After learning that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, thus ensuring that the United States would enter World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill breathed a sigh of relief. "Hitler's fate was sealed," he would later recall. "Mussolini's fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force."
Churchill's sentiment was easy to understand. In terms of raw materials and industrial capacity the United States alone was far superior to Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. Now that America had joined Great Britain and the Soviet Union in the fight against the Axis, victory seemed assured.
Yet it was neither raw materials nor industrial capacity alone that was able to overcome the Axis Powers. No doubt the Allies had tremendous advantages in terms of technology and productive capacity, but ultimately World War II was won by members of the armed forces—real, flesh-and-blood men (and sometimes women) who risked death and dismemberment in the name of freedom. They fought everywhere from the steppes of Russia to the jungles of Southeast Asia, from the icy waters of the North Atlantic to the sun-drenched deserts of North Africa. And after nearly four long years they achieved victory.
In this unit, students will examine the role that the United States played in bringing about this victory. They will learn about the strategies that were developed, and how they played out in reality. They will become familiar with the two major theaters of the war—Pacific and European—and how developments in one affected the course of the fighting in the other. Finally, they will learn how the various military campaigns—on land and sea, and in the air—all contributed to the war's successful conclusion.
Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. 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 PDF, such as this one for Lesson Plan One (see sidebar under "Additional Student/Teacher Resources" for full list of files).
Download the blackline masters for each lesson, available as a PDFs, such as this one for Lesson Plan One. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, 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.
Perhaps most importantly, you should become familiar with the interactive maps which accompany this unit, and which show the locations of important events in both the European and Pacific theaters:
Clicking on these locations will bring up pop-ups that include a paragraph or two of basic information about what happened there, as well as links to pages with more in-depth coverage, plus relevant campaign maps, photographs, and/or personal accounts by those who were there.
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. Finally, History Matters offers pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.
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.
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.
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.