Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 4: The Great Debate: Internationalists vs. Isolationists

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


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

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

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

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? It was a bitter, passionate debate that in a sense was never adequately resolved-after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor it suddenly ended, as both sides clearly recognized that, like it or not, the United States was at war.

In this lesson students will be introduced to the main arguments used by both sides in this great debate. Through the use of an interactive map and primary source documents they will trace the events of 1941, and think critically about what foreign policy would have best served national interests.

Guiding Questions

  • Which side offered the better approach to U.S. foreign relations-the "internationalists" or the "isolationists"?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to

  • Articulate the main arguments used for and against greater U.S. involvement in the European war.
  • Identify the major events of the European war in 1941, and how they shaped the debate over U.S. intervention.
  • 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.


Franklin D. Roosevelt's Lend-Lease proposal—first mentioned in a press conference on December 17, 1940 and presented in greater detail in his January 1941 State of the Union Address—sparked a massive debate over foreign policy, pitting "internationalists" against "isolationists." It was a debate that was waged in the halls of Congress, on the editorial pages of major newspapers, on the radio, in meeting halls, and across kitchen tables throughout the country. For nearly a year this debate divided the nation, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—bringing about the actual involvement of the United States in the war—rendered it moot.

There were extremists on both sides of the debate. There were some who openly favored a German victory, and others who advocated an immediate U.S. declaration of war on Germany. These, however, tended to be irrelevant. The vast majority of Americans hoped that Great Britain would win, but were equally determined that the United States stay out of the war. The real debate was between those who believed that extending direct military and economic aid to Great Britain would make actual U.S. entry into the war less likely, and those who argued that it would increase the chances of U.S. involvement.

The so-called "internationalists" claimed that America's security depended on the defeat of Germany, and called for providing whatever Great Britain and its allies needed to bring that about, save actual troops. The British, they maintained, represented the last great defense of democracy from Nazi tyranny. Moreover, they argued, the United States could not survive as a free and prosperous society in a world dominated by Hitler. If provided with sufficient military and economic aid from America, the British and their allies would win the war, making actual U.S. involvement unnecessary. Those who embraced this view were attracted to a group called the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, whose name was later shortened to the Committee to Defend America.

Their opponents were usually referred to as "isolationists," although most of them preferred the term "anti-interventionist." They were driven by a variety of motives, but tended to agree on several common points. The war, they believed, was more about protecting the British Empire than it was about defending democracy, and hence was none of America's business. If the United States provided direct economic and military aid to Great Britain, they claimed, the country would have abandoned neutrality and placed itself on an inevitable course toward intervention. The anti-interventionists flocked to a national organization called the America First Committee, based in Chicago and boasting a number of celebrities, including the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, among its membership.

In spite of a spirited campaign of opposition coordinated by the America First Committee, Lend-Lease passed both houses of Congress by a sizeable margin in early March. Yet this was only the beginning of the debate, as Lend-Lease seemed to demand deepening involvement in European affairs. When Hitler's forces invaded the Soviet Union in June Lend-Lease aid was extended to that country as well, in spite of protests by those who believed that Stalin's regime was no better than (if not worse than) Nazi Germany. The ongoing war at sea provided other areas of controversy. German submarines inflicted staggering losses against British merchant vessels in the Atlantic, which meant that American arms, ammunition, and supplies provided under Lend-Lease were being destroyed before they could reach Great Britain. Roosevelt's response was to authorize U.S. warships to convoy British merchant vessels farther and farther along their routes across the Atlantic. Anti-interventionists protested, claiming that this ran the risk of subjecting American vessels to submarine attack. When in late summer several such attacks took place, the president on September 11 issued an order that U.S. naval vessels open fire on German submarines on sight. That autumn, Roosevelt sought another revision of the neutrality laws to allow the arming of American merchant ships. Again the isolationists cried foul, claiming that the president was waging war against Germany without a congressional declaration.

The debate between the internationalists and the isolationists was very much alive in early December 1941. While the president and his supporters in Congress won all of the legislative battles, his opponents could take comfort in the fact that public opinion polls still showed that most Americans remained determined to stay out of the war. Yet war did come, and from a direction that few Americans expected. To a large extent the great debate over U.S. foreign policy had ignored East Asia and the Pacific, so when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7 both sides were taken aback. Even the staunchest opponents of intervention accepted that the country had no choice but to go to war, and within days the America First Committee disbanded.

