Lesson Plan

Lesson 4: The Great Debate: Internationalists vs. Isolationists

Senator James Byrnes of South Carolina defended the U.S.'s aiding of Great Britain
Photo caption

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? It was a bitter, passionate debate that in a sense was never adequately resolved-after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor it suddenly ended, as both sides clearly recognized that, like it or not, the United States was at war.

In this lesson students will be introduced to the main arguments used by both sides in this great debate. Through the use of an interactive map and primary source documents they will trace the events of 1941, and think critically about what foreign policy would have best served national interests.

Guiding Questions

Which side offered the better approach to U.S. foreign relations-the "internationalists" or the "isolationists"?

Learning Objectives

Articulate the main arguments used for and against greater U.S. involvement in the European war.

Identify the major events of the European war in 1941, and how they shaped the debate over U.S. intervention.

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.