Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

American Diplomacy in World War II (4 Lessons)

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The Unit

Overview

The most terrible war in human history, World War II was fought by the United States to achieve objectives that would not only protect the American nation from aggression but also would permanently better the lot of humankind. Sixty years after its end, the world still lives with the unfolding of its consequences—the rise and decline of the Soviet Union, the end of German aspirations to European dominance, the demise of Western colonialism, a 45-year East-West Cold War and its aftermath, the rebirth of Imperial Japan as a bastion of liberal capitalism, the rise of China as East Asia's dominant power. Whether in the continued tension between Japan and China or in the turbulence of the Middle East, the war's legacies loom large in all our lives.

This four-lesson curriculum unit will examine the nature of what Winston Churchill called the "Grand Alliance" between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union in opposition to the aggression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

The first lesson deals with the formation of the alliance, surveying the breakdown of the German-Soviet pact and the developing accord between the Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and the emerging alliance between the United States (officially neutral until December 1941) and Great Britain (at war with Germany since September, 1939). It effectively culminates with the "Declaration of the United Nations" (January 1, 1942) and subsequent aid agreements in the emergent allied front against the German-Italian-Japanese axis.

The second lesson covers the uncertain period from early 1942 through much of 1943. During much of this period the Grand Alliance was on the defensive. Even after the Soviet Union began to advance after its victory at Stalingrad, the Western powers were unable to establish a major second front in Western Europe. Whether the alliance could hold together, or whether the Soviet Union might make a separate peace, was uncertain. This lesson plan examines the tensions and the sources of ultimate cohesion within the Grand Alliance during the period that eventual victory seemed uncertain.

Lesson three covers issues concerning the future of Europe during the final phase of the wartime alliance. Among the salient questions were the fate of the Eastern European nations, the future of Germany, and the establishment of a new international organization to replace the League of Nations. Behind them all was the problem of whether the liberal, democratic West and the Marxist, totalitarian Soviet Union could continue to coexist as allies.

Lesson four focuses on two major postwar issues in Asia. The first was the American hope of establishing China as a great power despite its grave internal divisions and the insistence of the Soviet Union on dominance in Manchuria. The second was the American policy of ending Western imperialism in Southeast Asia. In both cases, American diplomacy had to grapple with the differing objectives of other important partners in the Grand Alliance. Teachers with limited time may wish to select only one of these problems for class exercises and discussions. The documents relating to each have been grouped together in order to facilitate such an option.

Throughout modern history, former Grand Alliances—including the ones that defeated Germany in World War I, Napoleon's France in the early nineteenth century, and Britain in the age of the American Revolution—had come apart once they had served their purpose. President Roosevelt and large numbers of the American people believed that the World War II Grand Alliance would have a different future. This unit invites students to think in general terms about the nature of military and diplomatic alliances. Are they generally matters of convenience and historical circumstance, or more lasting arrangements based on common basic principles?

Documents from the Yale Avalon project, TeachingAmericanHistory.com, and other online resources will serve as primary sources for this lesson.

Guiding Questions

  • To what extent was the alliance against the Axis powers unified in values and postwar goals?
  • What were the major allied differences on wartime strategy and goals and how were they resolved?
  • Why and how did the United States attempt to preserve the Grand Alliance as American diplomats addressed European issues?
  • Was the American vision for postwar East and Southeast Asia flawed? If so, in what ways?

Learning Objectives

  • Lay out the outlooks and objectives of the United States, Great Britain and the USSR, at the beginning of World War II with some sense of areas of convergence and disagreement.
  • Evaluate the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms as alliance goals and weigh them against the experience of the Nazi-Soviet agreements of 1939.
  • Explain the ways in which the USSR, the United States, and Britain differed on their approach to winning the war
  • Explain why the methods used to obtain the surrender of the French North African government were controversial in Britain and the United States and also disruptive of alliance unity
  • Explain the Anglo-American decision to require "unconditional surrender" from the Axis powers
  • Explain the ways in which the evolving military progress of the war affected diplomatic decision-making
  • Explain the ways in which the USSR, the United States, and Britain differed on the future of Germany.
  • Explain the differences between the three allies over the future of Eastern Europe, with particular attention to the problem of Poland.
  • Explain the role played by the establishment of the United Nations in inter-allied diplomacy.
  • Explain the ways in which the evolving military progress of the war affected diplomatic decision-making.
  • Draw on the online documentation to explain the American approach to the shaping of the peace.
  • Explain the differing viewpoints with which the USSR, the United States, and Britain approached the issue of European imperialism.
  • Explain the ways in which the USSR, the United States, and Britain approached the issue of the future of China and define the postwar goals of each nation.
  • Evaluate whether in these cases American policy was "realistic," i.e., in the best interests of the United States and/or likely to be achieved in the postwar world.

Preparation Instructions

Review each lesson plan. 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 Text Document.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF file. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various 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.

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.

Each lesson is designed to stand alone, occupying three to four class periods. Taken together they provide a fairly comprehensive survey of American diplomacy during World War II. If there is insufficient time for all four, teachers should choose whichever plans best fit their particular course. Since some teachers may find the reading assignments too ambitious, the authors have attempted to identify with asterisks (*) the most fundamental documents in each lesson. We encourage all who make use of this unit to think of it as a collection of resources rather than as a plan of readings and exercises to be followed to the last detail.

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: How "Grand" and "Allied" was the Grand Alliance?

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan,  December 8, 1941.

    This lesson plan will survey the nature of what Winston Churchill called the Grand Alliance between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union in opposition to the aggression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

  • Lesson 2: How to Win a World War

    "General Bernard L. Montgomery watches his tanks move up." North Africa,  November 1942.

    For most of 1942, the Grand Alliance between the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union was on the defensive. Whether it could hold together, or whether the Soviet Union would even remain in the conflict, was uncertain. This lesson plan examines the tensions and the sources of ultimate cohesion within the Grand Alliance during the period when eventual victory seemed uncertain.

  • Lesson 3: Victory and the New Order in Europe

    Conference of the Big Three at Yalta makes final plans for the defeat of Germany

    By the beginning of 1944, victory in Europe was all but assured. The task of diplomacy largely involved efforts to define the structure of the postwar world. Why and how did the United States attempt to preserve the Grand Alliance as American diplomats addressed European issues?

  • Lesson 4: The New Order for "Greater East Asia"

    "At the White House, President Truman Announces Japan's Surrender." Abbie Rowe,  Washington, DC, August 14, 1945.

    For American diplomacy, the war against Japan was not just about the destruction of Japanese supremacy in the Pacific, China, and Southeast Asia. The ultimate issue was just what would replace Japan's imperial design of a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." This lesson plan focuses on two major postwar problems—the future of China and (using French Indochina as a test case) the future of Western imperialism in Southeast Asia.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • 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
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills
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