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?
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.
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.
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