students for each event to identify (choosing from among a menu of options) how the United States responded to it.
Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: Postwar Disillusionment and the Quest for Peace, 1921–1929

    Senator William E. Borah, (R-Idaho), was a prominent American isolationist who  gave a speech on "outlawing war" in 1924.

    Although antiwar organizations existed even before World War I, it was during the interwar period that pacifism became the fastest-growing movement in America. Numerous American politicians, businessmen, journalists, and activists made proposals for multilateral agreements on arms control and collective security. Through an examination of memoirs, photographs, and other primary source documents, students examine the rise of antiwar sentiment in the United States, as well as some of the concrete measures taken during the 1920s to prevent the outbreak of future wars.

  • Lesson 2: Legislating Neutrality, 1934–1939

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to keep the U.S. out of World War II as  long as possible.

    Americans in the mid nineteen thirties turned increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of preventing the outbreak of wars through international cooperation and instead moved toward measures designed to prevent the United States from intervening in any foreign war that might occur. In this lesson students examine a series of primary source documents that will help them understand why these laws were passed, and how they were applied in the mid- to late-1930s.

  • Lesson 3: U.S. Neutrality and the War in Europe, 1939–1940

    Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh

    The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 posed a serious challenge to U.S. neutrality. On the one hand, Americans' sympathies lay overwhelmingly with Great Britain and its allies; on the other hand, public sentiment overwhelmingly favored staying out of the war. Through a study of contemporary documents, students learn about the difficult choices faced by the Roosevelt administration during the first fifteen months of World War II, culminating in the decision to provide direct military aid to Great Britain.

  • Lesson 4: The Great Debate: Internationalists vs. Isolationists

    Senator James Byrnes of South Carolina defended the U.S.'s aiding of Great  Britain prior to America's entry into World War II.

    President Roosevelt's proposal to provide direct military aid to Great Britain launched a nationwide debate over foreign policy that lasted through most of 1941. Should the United States observe its traditional policy of non-involvement in European affairs (to which World War I had been a notable exception), or should the United States take whatever steps were necessary (up to and, perhaps, including direct involvement in the war) to prevent a German victory?In this lesson students are introduced to the main arguments used by both sides in this great debate. Through the use of an interactive map and primary source documents, students trace the events of 1941, and think critically about what foreign policy would have best served national interests.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

The Road to Pearl Harbor: The United States and East Asia, 1915–1941 (4 Lessons)

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The Unit

Overview

Although most Americans were shocked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the outbreak of war between the two countries came as no surprise to most observers of international affairs. Indeed, the war could be seen as the culmination of tensions between the two countries that can be traced back to 1915, when Japan issued its so-called "Twenty-One Demands" on China. These demands, presented as an ultimatum to the Chinese government, would have amounted to giving Japan a privileged status in certain parts of the country. This was in direct conflict with the stated policy of the United States toward China—the famous "Open Door," in which all countries were to respect Chinese sovereignty and enjoy equal access to Chinese trade.

Exacerbating the situation were the economic problems of Japan in the late 1920s, made worse by the Great Depression which swept the industrialized world in the early 1930s. As an island country with few natural resources, Japan was dependent on international trade, which was disrupted by the economic crisis. Moreover, Japan was overpopulated, but other countries—most importantly the United States—closed the door to Japanese emigrants. Increasingly Japan's military leaders became convinced that only through domination of China could they solve their country's problems. Japan's excess population could be settled in the largely undeveloped Chinese province of Manchuria, while Japanese industry could be revitalized through control of China's import market.

Therefore the 1930s saw a steadily increasing campaign of Japanese aggression in China, beginning with the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and culminating in the outbreak of full-scale war between the two powers in 1937. Each instance of aggression resulted in denunciations from the United States, but the administrations of the time—that of Herbert Hoover until 1933, and of Franklin D. Roosevelt thereafter-understood that there was no will on the part of the American public to fight a war in East Asia. Therefore U.S. policy by the late 1930s consisted of nothing more than a refusal to recognize Japanese conquests, limited economic sanctions against Japan, and equally limited military and economic assistance for China.

Nevertheless, the Japanese bitterly resented even these halfway measures, and when their war against China bogged down in 1939 they blamed outside interference for the stubborn refusal of the Chinese to submit to their terms. They sought a way to prevent foreign aid from reaching China, and to replace the foreign resources that they could no longer acquire due to American economic sanctions.

In Germany's lightning victories of April–June 1940 Tokyo believed it had found the answer to both problems. In Southeast Asia and the South Pacific lay a number of territories controlled by France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, which none of those countries appeared capable of defending. If they were to fall into Japanese hands Tokyo's strategic dilemma, it seemed, could be solved. After concluding an alliance with Germany in July 1940, Japan pressured the French government into allowing Japanese troops to occupy the northern part of French Indochina. In the following year Japanese forces occupied the entire country.

