Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: U.S. Neutrality and the War in Europe, 1939–1940

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh

Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh was one American who opposed U.S. intervention in World War II, but who nevertheless did combat duty in the Pacific theater of that war.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Go to the related interactive

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

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

The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 posed a serious challenge to U.S. neutrality, since Americans' sympathies lay overwhelmingly with Great Britain and its allies. The task of remaining neutral became even more formidable in mid-1940, when it appeared as though Hitler's Germany might actually win the war. Public sentiment overwhelmingly favored staying out of the war, yet at the same time most Americans believed that a German victory would pose a threat to national security.

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.

Guiding Questions

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?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to

  • 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.
  • List the major events of the European war in 1939 and 1940, as well as the administration's response to them.
  • Identify on a blank map the locations of the major events of the war in Europe in 1939 and 1940.
  • Explain the arguments both for and against Roosevelt's decision in late 1940 to extend military aid to Great Britain.


In September 1939 Hitler unleashed his military forces against Poland. Great Britain and France, honoring guarantees they had earlier made to the Polish government, declared war on Germany, thus marking the formal start World War II in Europe. Immediately Americans were placed in a dilemma. On the one hand, they were determined to stay out of the war; indeed, they had passed the Neutrality Laws in the mid-1930s to ensure that the United States would not be drawn into another conflict like World War I. On the other hand, World War II had begun very differently, the result of direct German aggression against neighboring states. Thus while there was almost no support for actual U.S. involvement in the war, Americans were practically unanimous in hoping that Great Britain and its allies (collectively known, as in World War I, as the Allied Powers), would win.

This was undoubtedly the attitude of the Roosevelt administration, which in September 1939 sought a revision of the neutrality laws that would allow U.S. arms makers to sell their products to the belligerents, but strictly on a "cash-and-carry" basis—that is, the purchasing countries would have to pay in cash up front, and transport the merchandise on their own ships. On the surface it appeared to be a completely neutral proposal—after all, it would theoretically allow either side to purchase American-made weapons. However, Roosevelt knew that in practice it would benefit only the Allies, since the overwhelming superiority of the British at sea would prevent German vessels from crossing the Atlantic. For this very reason the proposed Neutrality Act of 1939 ran into heavy opposition from those who argued that it would actually increase the likelihood that the United States might one day be drawn into the war. Nevertheless it passed both houses of Congress in early November.

In the early months of the war most Americans were confident that the Allies would win. Hitler's government, they believed, was not genuinely popular, and when it failed to deliver a quick victory it would either be forced to surrender its conquests or face a revolution at home. These hopes, however, were dashed in the spring and summer of 1940, when in a series of rapid offensives German forces managed to conquer Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, and finally France, all in rapid succession. Great Britain now stood alone against Germany and its allies. Both the German army and air force were far larger than their British counterparts, and even though the Royal Navy was far more powerful than that of Germany, German submarines were able to exact a terrible toll against British shipping. Thus by late 1940 the British Isles were being subjected to withering attacks from the air and the sea, while the possibility of a German invasion loomed on the horizon.

These developments came as a shock to the American people, and deepened the dilemma of neutrality. What if Germany won the war—what next? Would the United States become a target? What if the Germans were able to gain control of the Royal Navy? Would the U.S. economy be able successfully to compete in a German-dominated world?

These were questions that haunted President Roosevelt and his advisers. Given that 1940 was an election year, the president was unwilling to take aggressive steps toward assisting the British; he knew that the American people, as worried as they might have been about the prospects of a German victory, still had no desire to enter the war. However, in early December—only a few weeks after Roosevelt was elected to a third term as president—Prime Minister Churchill sent him a long letter (the complete text of which may be found at the site of the National Churchill Museum) in which he spelled out Britain's prospects for 1941. He assured the president that his government had no intention of surrendering, but noted that British losses—particularly at sea—were taking their toll. The country's cash reserves were almost entirely depleted, and within a few weeks Britain would no longer be able to afford to purchase arms and other essential supplies from the United States. If this happened, Churchill warned, there was little chance of defeating Germany.

Roosevelt's response to this request would be known as Lend-Lease, a policy which he unveiled to the nation at a press conference on December 17 (the text of which may be found at the site of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed New Deal Network). The defense of Great Britain, he told listeners, was essential to the security of the United States. The British were not asking for Americans to enter the war, only to provide them with the materials that they needed to defeat Germany on their own. The United States, therefore, must produce weapons that would be loaned to Great Britain for the duration of the war. He likened the situation to that of a homeowner whose neighbor's house was on fire. Surely, he told reporters, it was in the interests of the homeowner to lend his neighbor a garden hose to help him fight the fire, lest the flames engulf the entire neighborhood.

The Lend-Lease Act sparked a massive political debate, both in Congress and throughout the country at large. The conflict focused not only on whether the United States ought to be in the business of providing direct aid to a foreign country at war, but also on the broader question of what role the country should play in world affairs. This is a debate that will be covered more thoroughly in the next lesson. The essential point, however, is that by the end of 1940 Roosevelt had successfully redefined the term "neutrality." No longer would it be interpreted in a strict sense, as a desire to remain completely aloof from foreign wars. The new concept of neutrality, which the president would call "non-belligerency" and which would govern the U.S. approach to both Europe and Asia right up to Pearl Harbor, was not only compatible with public sympathy for the Allied cause, but also with a foreign policy that openly assisted Britain and its allies against Germany.

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.
  • Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. 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.
  • Finally, study the interactive timeline "America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931–1941". This timeline will, through text and maps, guide students through the major European events of 1939 and 1940, and will ask students for each event to identify (choosing from among a menu of options) how the Roosevelt administration responded to it. Following this interactive should illustrate for students how the United States became increasingly (although indirectly) involved in the war in Europe.
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. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Documentary Photography" and "Making Sense of Maps" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Revision of the Neutrality Acts

The Neutrality Acts passed in 1935, 1936 and 1937 were an attempt to keep the United States out of foreign conflicts. After war broke out in Europe in 1939, however, President Roosevelt asked Congress to lift the arms embargo provisions of those laws. In this activity, students will look at three contemporary documents to determine whether this revision was justified.

To begin, have students read excerpts from the president's radio address of September 3, 1939, in which he officially declared the neutrality of the United States. It is available in its entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed site American President, but excerpts may be found on pages 1–2 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson. As they read, they should answer the following questions, which may also be found in worksheet form on page 1 of the Text Document.

  • What is Roosevelt's purpose in making this speech?
  • What role does Roosevelt see for the United States relative to the European war?
  • Why, according to Roosevelt, should Americans care about what is going on in Europe?
  • Why does the president make a point of saying that he "cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought"?

Next hand out excerpts of the following documents, located on pages 3–6 of the Text Document (or in their entirety at Teaching American History):

These documents either could be read orally in class or assigned for homework. While students read the documents, they should complete the worksheet, on page 6 of the Text Document, in which they list both the reasons for and against lifting the arms embargo.

After students have read the documents, have them engage in a silent debate in which they imagine that they are members of Congress who must decide on whether or not to do as the president asked. Students should be placed in pairs, with one in each pair supporting revision and the other opposing. Using the worksheet on page 7 of the Text Document, the student supporting revision should begin by writing in the left-hand column a reason why he or she believes it is a good idea. Then the student opposing revision should write in the right-hand column a reason why he or she thinks it is a bad idea. This silent debate should continue until one side or the other runs out of reasons.

Conclude this activity by holding a class discussion in which students deliberate this important issue. Would lifting the arms embargo support or threaten the national interest? Would it make U.S. involvement in the war more or less likely?

Activity 2. Should Aid be sent to Great Britain?

By late 1940 all of Great Britain's European allies had gone down to defeat, and England faced not only aerial attacks on its cities and submarine attacks on its shipping, but the very real possibility of a full-scale naval invasion. This led to a growing demand that the United States take more positive action to assist the British.

To begin, have students access the interactive timeline "America on the Sidelines" to look at events that occurred in Europe from September 1939 through December 1940. As they work their way through the timeline, they should note the locations mentioned in the various events on a blank map of Europe during World War II (a good one is available at this site). If students completed Activity 2 of the previous lesson in this unit, they should add these locations to the map they already started in that lesson.

Note that each event has at least one primary source document associated with it. These are included to provide students with a deeper understanding of the events, but they are not absolutely necessary to the lesson. Teachers should decide whether or not to require their students to read these, depending on the skill level of their students and the amount of time available for this subject.

Once students have become familiar with world events from this period, they will assume the role of President Roosevelt. Hand out the following documents, found in their excerpted form on pages 8–11 of the Text Document, and in their entirety at the site of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed New Deal Network).

Students may either read this for homework or during class. Once they are done reading the documents, they should write a five-paragraph letter to Churchill in response to his request for assistance. The letter should respond to each of Churchill's specific concerns, explaining why the United States will or will not provide the help that he asks for. Remind students that the neutrality laws—as amended in 1939—remain in force, thus placing certain limits on the president's freedom of action.

To conclude, select several students to read their letters to the class.


Both the written record of the silent debate from Activity 1 and the letter to Churchill from Activity 2 might be graded as forms of assessment. Students could also be asked to write a brief essay in response to the following:

  • 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 negative development?

In addition, students should be able to locate the following on a blank map of Europe during World War II:

  • Denmark
  • Norway
  • The Netherlands
  • Belgium
  • France
  • Great Britain

Extending The Lesson

Teachers might wish to have students compare Roosevelt's neutrality message of September 3, 1939, with Woodrow Wilson's neutrality message of August 19, 1914. The latter is available at the EDSITEment reviewed Great War Document Archive. Students should be asked in particular to compare how each president seemed to define neutrality-Wilson's admonition to be "impartial in thought, as well as action," could be contrasted to Roosevelt's statement that "Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience."

One of Roosevelt's most famous speeches was his radio address of December 29, 1940, more commonly referred to as his "Arsenal of Democracy" speech, in which he clearly indicated a willingness to assist the British in any way that he could. Teachers interested in further exploring this might have their students read the text of that speech—available at American President. Students should take special note of how Roosevelt justifies aid to Britain on the grounds of U.S. national security. Why, according to him, would a German victory in Europe endanger the United States? Also worth noting is his accusation that his political opponents-and certainly he had men like Charles Lindbergh in mind here-were doing "work that the dictators want done in the United States." Students might be asked whether such an accusation is fair.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • 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
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources