Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

From Neutrality to War: The United States and Europe, 1921–1941 (4 Lessons)



The Unit


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.

Go to the related interactive

America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931–1941

A comprehensive student interactive giving the user a full scope of America's political and diplomatic responses to world events between the two world wars.

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


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
  • 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