Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: How to Win a World War

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


"General Bernard L. Montgomery watches his tanks move up." North Africa,  November 1942.

"General Bernard L. Montgomery watches his tanks move up." North Africa, November 1942.

Credit: Image courtesy of The National Archives.

For most of 1942, the Grand Alliance was on the defensive. Whether it could hold together, or whether the Soviet Union would even remain in the conflict, was uncertain. The turning of the military tide in the Soviet Union at the beginning of 1943 made victory seem probable, but only at great cost. Diplomatic rumors abounded of a separate peace between Hitler and Stalin. It would not be until the end of that year that a united alliance seemed assured, with major Soviet advances on the Eastern front, important British-American victories in North Africa and Sicily, and the first American gains in the Pacific. This lesson plan examines the tensions and the sources of ultimate cohesion within the Grand Alliance during the period when eventual victory seemed uncertain.

Guiding Questions

What were the major allied differences on wartime strategy and goals, and how were they resolved?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the ways in which the USSR, the United States, and Britain differed on their approach to winning the war
  • Explain why the methods used to obtain the surrender of the French North African government were controversial in Britain and the United States and also disruptive of alliance unity
  • Explain the Anglo-American decision to require "unconditional surrender" from the Axis powers
  • Explain the ways in which the evolving military progress of the war affected diplomatic decision-making


At the beginning of 1942 the gap between the ambitious aims of the Declaration of the United Nations and the actual military situation of the Grand Alliance was painfully large. Still reeling from the attack at Pearl Harbor, a crippled US Navy seemed in no shape to take the offensive in the Pacific. American army planners, concentrating on the "Germany first" doctrine, talked with unrealistic optimism of invading the European continent before the end of the year, despite a lack of shipping capability, inadequate equipment, and insufficient numbers of trained troops.

The British correctly counseled a less-direct blow—an invasion of North Africa. Britain, although likely assured of survival by the American alliance, faced possible defeat by the Axis in North Africa and a loss of the Mediterranean-Suez Canal "lifeline" to India and Southeast Asia. The capture of French North Africa (administered by the neutral but pro-German regime established in Vichy, France) along with the Italian colony of Libya would preserve British dominance in Egypt and the Mediterranean. After that, Britain would urge an attack on Italy. Both projects served British interests, and both were doable with limited forces.

The British proposals reflected more than narrow self-interest. They were also motivated by the terrible losses Britain had suffered a generation earlier in the four-year trench warfare of World War I. Americans had been involved in extensive World War I land conflict for only a few months; they tended to remember only advance and victory. The differences in experience led to one of the early issues that had to be settled between London and Washington—the British "peripheral" military strategy versus the American plan of a buildup of forces in Britain, then a massive attack across the English Channel into the heart of Northern Europe.

When 1942 began, the Soviet Union had driven German forces back from Moscow. By the spring, however, a German offensive toward the oil fields of Southern Russia pushed Soviet forces back. The Soviets pressed hard for a second front in Western Europe, and President Roosevelt promised it to Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov in May, 1942. They also demanded much-increased Lend-Lease supplies from the United States. As the year progressed, however, no significant military action was forthcoming. American-British Arctic supply convoys, ravaged by German air and sea power, had to be suspended in the summer. It was natural enough for the pathologically suspicious Soviet leadership to believe that, at best, their Western allies were unreliable; at worst, deliberately letting the USSR take the brunt of the German offensive in the hope the two forces would bleed each other to death. By September, 1942, Soviet forces had been pushed back to the city of Stalingrad on the Volga River. Stalingrad became the focus of a desperate battle that lasted from September, 1942, into January, 1943.

The invasion of North Africa in November, 1942, thus earned scant gratitude from Moscow, although it represented the most that the US and Britain could do-and in fact made it impossible for Germany to send much-needed reinforcements to Stalingrad. The North African operation, moreover, created considerable embarrassment when the Anglo-American allies secured a cease-fire from the Vichy French commander, Admiral Jean Darlan, by agreeing to keep him in power. Sensible from a military standpoint, the "Darlan deal" led to loud protests in both Britain and the United States. Roosevelt felt compelled to issue a statement that it was only temporary. (And indeed it was. Darlan was assassinated by a French antifascist six weeks after the invasion.) The controversy demonstrated the political problems of straying from the liberal ideals that had been promoted as justifications for the war.

A far more important issue than the Darlan controversy was the future of France as a European power. Churchill hoped to restore France as a major ally that would retain its large empire. Roosevelt opposed the resuscitation of any European empires—including Britain's. Stalin tended to agree, although he made it clear he was more interested in extending Soviet power than attacking British imperialism.

In January, 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill met in Morocco at Casablanca. Stalin, citing his command of the Soviet army, declined to join them. By then, the allies were moving forward in North Africa, and the USSR had encircled the German force at Stalingrad. Victory now seemed a strong prospect if the alliance could be held together. Two important decisions were made at Casablanca. One was to invade Sicily as the next Anglo-American step in the war. The other was to proclaim a policy of accepting nothing less from the Axis nations than "unconditional surrender."

