Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

The United States in World War II: "The Proper Application of Overwhelming Force" (4 Lessons)



The Unit


After learning that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, thus ensuring that the United States would enter World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill breathed a sigh of relief. "Hitler's fate was sealed," he would later recall. "Mussolini's fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force."

Churchill's sentiment was easy to understand. In terms of raw materials and industrial capacity the United States alone was far superior to Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. Now that America had joined Great Britain and the Soviet Union in the fight against the Axis, victory seemed assured.

Yet it was neither raw materials nor industrial capacity alone that was able to overcome the Axis Powers. No doubt the Allies had tremendous advantages in terms of technology and productive capacity, but ultimately World War II was won by members of the armed forces—real, flesh-and-blood men (and sometimes women) who risked death and dismemberment in the name of freedom. They fought everywhere from the steppes of Russia to the jungles of Southeast Asia, from the icy waters of the North Atlantic to the sun-drenched deserts of North Africa. And after nearly four long years they achieved victory.

In this unit, students will examine the role that the United States played in bringing about this victory. They will learn about the strategies that were developed, and how they played out in reality. They will become familiar with the two major theaters of the war—Pacific and European—and how developments in one affected the course of the fighting in the other. Finally, they will learn how the various military campaigns—on land and sea, and in the air—all contributed to the war's successful conclusion.

Guiding Questions

  • How did the Allies manage to turn back the Japanese offensive of 1941-42?
  • How did the United States contribute to the turning of the tide against the Axis Powers in Europe in World War II?
  • How did the Allies manage to defeat and occupy Germany in 1944 and 1945?
  • How did the Allies manage to defeat Japan?

Learning Objectives

  • Articulate the various strategies developed by Anglo-American military planners, as well as the reasons behind them.
  • Evaluate the strategies used, in terms of how successful they were in meeting their objectives.
  • Discuss anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, and how it affected the way the Pacific War was fought.
  • Explain the magnitude of the U-Boat threat in the Atlantic in 1942 and early 1943, and how it was overcome.
  • Assess the effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaign against German cities.
  • Explain the reasons behind the dropping of the atomic bombs, and why the use of these weapons was controversial.
  • Articulate the reasons behind the Japanese surrender, and the role the atomic bomb played in that decision.
  • Identify on a map locations of importance to the war, both in Europe and the Pacific.
  • Identify the most important military engagements and explain their significance.

Preparation Instructions

Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. 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, such as this one for Lesson Plan One (see sidebar under "Additional Student/Teacher Resources" for full list of files).

Download the blackline masters for each lesson, available as a PDFs, such as this one for Lesson Plan One. 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.

Perhaps most importantly, you should become familiar with the interactive maps which accompany this unit, and which show the locations of important events in both the European and Pacific theaters:

Clicking on these locations will bring up pop-ups that include a paragraph or two of basic information about what happened there, as well as links to pages with more in-depth coverage, plus relevant campaign maps, photographs, and/or personal accounts by those who were there.

Working with 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 pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: Turning the Tide in the Pacific, 1941–1943

    American dive bombers over Midway. The Battle of Midway was crucial to turning  the tide in the Pacific war against Japan.

    In December 1941, Japanese armed forces launched a massive offensive, attacking targets as far East as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and as far West as Burma. This lesson plan will focus on the overall strategies pursued by the Japanese and the Allies in the initial months of World War II in Asia and the Pacific.

  • Lesson 2: Turning the Tide in Europe, 1942–1944

    American tank crew in North Africa, 1942.

    Although it was the Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. military planners decided that Germany, not Japan, was to be the primary target of operations. This lesson plan will focus on the overall strategies pursued by the Americans and their British allies in the initial months of World War II in Europe.

  • Lesson 3: Victory in Europe, 1944–1945

    American troops landing at Normandy, June 6, 1944.

    Although the campaign in the Mediterranean was successful in forcing Italy out of the war, Allied military planners by late 1943 had concluded that it would not be enough to defeat Nazi Germany. This lesson plan will focus on the overall strategy pursued by the Allies in the final months of World War II in Europe.

  • Lesson 4: Victory in the Pacific, 1943–1945

    The dropping of an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki

    The U.S. victory over the Japanese Navy at Midway succeeded in stopping the Axis advance in the Pacific, and by early 1943 the Marines had driven the Japanese from Guadalcanal. This lesson will guide students through the military campaigns of the Pacific theater, tracing the path of the Allied offensives.

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills