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Unit 3: The Expanding Power of the United States Government at Home and Abroad, 1932-53

Participants of this era are still alive, and their common memories of cataclysmic events--from the Crash of 1929 through World War II--are still common points of reference today. Our closeness to this era should help students see how today’s problems and choices are connected to the past. Knowledge of history is the precondition of political intelligence, setting the stage for current questions about government’s role and rule, foreign policy, the continuing search for core values, and the ongoing imperative to extend the founding principles to all Americans.

The Great Depression and the New Deal deserve careful attention for four reasons. First, Americans in the 1930s endured--and conquered--the greatest economic crisis in American history. Second, the Depression wrought deep changes in people’s attitudes toward government’s responsibilities. Third, organized labor acquired new rights. Fourth, the New Deal set in place legislation that reshaped modern American capitalism.

In its effects on the lives of Americans, the Great Depression was one of the great shaping experiences of American history, ranking with the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the second industrial revolution. More than Progressivism, the Great Depression brought about changes in the regulatory power of the federal government. It also enlarged government’s role in superimposing relief measures on the capitalist system, bringing the United States into a mild form of welfare state capitalism, such as had appeared earlier in industrial European nations. This era provides students with ample opportunities to test their analytic skills as they assay Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership, the many alternative formulas for ending the Great Depression, and the ways in which the New Deal affected women, racial minorities, labor, children, and other groups.

World War II also commands careful attention. Although it was not the bloodiest in American history, the war solidified the nation’s role as a global power and ushered in social changes that established reform agendas that would preoccupy public discourse in the United States for the remainder of the 20th century. The role of the United States in World War II was epochal for its defense of democracy in the face of totalitarian aggression. More than ever before, Americans fought abroad, not only winning the war but bringing a new cosmopolitanism home with them. As before, the war was an engine of social and cultural change. In this war, Americans of diverse backgrounds lived and fought together, fostering American identity and building notions of a common future. Similarly, on the home front, public education and the mass media promoted nationalism and the blending of cultural backgrounds. Yet students should learn about the denial of the civil liberties of interned Japanese Americans and the irony of racial minorities fighting for democratic principles overseas that they were still denied at home as well as in military service itself.

The Cold War set the framework for global politics for 45 years after the end of World War II. The Cold War so strongly influenced our domestic politics, the conduct of foreign affairs, and the role of the government in the economy after 1945 that it is obligatory for students to examine its origins and the forces behind its continuation into the late 20th century. They should understand how American and European antipathy to Leninist-Stalinism predated 1945, seeded by the gradual awareness of the messianic nature of Soviet communism during the interwar years, Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture, and the great purges of the 1930s. Students should also consider the Soviet Union’s goals following World War II. Its catastrophic losses in the war and fear of rapid German recovery were factors in Soviet demands for a sphere of influence on its western borders, achieved through the establishment of governments under Soviet military and political control. Students should also know how the American policy of containment was successfully conducted in Europe: the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, NATO, and the maintenance of U.S. military forces in Europe under what was called the nuclear “balance of terror.” 

Enduring Understandings:

  • The Great Depression revealed a vulnerable national and global economic system with few safeguards.

  • The New Deal expanded the role of the American government. This changed Americans’ attitudes toward government’s responsibilities.

  • In times of crisis, decisions are often made in the name of the common good, even if that means limiting the civil liberties of a particular group.

  • The causes, course, and consequences of U.S. involvement in WWII and its aftermath provide the framework for evaluating the difficult decisions of leaders, individuals, and groups during crisis.

  • World War II solidified the nation’s role as a global power and ushered in social changes and established reform agendas.

  • In postwar America the struggle for power intensified among the political, business, and cultural sectors of society.

  • America’s foreign policy was shaped by the fear of communism.

Essential Questions:

  • Was the New Deal a good deal for the United States?

  • What were the democratic values that were defended during the World Wars, and thus preserved for all Americans?

  • What motivations prompted America to use atomic weapons against Japan?

  • Did the New Deal or the beginning of World War II mark the beginning of the end of the Great Depression?

Content Framework


Learning Outcomes


Key Concepts

The New Deal

  1. Identify the major legislative actions of the first “100 days” and contrast these actions with the traditional laissez-faire policies of the federal government.

  2. Evaluate the successes and failures of the relief, recovery, and reform measures of the New Deal and the expanded role of the federal government in society and the economy.

  3. Interpret the arguments for and criticisms of the New Deal.

(H) Compare the major characteristics of the New Deal with the “contract for America” initiative of the early 1990’s in light of an interpretation of the concept of federalism.

  • New Deal

  • Deficit Spending

  • “court packing”

  • Keynesian economics

  • Command Economy

  • Social Security Act

  • Federal Deposit Insurance Company

  • Securities Exchange Commission

  • Subsidies

  1. The New Deal changed the role of the government to a more active participant in solving problems.

  2. Relief measures provided direct payment to people for immediate help.

  3. Recovery programs were designed to bring a nation out of depression over time.

  4. Reform measures corrected unsound banking and investment practices.

  5. The legacy of the New Deal influenced the public’s belief in the responsibility of government to deliver public services, to intervene in the economy, and to act in ways that promote the general welfare.

  6. Several New Deal programs were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, resulting in Roosevelt’s “court packing” plan.

From Versailles to Pearl Harbor

  1. Explain the tension between the conflicting ideologies of isolationism and world leadership between the wars.

  2. Predict the major political, social and military events that caused increased animosity and the eventual outbreak of hostilities in Europe and Asia.

  3. Explain the reasons the United States moved from a policy of isolationism to involvement, emphasizing the events that precipitated the attack on Pearl Harbor.

  • Isolationism

  • Neutrality

  • Diplomacy

  • Embargoes

  • Lend-Lease Act

  • Totalitarianism

  • Fascism

  • Nazism

  • Appeasement

  • Dictator

  1. The rise of fascism, militarism, and imperialism were significant developments that ultimately led to WWII when Germany, Italy and Japan embarked on policies of territorial expansion and conquest.

  2. The 1930s Neutrality Acts limited but did not entirely prevent FDR from providing assistance to Great Britain.

  3. Deteriorating relations between Japan and the US ended in war after the attack on the US Naval fleet in Pearl Harbor (Hawaii).

World War II

  1. Describe the experiences of GI’s, Allied War aims, strategies and major turning points of the war.

  2. Evaluate the decision to drop the atomic bomb.

  3. Describe the economic and military mobilization on the home front.

(H) Justify how military mobilization at the beginning of World War II sparked U.S. economic recovery from the depression.

  1. Describe the impact of the war on various groups on the home front.

  2. Describe America’s response to the Holocaust.

  • Mobilization

  • Holocaust

  • Anti-Semitism

  • Genocide

  • Allied Powers

  • Axis Powers

  • D-Day

  • Internment Camps

  • Atomic Bomb

  • Manhattan Project

  • Nuremberg Trials

  • G.I.

  1. America and her Allies used a wide range of military tactics in the Pacific and European theater.

  2. President Harry Truman ordered the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the Japanese to surrender.

  3. Minority units won numerous unit citations and individual medals for bravery in action.

  4. The Holocaust was the genocide of millions of European Jews and others groups targeted by the Nazis.

  5. In the Nuremberg trials, Nazi leaders and others were convicted of war crimes.

Post-WWII Era

  1. Evaluate the impact of WWII on the United States’ foreign policy as it relates to the development of the Cold War.

  2. Explain how the post-war goals of the United States and the Soviet Union caused conflicts between these two world powers.

  3. Describe the factors and events that led to the continuation of the Cold War up to the Korean armistice.

  4. Discuss how the New Deal and World War II influenced federal government policies from 1945-1953.

  5. Describe the influence of the Cold War on the politics and social climate of the U.S.

(H) Evaluate the political, social, and cultural climate of the United States during the McCarthy era of early 1950’s.

  • GI Bill

  • Post WWII conferences

  • United Nations

  • Cold War

  • Truman Doctrine

  • Marshall Plan

  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization

  • Containment

  • McCarthyism

  1. Early in 1945, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill (the “Big Three”) met in Yalta to plan the end of the war and lay the foundation for the postwar world.