While the attack on Pearl Harbor effectively ended the debate between internationalists and isolationists, it left unanswered some of the most important questions that it had raised. Can the country really claim to be neutral when it openly assists one side against another? To what extent did the security of the United States depend on the survival of friendly foreign powers? How far may the president involve the country in a foreign conflict without a declaration of war? All of these questions would return to haunt later generations of Americans; indeed, they are still worth asking today.

Teachers interested in reading more about U.S. foreign policy in the months before Pearl Harbor are encouraged to consult Hypertext History, the online U.S. history textbook available at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital History. The section entitled War Begins is most relevant to this lesson.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the 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.
  • Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. 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.
  • Finally, study the interactive timeline America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931-1941. This timeline will, through text, maps, and photographs, guide students through the major European events of 1941, and will ask students for each event to identify (choosing from among a menu of options) how the Roosevelt administration responded to it. By using this interactive students should get a sense for how the United States became more and more deeply involved in the European war over the course of 1941.
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. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Documentary Photography" and "Making Sense of Maps" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Debate over Lend-Lease

President Roosevelt's Lend-Lease proposal deeply divided the nation in the early months of 1941. Supporters insisted that the United States must take any measures necessary to prevent Great Britain from being defeated. Critics, on the other hand, objected that the United States could not claim to be neutral if it were openly assisting one side in a war over another. In this activity, students will put themselves into the role of members of the America First Committee and the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, debating whether Congress should pass Lend-Lease.

Begin class by having students read from Franklin D. Roosevelt's Eighth Annual Message to Congress, January 6, 1941. This address is available in its excerpted form on pages 1-2 of the Text Document, and in its complete form on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Teaching American History. For lower achieving students you may wish to read it aloud to them. As students read, they should make a list of the key points included in this proposal (space is provided for this on pages 2-3 of the Text Document). Then, in class spend approximately ten minutes going over the lists the students have made.

Next, break the students into two groups: the "internationalists" (members of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies) and the "isolationists" (members of the America First Committee). To ensure a lively debate, distribute the more vocal students as evenly as possible between the two sides.

Explain to students that there will be an in-class debate, and that each member of each side has a particular role to play. They should also be reminded that for the purposes of this activity the year is 1941—neither side should make arguments based on developments that occurred later. Distribute to each student a copy of pages 4-5 of the Text Document, and ask the students in their groups to determine who will fill the following roles:

  • Opening Speaker (no more than one student): Responsible for preparing a five-minute opening speech.
  • Closing Speaker (no more than one student): Responsible for preparing a five-minute closing speech.

Research Team (at least one student): Responsible—along with the Opposition Research Team—for providing both speakers with "talking points" to help them prepare their speeches, and for providing teachers with a list of five questions to be asked of the speakers during the debate.

Opposition Research Team (at least one student): Responsible—along with the Research Team—for providing both speakers with "talking points" to help them prepare their speeches, and for providing teachers with a list of five questions to be asked of the speakers during the debate.

Publicity Team (at least one student—may be omitted for smaller classes): Responsible for making flyers, to be posted in the classroom, graphically portraying their side's point of view.

The following documents should be read by the Opening Speaker, the Closing Speaker, and the Research and Publicity Teams for the America First Committee. They should also be read by the Opposition Research Team for the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Excerpts are available on pages 6-11 of the Text Document.

The following documents should be read by the Opening Speaker, the Closing Speaker, and the Research and Publicity Teams for the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. They should also be read by the Opposition Research Team for the America First Committee. Excerpts are available on pages 12-17 of the Text Document.

Give students approximately one class period to prepare for the debate. By the beginning of the next class period all questions developed by the Research and Opposition Research Teams should be submitted to the teacher.

On the day of the debate, allow members of the two Publicity Teams to place their propaganda posters around the room. The teacher will serve as moderator for the debate. Give each of the Opening Speakers five minutes to make their speeches, then go through the lists of questions submitted by the two sides' Research and Opposition Research Teams, giving members of each side an opportunity to respond to whichever questions the teacher chooses to use from those lists. The question-and-answer part of the debate should take approximately twenty minutes. Finally, give each of the Closing Speakers five minutes to present their summary arguments. It may be necessary to allow the closing speakers some time to add to their prewritten speeches based on the classroom debate. If time permits, conclude the activity by allowing students to "break character" and discuss which side they thought had the better arguments.

