Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover question 101.
Q101a: Why did the United States enter World War I?
A. Germany attacked U.S. civilian ships
B. Germany offered to give New York to Canada if Canada would help Germany
C. The United States wanted to fight against Britain
101b: Who was President during World War I?
A. George Washington
B. James Polk
C. Richard Nixon
D. Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson had been a college professor, president of Princeton University, and Democratic Governor of New Jersey, as well as a leading progressive intellectual. The scholarly Wilson long argued that the American constitutional order, as the framers understood it, was old-fashioned and wrongly prioritized the restraint of power over efficiency, and that America would improve if its politics more closely resembled a British parliamentary system. The progressive Wilson similarly believed that a more professional bureaucracy would be able to offer more expertise in policymaking than the traditional American republic had previously offered. As such, he sought to displace what he saw as the complicated system of checks and balances with a much stronger presidency, but one which critics argued set the stage for an imperial presidency.
Among the major domestic changes during Wilson’s presidency were his work with Republican Senator Nelson Aldrich to create the Federal Reserve in 1913, which aimed to stabilize currency. Wilson also continued the era’s bipartisan skepticism of business monopolies. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890, was designed to curtail monopolies, but weaknesses in the Act had become apparent in subsequent decades. Supermajorities of Congress, with Wilson’s signature, strengthened enforcement by passing the Federal Trade Commission and Clayton Anti-Trust Act, both in 1914. As the only Democrat elected president between 1892 and 1932, Wilson also oversaw his party’s long-sought reduction of the tariff, with the 16th Amendment’s recent authorization of a federal income tax offsetting the revenue loss.
Wilson’s other major change in American domestic politics concerned race relations. The Virginia-born Wilson had strong southern sympathies—praising both the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan while criticizing Reconstruction—and thus used his control of the federal executive branch to re-segregate the federal government. He also fired most of the high-ranking black appointees picked by Presidents Roosevelt and Taft.
World War I broke out in Europe early during Wilson’s presidency. Wilson had wanted to avoid American involvement in the war, instead preferring to focus on his efforts to remake the American government in line with his progressive political views. However, German sinking of American civilian ships and an effort to convince Mexico to attack America in exchange for recapturing the Southwest forced his hand.
While these provocations convinced almost all Americans of the need for war, many of the ensuing actions President Wilson took during World War I proved controversial. For example, his government aggressively prosecuted critics of the war, arguing freedom of speech did not protect such opposition. Wilson also sought to use the victory in the war to remake the world political order, as he explained in his famous “Fourteen Points” speech. Two of his key goals were redrawing European boundaries to allow ethnic communities to govern themselves (though this was not to be applied to colonies or imperial holdings), and creating a League of Nations that would settle disputes and deter war. But fears that such a League would compromise American constitutional freedom and frequently pull the country into other countries’ wars led to the United States’ ultimate refusal to join the League.
Wilson, especially after his incapacitation after a stroke, proved intransigent in negotiating with the Senate. A group of hardline isolationists called the “irreconcilables,” mostly the most progressive wing of both parties, refused to sign any treaty. (This was ironic, as many of these senators were often Wilson’s allies on other issues.) Senate Republican leader Henry Cabot Lodge (MA) sought a compromise in which America would sign with reservations that would protect its sovereignty-- a guarantee that America would not automatically be pulled into foreign wars without its consent. (In other words, Congress would sign the treaty, but have to declare war to enforce it). The ailing Wilson rejected this, and the United States did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League.
World War I was originally called “The Great War,” which some hoped would be “the war to end all wars.” Like many, Wilson envisioned a peaceful future and he outlined 14 points – recommendations –by which he hoped to achieve that future. A key part of Wilson’s vision was the proposal for a League of Nations, which became controversial as leaders of the Senate, most notably Henry Cabot Lodge, insisted on reservations guarding American sovereignty before they would consent to the treaty involving the League. Students will read excerpts of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Lodge’s speeches in opposition, as well as the text of the relevant League of Nations articles in the Treaty of Versailles and the Lodge Reservations.
- Provide the students with the following materials:
- Writing a Persuasive Speech (League of Nations)
- Planning sheet
- Wilson, Fourteen Points, and Lodge, Speeches on the League of Nations
- Covenant of the League of Nations [excerpts] and Lodge Reservations (optional)
- A rubric is available if this is a graded activity
- Divide the class into pairs based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group who have mastered the material and are prepared to extend their knowledge. Pair those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- This can also be an individual activity.
- Explain that they are to prepare a short (3-4 minute) persuasive speech where they will argue for or against signing the Treaty as Wilson insisted, signing it with Lodge’s reservations, or rejecting it altogether.
- Provide the students with Wilson’s 14 Points and Lodge’s Speeches. Depending on the level of the class, you might also assign advanced students the excerpts from the League’s covenant and Lodge’s reservations, both of which are more technical.
- Depending on the class, you may choose to review the reading as a group or assign it the night before. This will allow slower readers or those who might struggle with the text the support they need to understand the content and draw conclusions from it.
- Review the guidelines for writing a speech as well as the format of the planning sheet.
- If necessary, brainstorm with the class on reasons that people might or might not want America to join the League.
- Provide students with time to develop their speeches. Even if the students are working individually, encourage them to brainstorm and work together.
- Circulate throughout the room to help students as needed and check for understanding.
- When the students have completed the worksheet, invite some or all of them to present their speeches. Make sure that you have speeches from both sides.
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events, and historical events.
World War I was not only the first major war of the 1900s, it was also the first war to use airplanes, tanks, and chemical weapons such as mustard gas. The truly hideous carnage from the war ripped Europe apart, destroying several of its governments in the process—the German, Russian, and Turkish monarchies all fell, as did the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Even the winning nations found themselves spiritually shattered.
Presidents who hold office during times of war find themselves in a situation where their choices, perhaps more than at any other time, can and do affect the future of the nation. Who was the president during World War I? What role did he play in peace negotiations once the war ended?
World War I is known as the first war to use “advanced technology” -- at least compared to the previous wars that involved the U.S. What technology did the world possess in 1914 that it lacked during the Civil War? How has war changed since then? Use current and past events to support your answer.