  2. The end of World War II found Soviet forces occupying most of Eastern and Central Europe and the eastern portion of Germany.

  3. Germany was portioned into East and West Germany.

  4. The United States launched the Marshall Plan, which provided massive financial aid to rebuild European economies and prevent the spread of communism.

  5. The United Nations was formed to create a body for the nations of the world to try to prevent future global wars.

  6. The United States represented democratic political institutions with a free market economic system. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian government with a communist economic system.

  7. Containing communism was the guiding principle of American foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

  8. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed as a defensive alliance with the United States and western European countries.

  9. The fear of communism and the threat of nuclear war affected American life throughout the Cold War.

  10. The Korean War ended in a stalemate, but prevented the spread of Communism into South Korea.

Text Resources:



New Deal

  • FDR’s First Inaugural Address

  • On the Bank Crisis - Fireside chat

  • Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:  Letters to the First Lady

  • N.L.R.B. v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, 1937

  • Huey P. Long - Share Our Wealth Radio Address

  • Father Coughlin Address on the National Union for Social Justice

  • Fireside Chat 7:  On the Works Relief Program and Social Security Act

  • Helvering et al. v. Davis, 1937 - Supreme Court decision on Social Security Act

  • Step by Step Political Cartoon

  • Fireside Chat on Reorganization of the Judiciary March 9, 1937

  • History Matters: George Mason University

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum

  • New Deal Network

  • U.S. Supreme Court Center

  • American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches

  • Maryland Archives

  • Miller Center: University of Virginia

  • U.S. Supreme Court Center

  • University of Virginia

  • University of Virginia

From Versailles to Pearl Harbor

  • Neutrality Act of 1935

  • “Quarantine” Speech, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937

  • Neutrality and War, Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee, 1939

  • Desegregation of the Armed Forces, Statement by Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940

  • Four Freedoms Speech, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941

  • Lend Lease Act, 1941

  • A Warning on Isolationism, Wendell Wilkie, 1941

  • What Our Foreign Policy Should Be, Alfred Landon, 1941

  • United States Note to Japan, Sept. 26, 1941

  • Message from the President to the Emperor of Japan, Dec. 6, 1941

  • Japanese Note to the United States, Dec. 7, 1941

  • Pearl Harbor Speech, Franklin Roosevelt, December 8, 1941

  • Miller Center: University of Virginia

  • Truman Library

  • FDR Library

  • Our Documents: National Archives and Records Administration

  • Maryland Archives

  • Smithsonian Education

  • Modern History Sourcebook: Fordham University

  • Modern History Sourcebook: Fordham University

  • Modern History Sourcebook: Fordham University

  • Maryland Archives

World War II

  • Executive Order 8802, Franklin Roosevelt, June 25, 1941

  • Mobilizing for the war at home

  • Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill) - 1944

  • Executive Order 9066 - Resulting in the Relocation of Japanese Americans (1942)

  • Korematsu v. United States, 1944

  • America on the Homefront: Selected World War II Records

  • General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Order of the Day 1944 (D-Day)

  • Benjamin Akzin, War Refugee Board, to Lawrence Lesser, June 29, 1944, urging the bombing of Auschwitz and Birkenau

  • Albert Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt, March 25, 1945

  • Henry Stimson to Harry Truman, April 24, 1945

  • Leslie Groves to Henry Stimson, July 18, 1945

  • Henry Stimson to Harry S. Truman, September 11, 1945

  • Executive Order No. 9417 Establishing a War Refugee Board

  • Teaching American History

  • Smithsonian Education

  • Our Documents: National Archives and Records Administration

  • Our Documents: National Archives and Records Administration

  • Cornell University Law School

  • National Archives and Records Administration

  • Our Documents: National Archives and Records Administration

  • PBS

  • The Truman Library

  • The Truman Library

  • The Truman Library

  • The Truman Library

  • PBS

Post WWII Era

  • George Kennan’s Long Telegram, February 1946

  • Truman Doctrine, 1947

  • Marshall Plan, 1947

  • Charter of the United Nations, June 26, 1945

  • Executive Order 9981 - Desegregation of the Armed Forces - 1948

  • Armistice Agreement for the Restoration of the South Korean State (1953)

  • Senate Resolution 301 - Censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy (1954)

  • George Washington University

  • Our Documents: National Archives and Records Administration

  • National Archives and Records Administration

  • Our Documents: National Archives and Records Administration

  • Our Documents: National Archives and Records Administration

  • Our Documents: National Archives and Records Administration

  • Our Documents: National Archives and Records Administration

Suggested Media:



Suggested Resources



  1. “The New Deal and World War II,” Lesson Plans with Primary Sources

  1. Stanford History Education Group

Unit 4: Transformation of Modern American, 1950s to Present


Although the study of the era following World War II can easily be dominated by a preoccupation with the Cold War, our understanding of present-day America will be deficient without grappling with the remarkable changes in American society, the American economy, and American culture in the 1950s and 1960s. It should be remembered that the closeness of the period makes it one of continuing reinterpretation, reminding us that historical judgments should be seen as provisional, never cut in stone.

Students will need to understand how the postwar economic boom, greatly affected by the transforming hand of science, produced epic changes in American education, consumer culture, suburbanization, the return to domesticity for many women, the character of corporate life, and sexual and cultural mores--all of which involved startling changes in dress, speech, music, film and television, family structure, uses of leisure time, and more. 

All of this can take on deeper meaning when connected to politics. Politically, the era was marked by the reinvigoration of New Deal liberalism and its gradual exhaustion in the 1970s. In the period of liberal activism, leaders sought to expand the role of the state to extend civil liberties and promote economic opportunity. The advent of the civil rights and women’s movements thus became part of the third great reform impulse in American history. Conservative reaction stressed restrictions on the growth of the state, emphasized free enterprise, and promoted individual rather than group rights. 

They should also recognize that the U.S. government’s anti-Communist strategy of containment in Asia confronted very different circumstances and would involve the United States in the bloody, costly wars of Korea and Vietnam. The Vietnam War is especially noteworthy. It demonstrated the power of American public opinion in reversing foreign policy, it tested the democratic system to its limits, it left scars on American society that have not yet been erased, and it made many Americans deeply skeptical about future military or even peacekeeping interventions.

Examining the history of our own time presents special difficulties. The historian ordinarily has the benefit of hindsight but never less so than in examining the last few decades. Furthermore, the closer we approach the present the less likely it is that historians will be able to transcend their own biases. Historians can never attain complete objectivity, but they tend to fall shortest of the goal when they deal with current or very recent events. For example, writers and teachers of history who voted for a particular candidate will likely view that candidate’s action in office more sympathetically than a historian who voted the other way.

There can be little doubt, however, that in global politics the role of the United States has led to seismic changes that every student, as a person approaching voting age, should understand. The detente with the People’s Republic of China under Nixon’s presidency represents the beginning of a new era, though the outcome is still far from determined. Perhaps more epochal is the collapse of the Soviet Union, the overthrow of communist governments in Eastern Europe, and the consequent end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Students can understand little about American attempts to adjust to a post-bipolar world without comprehending these momentous events.

In politics, students ought to explore how the political balance has tilted away from liberalism since 1968. They should also study the ability of the political and constitutional system to check and balance itself against potential abuses as exemplified in the Watergate and Iran-Contra affairs. They can hone their ability to think about the American political system by exploring and evaluating debates over government’s role in the economy, environmental protection, social welfare, international trade policies, and more.

No course in American history should reach a conclusion without considering some of the major social and cultural changes of the most recent decades. Among them, several may claim precedence: first, the reopening of the nation’s gates to immigrants that for the first time come primarily from Asia and Central America; second, renewed reform movements that promote environmental, feminist, and civil rights agendas that lost steam in the 1970s; third, the resurgence of religious evangelicalism; fourth, the massive alteration in the character of work through technological innovation and corporate reorganization; and lastly, the continuing struggle for e pluribus unum amid contentious debates over national vs. group identity, group rights vs. individual rights, and the overarching goal of making social and political practice conform to the nation’s founding principles. 
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