Activity 2. The Drift toward War

The passage of Lend-Lease in March 1941 by no means ended the debate over U.S. foreign policy, since over the course of the year the country became drawn more deeply into world events. In this activity, students will use an interactive timeline to study the major developments of 1941 and write an essay on whether American aid to Great Britain made actual involvement in the war more or less likely.

Direct students to the interactive timeline America on the Sidelines: the United States and World Affairs, 1931-1941. Students will use this timeline to go through the events of 1941, as well as the U.S. response to each of them. As they work their way through the timeline, they should note the locations mentioned in the various events on a blank map of Europe during World War II (a good one is available at this site). If students completed the second and third lessons in this unit, they should add these locations to the map they already started for those lessons.

Note that each event has at least one primary source document associated with it. These are included to provide students with a deeper understanding of the events, but they are not absolutely necessary to the lesson. Teachers should decide whether or not to require their students to read these, depending on the skill level of their students and the amount of time available for this subject.

Once students have completed the interactive timeline, which should take approximately 30 minutes, they should write for homework a five-paragraph essay, the instructions for which may be found on page 18 of the Text Document. The essay should answer the following question:

  • Isolationists claimed that U.S. aid for Great Britain would increase the likelihood of actual American involvement in World War II. Internationalists claimed that it would make U.S. intervention less likely. Based on the actual events of 1941, which do you think was closer to the truth, and why?"


Both the debate from Activity 1 and the essay from Activity 2 could be used as formal assessment tools. Students should also be able to write a five-paragraph essay in response to the following question:

  • "Could the United States have stayed out of the war in Europe? Should it have?"

In addition, students should be able to locate the following on a blank map of Europe during World War II:

  • Yugoslavia
  • Greece
  • Soviet Union
  • Iceland

Finally, students might be asked to write a paragraph for each of the following, identifying and explaining their significance:

  • Lend-Lease
  • Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies
  • America First Committee

Extending The Lesson

One of the biggest controversies to emerge in U.S. politics in late 1941 was the question of "freedom of the seas." After a German submarine sank an American destroyer off the coast of Iceland, President Roosevelt issued an order to U.S. naval commanders that U-boats were to be attacked on sight. The president argued that this was necessary in order to protect the rights of neutrals to travel on the high seas. His critics, however, charged that it was the administration's policy of assisting Great Britain that opened U.S. ships to such attacks. Roosevelt's speech announcing the "shoot-on-sight" order may be found at World War II Resources, which is linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Digital History. A speech by New Hampshire Senator Charles W. Tobey, taking the opposite view, is available at Teaching American History. Students might be asked to read these speeches and discuss which of the two was right.

The debate over U.S. involvement in World War II spilled over into popular culture as well. From 1939 to 1941 major motion picture studios produced a number of films that were overtly pro-British and anti-Nazi. This led the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee to hold hearings to determine whether Hollywood was intentionally producing "propaganda" to encourage U.S. entry into the war. Excerpts from those hearings may be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Digital History. Students might be asked, after reading these excerpts, whether the senators were right to raise the concerns that they did. Is it, as the movie studios claimed, a simple matter of free speech, or did the immense influence of Hollywood films give the motion picture industry a dangerous power over American public opinion? Teachers might also wish to show one of the movies that were discussed at the hearings, such as "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," "The Mortal Storm," "The Great Dictator," or "A Yank in the RAF."

The battle over U.S. intervention was fought with political cartoons as well as speeches and radio broadcasts. One of the most prolific American cartoonists on this issue was Theodore Geisel, better known by his pen name—Dr. Seuss. A large collection of his cartoons is available at Dr. Seuss Went to War, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site History Matters. The cartoons are arranged by date as well as by subject matter, so teachers may choose to show their students examples of how he denounced the isolationists in general, and the America First Committee in particular. Given that students in this lesson will have encountered the actual arguments made by members of America First, it might be useful to ask them whether Geisel's characterizations—particularly this one, which tries to connect isolationists with Nazi Germany-are fair.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • 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
  • 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
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources