President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan, December 8, 1941.
Credit: Image courtesy of the National Archives.
The most terrible war in modern 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. Fifty 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 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. Documents from the Yale Avalon Project and other online resources will serve as primary sources for this lesson.
On January 1, 1942, three and a half weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China signed the Declaration of the United Nations in Washington, DC. Twenty-two smaller countries soon joined them. The document, never submitted to Congress for approval, had scant official standing. One of its four major signatories, the Soviet Union, remained aloof from the fight against Japan, although Japanese aggression had brought the United States to war. From the beginning, the military effort was to focus on Germany, already at war with Britain and the Soviet Union. The United States agreed in considering Germany the most dangerous member of the Axis alliance, Japan a secondary threat, and Italy (the third Axis power) militarily insignificant. The United Nations Declaration made specific reference to the principles of the Atlantic Charter, a statement of "joint war aims," issued by President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August, 1941. Neither a treaty nor an executive agreement, it likewise had no official standing beyond that of a press release. An affirmation of liberal values, the Atlantic Charter included the principles of the "Four Freedoms," a statement of human rights in President Roosevelt's annual message to Congress a year earlier, and incorporated in addition aspects of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. (See EDSITEment lesson on the 4 Freedoms Speech) Soviet endorsement of these aims would be at most tepid and formalistic.
No formal treaty of alliance between the three great powers in the "Grand Alliance" (as Churchill later named it) was ever concluded or even seriously attempted. From the beginning, the Grand Alliance possessed neither a binding diplomatic agreement nor common postwar goals. For this reason, the human tendency to embody nations in their leaders seems especially appropriate and may serve as an organizing principle for this lesson.
Franklin Roosevelt certainly believed in the principles he had stated. A member of Woodrow Wilson's administration as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, he had absorbed Wilson's belief that the United States should stand for liberal principles of peace and freedom under-girded by an open world economic order. As a cousin to Theodore Roosevelt, he also had developed a sense of the importance of power in international relations. He clearly expected the United States to emerge from the war as the world's strongest power and hoped to lead America away from its isolationist tendencies toward a world leadership that would not include territorial gain but would mean dominance somewhat akin to that exercised by Britain in the nineteenth century. He saw himself during the war as a mediator between Prime Minister Churchill ("the Old Tory") and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ("the Old Bolshevik"). Roosevelt's liberal and anti-imperialist outlook notwithstanding, the United States clearly saw itself as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere and intended to defend that position. (See the Congressional resolution on the Monroe Doctrine.)
Churchill assuredly believed in the liberal principles of the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter, especially for Europeans, but he was also committed to the preservation of the prewar British Empire, the most endangered portions of which were in Asia: India, Burma, and Malaya. Their peoples he deemed unready for self-government, in contrast to those in the predominantly British-colonized Commonwealth nations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and (along with Dutch Boers) South Africa. Roosevelt conversely thought the days of European empire had been brought to an end by the war and saw it as no part of the American mission to defend either the British, French, or Dutch holdings in South and Southeast Asia.
Churchill had long been hostile to the Soviet Union, although he was willing to accept it as an ally of convenience. Throughout the war, he would be an advocate of protecting the independence of Poland and other East Central European states from Soviet dominance. Roosevelt, by contrast, was much more open toward the Soviet state and clearly hoped to maintain the alliance once the war had ended.
Stalin had been absolute ruler of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for more than a decade and a half. During that time, he had ruthlessly eliminated any opposition. During the 1930s, he had carried on a series of "purges" that resulted in the death or imprisonment of millions of people suspected of opposition to his regime. Among them had been many of the senior officers of the Soviet Army, which as a consequence was unprepared for the war. He also had sold much of the Soviet wheat crop overseas for foreign exchange to be used in the purchase of heavy equipment for an accelerated industrialization program. The resultant famine killed hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, most of them in the wheat-producing Ukraine. The famine was largely unknown outside the Soviet Union, however, and Stalin was widely admired among Western "progressives" for his success in moving the USSR into the modern world.