The decision to continue military operations in the Mediterranean area ended any prospect of an invasion of Western Europe in 1943, although that possibility was very small in any event. American negotiators accepted it reluctantly. In Moscow, Soviet officials were outraged and openly bitter.

The decision for "unconditional surrender" served two purposes. It was a way of reassuring liberal American and British elements—and also the Soviet Union—that, despite the Darlan deal, the US and Britain were in a fight to the finish against fascism. In September, 1943, the Western allies would accept the surrender of Italy, controlled by a Fascist government led by Marshall Pietro Badoglio, who had replaced the deposed Benito Mussolini. Dealing with Badoglio caused some unease, but the Allies quickly declared that Fascism was to be eradicated in Italy. Moreover, since the German army held most of the Italian peninsula, the Badoglio government existed in name only.

Throughout 1943, the USSR advanced steadily against the increasingly outmanned and outgunned Germans. Still, the gains were costly, and Stalin seems to have considered a separate peace with the Germans. During the summer, the Soviet Union withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and London, perhaps simply as a sign of displeasure, but possibly as a prelude to some war-altering development. Rumors of a new Nazi-Soviet Pact were frequent.

German and Russian diplomats are known to have held discussions in Stockholm. Japan encouraged the talks in the hope that a Soviet exit from the war would force the US to concentrate on the European theater. (American forces, despite the Germany First policy, had managed to inflict decisive defeats on the Japanese. By mid-1943, they were pushing the enemy back on the island of New Guinea.) It appears that Stalin would have settled only for a return to the Soviet borders of June, 1941. Hitler, who still occupied large amounts of Soviet territory, was unwilling to give up the Ukraine. An ever-growing flow of American aid sustained the increasingly mighty Soviet war effort. Stalin apparently decided that total victory, however costly, was attainable. By late fall, he was ready to confer with his Western counterparts.

In November, 1943, the Big Three leaders met in Tehran, in Soviet-occupied Iran. Much of the discussion involved military strategy. Churchill pressed the British case for continued offensives in the Mediterranean, while Roosevelt and Stalin insisted on a second front in Northern Europe. Inevitably, they prevailed. Britain, by now, was clearly the junior partner in the Grand Alliance. The conference set May, 1944, as the target date for operation OVERLORD, the invasion of France; Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would undertake a major offensive on the Eastern Front at the same time. The USSR also pledged to join the war against Japan after the defeat of Germany.

Tehran was important in other ways. The three powers reached general agreement on postwar boundary lines, essentially ratifying all the territorial conquests the Soviet Union had made between September, 1939 and June, 1941. There was also general agreement on a full military occupation of Germany with each of the allies having its own zone of responsibility. The conferees discussed permanently partitioning Germany into three or more smaller states. The Soviet Union agreed in principle to Roosevelt's plans (floated with Molotov in May, 1942) for a United Nations organization to replace the League of Nations, with the understanding that its core would consist of "Four Policemen" (the United States, Britain, the USSR, and China), primarily responsible for maintaining the war settlement.

The greatest immediate significance of the Tehran conference was its display of Allied solidarity. Photographs of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin together seemed to tell the world that the Grand Alliance was united. Roosevelt, who had worked hard to ingratiate himself with the Soviet dictator, came away optimistic that he had achieved a lasting relationship that was vital to the future of the world. The Grand Alliance ended the uncertain year of 1943 to all appearances harmonious and advancing toward victory.

Preparation Instructions

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.

The maps used in this lesson plan can be printed out, and that should be done using the 'landscape' (horizontal) option on a printer. For best results, The Pacific Theater map should be printed out on 81/2 x 14 (legal) size paper in landscape format due to its size.

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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Analyzing Documents in Groups

In this, as in the other lessons, the most fundamental documents are indicated with an asterisk.

In order to do this activity, students will first need to be familiar with the basic statements of goals of the Grand Alliance as embodied in these two core documents:

If students have already completed Lesson 1 of this series (See the Unit "American Diplomacy during World War II," Lesson 1, "How 'Grand" and 'Allied' was the Grand Alliance?"), they may move on to the next step. If not, they can read the two documents and answer the Activity 2 worksheet ("Goals of the Grand Alliance") from Lesson 1 either in class or as homework. In any event, the class should discuss the goals of the Grand Alliance as articulated by these two documents before beginning the analysis of the other documents.

Next, students might be asked to anticipate what strategy each of the three allies will offer for winning the war. They should explain their reasoning.

Teachers should look at "How to Win a World War -- Document List" for the list of (numbered) documents, their dates, whether they were public or secret, their Internet URLs, their size (roughly the number of pages of text, although fonts and spacing are variable). This list is available as page 1 of the Text Document. Students will then be assigned to groups to read and analyze the documents. The number each group will read will depend upon the number of groups the teacher wants to create (perhaps three documents at most per group, depending on the size of the document). Teachers should group documents in creative ways, for instance assigning a group of students at least one document from each year or pairing a public document with a secret document in order to shed light on the diplomatic decision-making process and the evolving war situation that influenced it. The students will need to be given a copy of the "How to Win a World War—Document List." Prior to giving this out to the class, the teacher might want to use the "group #" column to assign documents to groups.

Once assigned to a group, each student should be given the following materials:

The documents to be analyzed are:

Documents from Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943
10-1. Tripartite Dinner Meeting, November 28, 1943 [secret doc.]
10-2. Memo of Stalin's Views, November 28, 1943 [secret doc.]
10-3. Tripartite Dinner Meeting, November 29, 1943 [secret doc.]
10-4. RooseveltStalin Meeting, December 1, 1943 [secret doc.]
10-5. Tripartite Political Meeting, December 1, 1943 [secret doc.]
10-6. Declaration of the Three Powers (December 1, 1943) [public]

If possible, students should come to the next class session having read the documents assigned to their group; if this is not possible, they should read them in class. Groups should then work in class to fill out a "How to Win a World War  Document Analysis Sheet" (page 2 of the Text Document) for each document assigned to them.

Activity 2. Analyzing Documents and Placing Them in Context

Distribute the "How to Win a World War  19421943 Timeline" (available on pages 36 of the Text Document).

Each group will examine the timeline to see what events and developments affected the diplomatic decision-making process that resulted in that particular document. They will use their copy of "How to Win a World War  Summary Analysis Table" (available on pages 79 of the Text Document) to summarize their findings and analysis for the documents assigned to them.

For help in finding locations mentioned in the timeline, students should consult the following maps, available at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History and at the U.S. Military Academy's collection of campaign atlases (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters).

During the next one or two class sessions, each group will report to the whole class on their documents in numeric/chronological order. These explanations, which their classmates will note on their copies of the "How to Win a World War - Summary Analysis Table" handout, should allow the whole class to observe and discuss the interplay between the diplomatic decision-making process and the evolving war situation during 1942 and 1943.

A variation on this discussion might be a role-playing activity where groups represent each partner in the alliance. They could meet together as military strategists (or a mix of political and military leaders) to present the others with their plan for winning the war and to argue its merits.

During or at the conclusion of this synthesis of the work of the various groups, the teacher can ask questions to further the discussion and analysis. For instance, students will want to look for, pinpoint, and explain particular shifts in allied priorities and plans during 1942 and 1943 as reflected in the documents. They will also want to think about differences of priorities and plans among the three allies, and especially be able to account for these based on each ally's particular strategic goals and situation, both long-term (e.g., the desire to retain an empire) and short-term (e.g., reverses or successes on the battlefield).


After completing this lesson, students should be able to write essays answering the following questions:

  • The USSR, the United States, and Great Britain each had an idea of how the Grand Alliance might best defeat the Axis Powers. After sketching these differing strategies, explain why each country favored the strategy that it did.
  • Explain why the Soviet Union was often unhappy with and even suspicious of its two western allies in 1942 and 1943. What did the Soviets do because of this?
  • The final Axis collapse in North Africa (May 1943) was due in part to the negotiated surrender of Vichy-controlled French colonies shortly after the Anglo-American invasion of November 1942. The nature of the French surrender, however, strained the alliance. Explain the terms of that surrender and why the American and British public reacted negatively to them. How did the British and U.S. governments attempt to deal with these criticisms?
  • Britain and the U.S. both wanted to see France freed from Hitler's control, but they did not share exactly the same vision of what would happen to France and its empire during and after the war. Tell in what ways the two allies agreed and differed on the French issue. What did Stalin have to say about France and why do you think he believed as he did?
  • At Casablanca (January 1943), the United States and Great Britain announced that the war would be ended only with the "unconditional surrender" of Axis governments. What was the meaning of "unconditional surrender"? What were the purposes of this policy? Were all the allies happy with this policy? Explain.
  • What was decided at the Quebec Conference (August 1943) between the United States and Great Britain with regard to strategies for winning the war and to plans for dealing with the defeated Axis nations after the war? In what ways did the Moscow Conference agree with or differ from this?
  • The Tehran Conference (November 1943), bringing Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin together for the first time, ended in a show of allied unity. First, list and explain the strategic decisions the allies made at this conference for the defeat of the Axis powers. Then, list and explain the agreements made for the future once the war had ended. Finally, tell how the strategic priorities set at Tehran marked a shift in the relationships among the Big Three.
  • What three events or developments in the evolving military situation during 1942-1943 do you see as most significantly affecting the diplomatic decision-making process? Explain. (A variation on this question might have them select one or two events or developments for two or three members of the Grand Alliance, contrasting the impact each had on the particular allies).

Extending The Lesson

The New York Times "This Day in History" features actual Times stories on the events of the period. Most important for this lesson are January 14, 1943, Casablanca Conference [actual date of story, Jan. 24, 1943], February 2, 1943, Soviet Victory at Stalingrad [actual date of story, Feb. 3, 1943], and November 26, 1943, Teheran Conference [actual date of story, Dec. 4, 1943]. This site is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site Digital History.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • 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
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills
  • Alonzo L. Hamby, Ohio University (Athens, OH)
  • Ben S. Trotter, Bexley High School (Bexley, OH)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

Related Lessons