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

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.