The U.S. government met this latest series of aggressive moves with a steadily escalating campaign of economic sanctions, so that by late summer of 1941 Japan was no longer able to purchase any materials from the United States. This was a tremendous blow for many reasons, but particularly because Japan was almost completely dependent upon U.S. imports for its supply of oil. Without oil, of course, Tokyo would have to abandon its war against China—a humiliation that no Japanese leader would accept.

The result was a frenzy of diplomatic maneuvering between Japan and the United States throughout the second half of 1941. However, Tokyo knew that time was running out; if the United States failed to drop its trade sanctions Japan would run out of oil within months. Therefore Japan's leaders made a fateful decision-if no settlement could be reached with Washington by the end of November there would be war. Moreover, the Japanese naval command concluded that this war must begin with the most devastating attack possible against the United States—an air strike, using carrier-based planes, against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The result, of course, would be a four-year conflict that, in the end, would prove disastrous for Japan.

In this four-lesson curriculum unit, students begin by exploring through contemporary documents the rise of animosity between the United States and Japan beginning in World War I and continuing over the next two decades . They consider next through primary source documents and an interactive timeline the overall principles which underlay both Japanese and American foreign policy in the mid- to late-1930. Students turn then to examine through primary documents and maps why Japan embarked on its policy of aggression against China, also considering the U.S. response to this new policy, and how it contributed to war between the United States and Japan. Finally they are asked to put themselves in the shoes of U.S. and Japanese diplomats in the final months of 1941, desperately trying to reach a settlement that will avoid war. Through the use of primary documents and an interactive map and timeline, they will consider whether there was any reasonable chance of preventing the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific.

Guiding Questions

  • What accounts for the growing hostility that had developed between the United States and Japan by the early 1930s?
  • In its approach to the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1930s, did the United States place itself on a path to war?
  • Was the "southern advance" a reasonable attempt to address to Japan's international dilemma, or was it a reckless step toward war?
  • Was war between the United States and Japan inevitable after September 1941?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how Japan's ambitions in China conflicted with the American concept of the "Open Door."
  • Discuss the means by which the United States and Japan sought peaceful means of resolving their differences.
  • Articulate why U.S. trade and immigration policies angered the Japanese.
  • Explain the importance of the Manchurian Incident of 1931, and the American response to it, for the deterioration in U.S.-Japanese relations.
  • Explain why Japan went to war against China during the 1930s.
  • Articulate the reasons why the United States believed that its interests were at stake in East Asia.
  • Discuss how the United States responded to developments in the Sino-Japanese War.
  • Assess the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia in the 1930s.
  • Define what Japanese leaders meant by the "southern advance," and explain why they opted to pursue it.
  • Articulate the U.S. response to the "southern advance," and assess whether it was a reasonable one.
  • Explain why Tokyo decided in September 1941 to prepare for war against the United States.
  • List and explain the issues that divided the United States and Japan in the fall of 1941.
  • Articulate the reasons why Japan chose to go to war against the United States.
  • Assess the overall effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy during this period.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plans in the unit. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDFs.
  • Download the Text Documents for the lessons, available as PDFs. They are listed under "Resources" on the tab bar of each unit lesson plan. These files contain excerpted versions of the documents used in each lesson, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Finally, familiarize yourself with the interactive timeline "America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931–1941" that accompanies this lesson. This timeline will, through text and maps, guide students through the major events in Asia in late 1941, and will ask students for each event to identify (choosing from among a menu of options) how the United States responded to it.

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

Woodrow Wilson and Foreign Policy (4 Lessons)

Created July 16, 2010

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The Unit

Overview

Woodrow Wilson numbers among the most influential Presidents in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Elected in 1913 as a Progressive reformer, the former college professor and governor of New Jersey expected to devote his time and talents to fulfilling an ambitious domestic reform agenda. Foreign policy, Wilson assumed, would be a secondary concern. As he remarked, "[i]t would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs."

That irony was soon realized. In 1913, Wilson repudiated his predecessors' Dollar Diplomacy. (Dollar Diplomacy called for the U.S. government to promote stability, primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, in order to yield investment opportunities for American companies, with the hope that the development would also result in prosperity for the affected nations.) Certainly Wilson supported private American investment in Latin America and elsewhere, but the promotion of democracy was a higher priority. In 1914, disturbed by the violence of Mexico's revolution (and the arrest of U.S. sailors in Tampico), Wilson sent American troops across the border. The next year, he dispatched Marines to Haiti.

The international event that most preoccupied the President was, of course, World War I, which broke out in Europe in August 1914. Wilson declared neutrality for the United States and urged Americans to remain impartial as well. Neutrality, however, quickly proved difficult. Just as American attempts to sell goods to France and Britain during the Napoleonic Wars had incurred the wrath of those battling Great Powers, so, too, did this wartime trade result in violations of U.S. neutrality. The British Navy seized goods bound for German ports; German submarine attacks on Allied ships resulted in American deaths. In April 1917, with German provocations growing worse, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers.

Wilson's actions were not merely reactive, however—far from it. After taking office, Wilson quickly evolved an ambitious foreign policy. Although he drew upon several durable traditions in U.S. foreign relations, most notably an abiding faith in the superiority of democracy, Wilson's foreign policy was unique in its own right. Among other points, "Wilsonianism" advocated the spreading of democracy, the opening of global markets, the creation of an international organization dedicated to keeping peace, and an active global role for the United States. The dispatch of troops to Mexico and Haiti reflected these goals, but it was through entry into World War I that Wilsonianism reached its high point. "The world must be made safe for democracy," declared the President, and, once the war was won, he hoped to achieve this aim through a just and fair peace treaty and the formation of the League of Nations.

In this curriculum unit, students will study the formation, application, and outcomes-successes and failures alike-of Wilson's foreign policy. Students will subsequently appreciate the profound legacy of Wilsonianism in U.S. foreign relations as they continue their study of modern U.S. history.

Guiding Questions

  • What was Wilson's foreign policy, and how did it differ from previous American foreign policy?
  • How did the Wilson administration respond to revolution and civil unrest in Latin America?
  • After almost three years of neutrality, was the decision to intervene in World War I justified?
  • Were Wilson's Fourteen Points realized in the Versailles Treaty?

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss how the academic career and Progressivism of Wilson shaped his ideas about foreign policy
  • Identify four major points of "Wilsonianism": spreading democracy, open markets, an international organization dedicated to keeping peace, and an active global role for the United States
  • Explain what was both traditional and new about Wilsonianism
  • Identify American economic and strategic interests in the Western Hemisphere
  • Explain how the U.S attempted to safeguard American economic interests and promote democratic reforms in Latin America during Wilson's presidency
  • Discuss how Wilson's actions reflected his foreign policy principles
  • Explain why many Latin Americans resented or resisted U.S. actions
  • Explain why the United States adopted a policy of neutrality after the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914
  • Identify challenges to American neutrality
  • Explain why Wilson decided to request a declaration of war
  • Discuss the ways in which Wilson wanted to use victory in the war to fundamentally change international relations and to promote the spread of democracy
  • Discuss how the Fourteen Points, especially the League of Nations, demonstrated Wilsonian principles
  • Summarize the aims of the other Allied powers at the Paris Peace Conference
  • Identify which of the Fourteen Points became part of the Versailles Treaty

Preparation Instructions

First, review each lesson plan. Second, find and bookmark the recommended links and materials from each lesson's EDSITEment reviewed websites. Third, download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies, as needed, for student viewing. (As an alternative, excerpted versions of the documents are included on the Text Document.) Fourth, download the Text Document for this lesson, provided here as a PDF, which includes questions for students to answer. Finally, print and copy the handouts you will use in class.

Analyzing primary sources

To provide your students with the skills needed to examine primary sources, you may find it helpful to visit the Learning Page from the Library of Congress.

In particular, students may find the Mindwalk activity useful in preparing to work with primary sources.

At the National Archives website, the Digital Classroom provides worksheets to practice document analysis.

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: The Origins of "Wilsonianism"

    Created July 16, 2010
    Because of the First World War and its aftermath, Woodrow Wilson fashioned an  ambitious international agenda.

    The influence of President Woodrow Wilson on American foreign policy has been profound and lasting. Using a variety of primary sources, students analyze the origins of the ambitious foreign policy that came to be known as Wilsonianism and compare it with important alternative traditions in American foreign policy.

  • Lesson 2: "To Elect Good Men": Woodrow Wilson and Latin America

    Created July 16, 2010
    Woodrow Wilson changed the course and tone of U.S. policy towards Latin  America.

    President Woodrow Wilson and his first Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, rejected the Dollar Diplomacy that had guided U.S. relations with Latin America during the administration of William Taft. Wilson resolved that the United States would only recognize Latin American governments founded upon law and order, "not upon arbitrary or irregular force. In this lesson, students analyze Wilson's attempts to carry out this "missionary diplomacy" in Haiti and Mexico as well as the responses of selected Haitians and Mexicans.

  • Lesson 3: Wilson and American Entry into World War I

    Created July 16, 2010
    Woodrow Wilson tried to keep America out of World War I

    In August 1914, President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to remain impartial in thought and deed toward the war that had just broken out in Europe. For almost three years, the President presided over a difficult, deteriorating neutrality, until finally the provocations could no longer be ignored or negotiated. In this lesson, students analyze one of the most significant moments in twentieth century U.S. foreign relations: Wilson's decision to enter World War I in order to make the world "safe for democracy."

  • Lesson 4: Fighting for Peace: The Fate of Wilson's Fourteen Points

    Created July 17, 2010
    In the aftermath of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson tried to push a  comprehensive and enlightened peace plan.

    In January 1918, less than one year after the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points to try to ensure permanent peace and to make the world safe for democracy. Wilson's aims included freedom of the seas, free trade, and, most important, an international organization dedicated to collective security and the spreading of democracy. Through the use of primary source documents and maps, students examine Wilson's Fourteen Points, as well as his efforts to have them incorporated into the final peace treaties.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Caribbean
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills