National Security, Isolationism, and the Coming of World War II

by Steven Schwartz

Unit Overview

The two decades following the end of “The Great War” witnessed significant changes in American economic, social, and cultural life. The affluence and optimism of the 1920s were tempered by memories of the war and an underlying fear of being dragged into another costly and deadly European crisis. These concerns about national security were reflected in increasingly isolationist rhetoric and a rash of neutrality-focused legislation. As dark clouds of war returned in the 1930s, while some Americans called for an enlarged military to defend both the US and endangered democracies abroad, others solidified their stance against international engagement. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, challenged by the lingering Great Depression, warned Americans against seeking to avoid conflict by pretending it did not exist. In turn, Charles Lindbergh, a vocal isolationist and a genuine American hero to many, warned Americans against involvement in overseas disputes.

Lesson 1

Americans listen to arguments for and against neutrality, isolationism, and intervention in foreign affairs.


Why were Americans in the late 1930s and early 1940s conflicted about preparing for war?


As students reach this first lesson in the unit they will already have studied the post-WWI era. They will be familiar with claims that the United States had entered the Great War in 1917 as a result, at least in part, of ethnic pressures at home, the influence of “merchants of death,” and a president who some claimed violated a solemn pledge to keep the nation out of war. As the threat of additional international conflicts arose in the late 1930s, with the increasing possibility that America might once again become involved, those Americans who favored adherence to the principles of neutrality, as well as strict isolationists, argued passionately with those who wished to support endangered democracies. The intent of this lesson is to have students review documents representing the opposing opinions of Charles Lindbergh, the admired American aviator and supporter of neutrality, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who strove for a position of concerned preparation.



By the mid-1930s some Americans viewed the two great oceans on either side of the continental United States as adequate protection from the hostilities in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Other Americans compared that attitude to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand when confronted by danger. How would these divergent viewpoints influence American foreign policy?


This initial lesson in the unit provides students with the opportunity to read and analyze the opinions of two well-respected Americans who, in the years just prior to WWII, represented polar-opposite opinions regarding US preparation for possible upcoming intervention. This lesson is best presented in a forty-five-minute instructional period.

  1. The introduction to this lesson notes that students will have previously studied the period following World War I, especially as it related to American foreign policy. They will briefly review terms such as neutrality, isolationism, and intervention.
  2. Prepare sufficient copies of each of the three documents (Fireside Chat, May 26, 1940; FDR Radio Speech, December 29, 1940; Charles Lindbergh’s Des Moines Speech, September 11, 1941) so that each student may have a copy of each.
  3. Make certain that students understand that these authentic versions are each attributable to a reliable source, but that they have been significantly edited. Explain the purpose and use of ellipses.
  4. Divide the class into three groups with each group assigned to concentrate on only one of the documents. Either assign a reader/leader and recorder to each group or allow the students to self-select within their groups. Provide sufficient physical space between groups to allow for each group to engage in a “read-through” and discussion of the document. 
  5. Each group should be directed to consider only the specific document they have been assigned. Instruct each group to begin with a silent reading, followed by a read-through led aloud by the assigned reader/ leader. Remind the reader/leader to pace the read-through to allow all students to participate.
  6. The reader/leader will then ask the following Critical Analysis Questions. The recorder will note the responses. Note: Each group receives the same Critical Analysis Questions. Remind students that their answers must be developed solely on the information in their assigned document and should reflect a consensus.
    • Critical Analysis Question # 1: What is the primary message of the speaker?
    • Critical Analysis Question # 2: Which words, terms, or phrases are most helpful in understanding the position of the speaker? Explain your answer.
    • Critical Analysis Question # 3: Identify the portion of the document that is most effective. Again, explain your answer.
  7. Reconvene the attention of the class as a whole, but allow them to stay within their groups. Explain that each group reader/leader will now, in turn, read his/her document aloud. The documents should be read in chronological order. All students should follow along with their own copies.
  8. As each document is completed, the leader/reader will ask the recorder to provide the group’s answers to the Critical Analysis Questions. The teacher should record these answers on a white board, smart-board, or some other method.
  9. Wrap-up: The teacher will display the notes and ask the students whether they wish to add or question any response and whether the notes and documents provide them with sufficient information to answer the question phrased as the Objective (Aim / Essential Question).

Lesson 2

FDR sets national policy and defines the “Four Freedoms.”


How did President Franklin Roosevelt use his January 1941 State of the Union Speech to prepare the nation for known and unforeseen challenges?


The students will be told that when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented his report to Congress on the State of the Union on January 6, 1941, he began with a somber assessment and warning about the security of the nation. They will be reminded that hopes for a lasting peace following the “Great War” had been dashed and that dictator-led governments in Germany, Japan, and Italy had already launched attacks around the globe. America, FDR explained, faced a great emergency and needed to be united on the domestic front and prepared to take military action in defense of the nation. He reminded Americans of the values they held dear, explained his national policy regarding domestic and international security, and concluded with an enumeration of the Four Freedoms.



The State of the Union address provides the president with an opportunity to address Congress and the American people. What international and national issues seriously concerned President Roosevelt as well as many other Americans in January 1941?


This lesson provides an opportunity for students to analyze, both from reading a written transcription and by listening to an audio clip, the content, context, and message of FDR’s speech to Congress. This lesson is best presented in a forty-five-minute instructional period.

  1. The students, to have reached this chronological moment in history, should already be familiar with US participation in the “Great War”; the significant post-war spirit of neutrality within the United States; and the rise of dictatorial regimes in Europe and Asia, including attacks against neutral nations and allies of the US. They should also be familiar with FDR’s frustration with isolationists at home. A brief discussion of the information in the introduction will provide a backdrop for this lesson.
  2. Distribute copies of the abridged version of FDR’s address to the 77th Congress. Make certain that students understand that this authentic and attributable version is significantly edited and explain the purpose of use of ellipses.
  3. The students should have the opportunity to listen to a portion of the audio of FDR’s actual address. This will enable students to gauge the sincerity of the speaker, recognize the attempt of the speaker to frame his argument in clear and concise speech, and identify “emotional tags.” The time allotted to this will be determined by the length of the instructional period. A reasonable audio time “clip” for a standard forty-five-minute instructional period might be limited to the first three minutes of the speech and the final section beginning with FDR’s description of the Four Freedoms starting at minute thirty-two and running just past minute thirty-four. To the extent that the time permitted to listen to the speech is limited, these same understandings should come out through a read-through of the abridged copy.
  4. If the students have been unable to listen to a portion of the audio clip, the teacher may begin reading aloud, modeling appropriate inflection and punctuation. Students may then be encouraged to join in the read-aloud. If the students have been able to listen to the aforementioned portions of the audio, then the teacher and students together can immediately begin a shared reading. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners.
  5. Upon completion of the reading, the teacher asks the Critical Analysis Questions. Note: Prior to presenting the Critical Analysis Questions, remind students to base their answers solely on the information in the speech they listened to and/or read. Answers to the questions should be discussed and recorded on a white board, “butcher paper,” chalkboard, and/or computer OVH display. Students must agree that the recorded answers are acceptable and accurate. Students should be told to retain their notes and the transcript of the speech for a subsequent lesson.
    • Critical Analysis Question #1: Why did FDR describe the state of the union as imperiled?
    • Critical Analysis Question #2: How does FDR, by stating the three points of national policy, explain the relationship between the defense of other nations and the security of the US?
    • Critical Analysis Question #3: In what way does FDR dismiss and even ridicule the ideas of isolationists?
    • Critical Analysis Question #4: How did FDR make each of the Four Freedoms a universal objective?
  6. Wrap-up: Review the notes that have been recorded and ask the students whether the notes provide them with the knowledge to understand FDR’s stated national policy and the Four Freedoms.


In the previous lesson, students read an abridged version of FDR’s State of the Union speech of January 6, 1941, and listened to a portion of an audio recording of that speech. In this lesson they will be informed that Norman Rockwell painted The Four Freedoms to visualize that portion of FDR’s message. They will need access to the following:

In this extension students are provided with the opportunity to review the portion of FDR’s State of the Union speech in which he enumerated what he referred to as “The Four Freedoms” and to compare those comments and their potential impact to the images in the Norman Rockwell illustrations. This lesson can be presented independently by a social studies instructor, collaboratively with a fine arts teacher, or assigned as homework at the teacher’s discretion.

  1. Students are first asked to explain how Americans received news in 1941. (Students may contribute: newspaper, magazine, radio, movie newsreels, posters and broadsides, word of mouth.) The teacher asks which method is most effective and elicits answers and reasons.
  2. Students are provided with the opportunity to review FDR’s speech and specifically the section at the conclusion listing his Four Freedoms.
  3. Students are directed to view each of the four Rockwell illustrations. They may be asked to: a) identify the “emotional tag”; and b) note the technique used by Rockwell to clearly explain each freedom (In Speech, the confident lone speaker, viewed admiringly; In Religion, the clear depictions of followers of numerous religions; In Want, the warmth of a sparse but happy family Thanksgiving; and In Fear, the loving attention and concern for the safety of their children).
  4. A final activity or question would ask the students to consider and explain which of Rockwell’s images was most effective and then to explain whether the message is more effective through the speech or the images.

Lesson 3

Students employ documents and knowledge gained from two previous lessons to create a “mock” press conference.


There is no formal Aim / Essential Question. The objective is to encourage students to review information related to the overall unit topic by engaging in an activity using specific documents. Students will create questions and answers for the “mock” press conference based on the information in content-specific documents.


Students will have available copies of print documents from the prior lessons. They will be reminded that America’s foreign policy between the late 1930s and early 1940s was far from predetermined. There was active support for intervention in behalf of democracies under assault as well as significant opposition to any foreign involvement. The documents, representing such ideas and used to influence public opinion, will be used through the vehicle of a mock press conference to allow students to not only revisit and consider the information but to also hone their skills in written and oral presentation.


All distributed in prior lessons:


Ask students how political leaders and policy makers get their message and opinions out to the public today. (Students may contribute varied responses such as: network and online news, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, public forums, press conferences, etc.) Ask them if they know how this differed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This will segue into an explanation of the role of radio, newspapers, magazines, and newsreel dissemination during the pre–World War II years.


The time allotted for this lesson may exceed one forty-five-minute period.

  1. Divide the classroom space into sections and assign equal numbers of students to each.
  2. Create place cards, large enough to be seen by all students at each area.For each area, a card should be labeled United Press International (UPI), Reuters, the Mutual Radio Network, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the New York Times or the Times of London.
  3. Explain to the students that each of these organizations represented major news-gathering and distribution services during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Inform the students that UPI, Reuters, and the London Times would report events in the United States with a more international outlook, while the Mutual Network, CBS, and the New York Times would tailor their reports to a domestic audience.
  4. Working within their groups and only with the documents available from the previous two lessons, the students should consider questions that the news organization they represent would ask of President Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh. They should attempt to remain “in role, in time, and in place.”
  5. The teacher may offer one question and answer as a model / example.
  6. Each group should attempt to fashion two questions, one for President Roosevelt and one for Charles Lindbergh. Once the questions are completed, the group should then prepare a response to each question, formulating answers solely from information within the provided documents.
  7. Remind students frequently that all questions and responses must come from the texts used in the lessons.
  8. During the activity the teacher should circulate as a coach among the groups providing necessary suggestions and assistance.
  9. Upon completion of this portion of the activity, each group in turn will select one member as a “news-person” and two additional members to represent each subject. Questions and answers may then be read aloud to the class as a whole.
  10. Wrap-up: Ask students to consider the effectiveness of the dissemination of information to influence public opinion in the late 1930s and early 1940s as compared to today.

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