The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had been bitter enemies through the 1930s. The major Western European democracies, Great Britain and France, nonetheless had deplored Soviet totalitarianism about as much as the Nazi variety. Lacking a Western European alliance, Stalin negotiated a treaty with Germany. Signed in August 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact contained a secret rider in which the two powers agreed to divide Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe between them. After the German invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939), the Soviet army moved into the eastern half of the country. In short order, the USSR also seized and incorporated into its territory the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, strategic portions of eastern Finland, and the provinces of Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia from Romania. The agreement with Germany held only until the Nazis invaded the USSR on June 21, 1941. Despite massive gains, however, the Germans proved unable to defeat the Soviets in a final decisive battle.
Churchill and Britain embraced the USSR as an essential ally against a common enemy. Stalin had an equal need for Anglo-American assistance. Thrown together by the vagaries of history, the three nations all needed each other. The United States, already sending aid to Britain under the Lend-Lease program, quickly concluded that the Soviets could hold the line against the German invaders and began sending them Lend-Lease shipments. Churchill, however, remained skeptical of the USSR throughout the war and hoped to limit its territorial gains. Roosevelt, in contrast, appears to have possessed sympathy for certain aspects of the Soviet experiment. Sympathy aside, he understood that the only route to a lasting peace was to maintain the alliance once the war was over and recognize the Soviet Union as a great power and partner in peace keeping. At least as much of his wartime diplomacy was directed toward establishing a relationship with Stalin as it was toward maintaining a partnership with Churchill.
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. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.
Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. 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.
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 first activity has students examine five maps (see page 2 of the Text Document). These maps and questions will provide insights into the situations that the members of the Grand Alliance find themselves in when before and when that alliance is being forged. Students may do this activity at home individually or at school in groups or as a class (with the teacher projecting the maps on a screen).
As background, students will be given a brief reading (available on page 1 of the Text Document) explaining the Washington (or Arcadia) Conference (December, 1941-February, 1942) and setting it in the context of the widening global war.
The maps are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History and in the map collection of the United States Military Academy at West Point, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site History Matters.
Based on these maps, students will answer the following questions, available in worksheet form on pages 2-3 of the Text Document:
The second activity presents the students with the two major documents that stated the wartime and post-war goals of the Grand Alliance. Both are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Avalon Project at Yale Law School.
Students will then be given a set of guiding questions in the form of a table—available on pages 4-5 of the Text Document—to help them identify these goals. This activity may be done as a homework assignment prior to the class discussion of the documents, or it may be done in small groups during class. Students will be asked to note in what ways the Declaration of the United Nations repeats the Atlantic Charter and in what ways it differs. They will also examine such matters as who issued the document and for what purposes. The students will then discuss their findings as a class.
The third activity will get at the values and particular national objectives behind the stated alliance objectives, especially for the shape of the post-war world. In the case of the Soviet Union, this will include documents on its cooperative dealings (especially in 1939) with Germany prior to Hitler's 1941 surprise invasion of the USSR. To accomplish this goal, three working groups will each examine a series of related documents and report back their findings to the whole class for use in a general discussion. Each group will be assisted by a series of guiding questions listed in the Text Document. Suggested groups and document groupings include:
Group 1—Soviet Interests (pages 6-10 in the Text Document):
Group 2—US Interests (pages 1-5 in the second Text Document):
Group 3—British Interests (pages 6-9 in the second Text Document):
Some teachers may want to assign each student to read all the documents in order to analyze all three perspectives. Students could then be divided into three groups to prepare to make one presentation on one perspective.
Another possibility is to assign multiple groups of 2 to 3 students to investigate a particular country's perspective, and then combine the groups by country to prepare the presentation on that country's perspective.
In the fourth and final activity, groups will share the results of their inquiries into national values and goals, and how each state sought in some way to modify the common goals embodied in the great public pronouncements of the Grand Alliance. The teacher may then lead a discussion that has students compare the values and goals of these three countries in a summative manner. They might also discuss the problems inherent in any wartime alliance against a common foe (or foes). The teacher might pose a final question for discussion: "Which presents the greater danger to a nation and its interests: forming an alliance with a power that does not actually share your core values and goals, or not forming such an alliance?"
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write essays answering the following questions:
Students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:
Students may want to delve more deeply into the biographical backgrounds of the allied leaders. For example:
3-5 class periods