The Road to Pearl Harbor: The United States and East Asia, 1915–1941

The battleship USS Arizona sinks after being hit by a Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor
Photo caption

The battleship USS Arizona sinks after being hit by a Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor

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. Based on analysis of primary source documents and an interactive timeline, students assess the overall principles which underlay both Japanese and American foreign policy in the mid- to late-1930s. 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

Why were the United States and Japan at odds over East Asia by the 1930s?

How does the path to WWII in Asia compare to the European and North African theaters? 

To what extent was war between the United States and Japan inevitable after September 1941?

How did the lead up to WWII shape the post-war relations between the U.S. and Japan?

Learning Objectives

Explain how Japan's ambitions in China conflicted with the American concept of the "Open Door."

Analyze the means by which the United States and Japan sought peaceful means of resolving their differences.

Assess the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia during the 1930s.

Evaluate the degree to which the Manchurian Incident of 1931 affected U.S.-Japanese relations.

Analyze the motives for Japan's decision to go to war against China during the 1930s.

Analyze the conflicting perspectives around the "southern advance" and evaluate its significance to the U.S.-Japanese relationship. 

Evaluate the claim: "War between the U.S. and Japan was inevitable by 1941."