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The Road to Pearl Harbor

Explore the rise of animosity between the U.S. and Japan through primary source documents and related classroom activities.

Print, The first battle near Manturia [i.e. Manchuria], c. 1919, LoC

Four separate lessons make up this unit on “The Road to Pearl Harbor.” Like most lesson plans from EDSITEment—a project of the National Endowment for the Humanities—this unit is full of rich primary source material and a wide variety of related classroom activities.

The unit is guided by four questions, designed to help students understand the long run-up to military conflict between the U.S. and Japan. Reflecting those questions, the unit is divided into four lessons: exploring the growth of U.S./Japanese hostility during World War I and after, looking at American foreign policy during the Sino-Japanese Conflict in the 1930s, examining the Japanese “Southern Advance” of 1940 and 1941, and finally, highlighting the failures of diplomacy that ultimately led to war.

The unit does an excellent job of representing historical contingency—revealing how the bombing of Pearl Harbor was actually the product of decades of history. Further, it will help students understand the multiple causes of Japanese aggression—from Japanese imperial ambition to U.S. foreign policies. Each lesson comes with a brief but complete historical background essay embedded with hyperlinks to primary sources, clear and concise suggestions for student activities, worksheets, and ideas for formal and informal assessment. And the interactive timeline tool is an excellent resource that pairs nicely with other aspects of the lessons.

There are some things to watch out for, though. Many of the primary sources are long and will need to be carefully selected or vigorously edited, depending on your students’ reading level and persistence. The assessments are only roughly outlined, meaning that teachers will need to fill in the details and establish their own grading criteria. Additionally, while lessons range in length from 1–2 class periods to 3–4 class periods, they collectively require fairly extensive class time—roughly two weeks; consequently, they will most likely need to be used selectively.

However, this unit is still an excellent resource. By picking and choosing from among the activities, carefully selecting documents, and further developing one or two assessments, teachers can adapt the lesson to their particular needs.

Teachinghistory.org Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?


Includes historical background?

Significant historical background is provided for each of the four individual lessons that constitute the larger lesson plan.

Requires students to read and write?

Students read primary documents and there are multiple opportunities for writing.

Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence


Requires close reading and attention to source information?

Students are asked to read source information carefully enough to be able to put it to use in assignments.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?


Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?


Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?


Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?

Directions are brief and clear. Teachers must design necessary supports.

Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?


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