United States History: 1865 to the Present

Turmoil and Change: 1890s to 1945


The student will demonstrate knowledge of the major causes and effects of American involvement in World War II by

  1. a) identifying the causes and events that led to American involvement in the war, including the attack on Pearl Harbor;
  2. b) locating and describing the major events and turning points of the war in Europe and the Pacific;
  3. c) describing the impact of World War II on the homefront.


  • Begin the unit by asking students: how did post-World War I Europe set the stage for World War II; how did the rise of fascism affect world events following World War I; and how did American policy toward events in Europe and Asia change over time.
  • Explain that the political and economic conditions in Europe following World War I led to the rise of fascism and to World War II.
  • Discuss that the rise of fascism threatened peace in Europe and Asia.
  • Explain that as conflict grew in Europe and Asia, American foreign policy evolved from neutrality to direct involvement.
  • Outline the causes of World War II
  • Explain that political instability and economic devastation in Europe resulting from World War I led to the following:
    • Worldwide depression
    • High war debt owed by Germany
    • High inflation
    • Massive unemployment
  • Discuss the rise of fascism, including the following information:
    • Fascism is a political philosophy in which total power is given to a dictator and individual freedoms are denied.
    • Fascist dictators included Adolf Hitler (Germany), Benito Mussolini (Italy), and Hideki Tojo (Japan).
    • These dictators led the countries that became known as the Axis Powers.
  • Identify the Allies and their leaders, including:
    • Democratic nations (the United States, Great Britain, Canada) were known as the Allies. The Soviet Union joined the Allies after being invaded by Germany.
    • Allied leaders included Franklin D. Roosevelt and later Harry S. Truman (United States), Winston Churchill (Great Britain), and Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union).
  • Discuss that gradual change in American policy from neutrality to involvement led to:
    • Isolationism (Great Depression, legacy of World War I)
    • Economic aid to Allies
    • Direct involvement in the war
  • Review the War in the Pacific and its developments, including:
    • Rising tension developed between the United States and Japan because of Japanese aggression in East Asia.
    • On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor without warning.
    • Germany declared war on the United States.
  • Provide students with a definition of fascism (a political philosophy that advocates giving total power to a dictator and denying individual freedoms). Display the transparency entitled Fascism and the Axis Powers, and have the students note the country associated with each of the three fascist dictators. Explain that these countries made up the Axis Powers during World War II. Ask, "Why was the word axis used for the alliance of these three countries?" For the Fascism and the Axis Powers transparency, CLICK HERE.
  • Explain that Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini were elected to power by their countries' people. Ask, "Why would a country elect a leader who believes in fascism?"
  • Note-taking tip: Ask students to take two-column notes in their notebooks by dividing a page lengthwise with a line so that two-thirds of the page is on the right side of the line, and one-third is on the left. Have students write main ideas on the left side and then fill in details opposite the main idea on the right side. Emphasize that it is a good idea to write main ideas in the form of a question to use later as a study guide.
  • Display the following Main Idea prompt on the board or overhead, and solicit students' ideas for details to add to the main points below.

    Main Idea: What political and economic conditions in Europe following World War I led to the rise of fascism and eventually to World War II?

    • Worldwide depression
    • High war debt owed by Germany
    • Extremely high inflation
    • Massive unemployment
  • Discuss with students that conditions were so poor in Germany and to a certain extent in Italy after WWI that the people were looking for a very different type of government.
  • Before beginning this activity, ask students to list significant events that are connected to World War II. The length of the list will depend on students' previous knowledge. List students' answers on the board.
  • After completing the list, use the information to review some of the major economic and political conditions in Europe that made the rise of fascism possible. Students should understand the meaning of the word fascism and be familiar with the major fascist dictators of the period.
  • Have the students create an illustrated time line of the period, which includes significant events of World War II. Refer back to the list students created on the board. The time line should include the following for each event:
    • Event name: short event description
    • Date(s)
    • Small illustration or symbol.
  • For example:
    • Germany and the Soviet Union invade Poland. After Germany and the Soviet Union marched into Poland, Great Britain declared war on Germany.
    • 1939
    • (Small illustration of a German tank rolling over the outline of Poland)
  • Sample events to be included in the time line are:
    • Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany
    • Germany and the Soviet Union invade Poland
    • Germany invades France
    • Battle of Britain
    • Japan bombs Pearl Harbor
    • Battle of Midway
    • Battle of Stalingrad
    • Battle of Normandy (D-Day)
    • Two atomic bombs dropped by U.S.
  • When students have completed their time lines, discuss what the United States and/or its allies might have done to prevent certain events that led to war. Have students consider what the United States might have done earlier to help stop Hitler. How did the United States' isolationist policy help lead the world into war?
  • Before beginning the session, stress that the United States was reluctant to become involved in World War II, maintaining a policy of neutrality and isolationism. However, as the conflict escalated in Europe and Britain was increasingly threatened by Germany, the United States offered economic and material aid to her ally under the Lend-Lease Program. The Japanese directly involved the United States in the war when they attacked Pearl Harbor. With this provocation, the United States could no longer maintain a policy of isolationism. President Roosevelt declared war on Japan and its ally, Germany.
  • Have the students read a first-hand account of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The New York Times of the Web Learning Network offers a related lesson titled "Daily Lesson Plan: 'I' Witness to History," together with a related article titled "Pearl Harbor Diary: A Calm Sunday Abruptly Shattered," at http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/lessons/19981207monday.html?searchpv=learning_lessons. The article includes excerpts from the diary of Henry Lachenmayer, who was aboard the USS Pennsylvania that day. Use or adapt the lesson plan, which offers questions related to the article and asks students to analyze the details of Lachenmayer's diary entries.
  • After students have completed the work above, refer students to other personal accounts related to Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor: Remembered at http://my.execpc.com/~dschaaf/mainmenu.html offers general information about the attack, battle maps, and a number of personal accounts (click on "Survivors' Remembrances").
  • After students have read additional personal accounts, you may choose to have them create their own "You Are There" diary entries based on these personal accounts. The entries should include accurate historical information and depict the emotions and horror of the event as if the writer were there.
  • Explain to students that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's War Address before Congress is one of the most significant speeches in American history.
  • Have the students read, and if possible listen to, the speech. Ask, "What are the important points the President makes in his speech? Do you think the speech is convincing?" The National Archives and Records Administration's Digital Classroom Web site offers a lesson that provides an opportunity for students to examine this speech closely: "Teaching with Documents Lesson Plan: 'A Date Which Will Live in Infamy' -- The First Typed Draft of Franklin D. Roosevelt's War Address" at http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/day-of-infamy/. The lesson provides a Written Document Analysis Worksheet, a Sound Recording Analysis Worksheet, and an opportunity to hear a portion of the speech. The text and audio of the speech can be found at theHistory Matters Web site at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5166/. Have the students use one or both of the two worksheets to evaluate the speech.
  • Ask students what similarities, if any, they see between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack on September 11, 2001, of the Twin Towers in New York City. Explain to students that political leaders and the media discussed many similarities between the two events.


World War II provided by PBS

Resources on World War II

Resources on World War II in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Achievements of General Douglas MacArthur

Attack on Pearl Harbor

World War II Documents

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