Isolationism vs. Internationalism/Interventionism
2-3 class periods
10th Grade US History
The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Common Core Standards Addressed:
Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
Jill Nysse (2004)
Just before dawn off the coast of Iceland on 31 October 1941, the U.S.S. Reuben James (DD 245) took the German torpedo intended for an ammunition ship in the convoy she was shepherding, and became the first U.S. warship to be lost in World War II. Eighty-six crewmen, and all but one of the twenty officers and chief petty officers on board, were killed; forty-four other crewmen were wounded. The Reuben James was one of several ships engaged in efforts to keep Britain resupplied during a period prior to Pearl Harbor when it was not certain when or if the United States would enter WWII. Many Americans, including American hero Charles Lindbergh, were strongly against the country’s entry into the war already raging in Europe. Still others were indifferent. One who was not was folk singer Woody Guthrie, who wrote this song immediately after the sinking. In Woody Guthrie, Born to Win, editor Robert Shelton quotes Woody:
Most songs that last the longest are the ballads that tell you a story about the news of the day. I can’t invent the news every day. Nobody can. But I can do my little job which is to fix the day’s news up to where you can sing it. You’ll remember it lots plainer if I can make it easy for you to sing the daily news at your job or else at your play hours. Such as the Nazi torpedo that blew up this famous American ship before we declared war on Hitler and Mussolini….
Woody decided that the best way to humanize the tragedy of the sinking of the Reuben James would be to name all the victims. Using the tune of the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower”, he started to do that:
There’s Harold Hammer Beasley, a first rate man at sea
From Hinton, West Virginia, he had his first degree.
There’s Jim Franklin Benson, a good machinist’s mate,
Come up from North Carolina, to sail the Reuben James.
The Almanac Singers, the group of which Woody was a member, produced new ‘win-the -war’ numbers. When Woody brought his completed work to a songwriting meeting in early November 1941, the other Almanacs loved the idea of the song, but felt the list of names was a “bit…boring. You didn’t have to go through all that to personalize it, Pete Seeger argued. A rousing agitprop chorus could get the same message across” (Klein 209). Gordon Friesen, an Oklahoma native who had recently arrived at Almanac House recalled these details:
This song was mainly written by Woody Guthrie. He wrote all the verses but was stumped for a chorus. The other Almanacs felt the song was very good and kept steady pressure on Woody to finish it. For a while Woody tried to build a chorus around representative names taken from the casualty list appearing in the New York Times. He wanted to convey the idea that the crew of the Reuben James symbolized the fighting unity of melting pot America and fairly begged for some such treatment. On it were Scandinavian, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Jewish, Spanish derived names….but the idea was too broad for condensation into short poetry. Finally, at an Almanac session on the problem, someone suggested the line: ‘What were their names’. Woody took it from there and finished the song. (Cohen and Samuelson, 93-4)
Woody himself joined the Merchant Marines three times during the war, and each time his ship was torpedoed.
Who was Dr. Seuss?
What role did Dr. Seuss play in WWII?
- Analyze and interpret arguments of both the American isolationists and the internationalists/interventionists prior to World War II.
- Identify facts and feelings in various primary resources and documents (the song, the political cartoons and text).
- Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the pro-isolationist movement arguments and the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-isolationists (or internationalists’) arguments.
Cartoons from Dr. Seuss Goes to War: http://libraries.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/
Song used in this lesson
“Sinking of the Reuben James,” lyrics written by Woody Guthrie in 1941. Tune: Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower”
Introductory learning activities:
- Students will have read relevant textbook section on America prior to World War II. They also may read the relevant section in Freedom From Fear by David Kennedy, which discusses the strategies of Roosevelt and Churchill at this time.
- The teacher will give a brief lecture on the polarized factions in America, the isolationists (those wanting to avoid war) and the faction feeling that America must get involved in the war against fascist aggression (internationalists or interventionists).
- To illustrate some of the anti-isolationist feelings, the cartoons from Dr. Seuss at War will be shown on the overhead projector.
- The song “The Sinking of the Reuben James” will then be played, accompanied by a transparency with the words of the song and handouts of the lyrics, active listening and viewing charts as well, to be completed as we listen and view.
- The class will now be divided into three groups. One group is the pro-isolationist camp, the second group is the anti-isolationist camp and the third group is the judges.
- Each group must research all the arguments, pro and con, and thoroughly understand all the issues.
- The two opposing groups will argue their “cases” in a point and counterpoint format and the judges will keep score.
- Each member of the isolationist’s camp and the internationalist’s camp must write five questions they would ask of the other side and outline their own case.
- Each group chooses a leader.
- The judges’ leader has one minute to state the issue (i.e., what course America should follow, isolationist or internationalist/ interventionist).
- Judges and debaters can role play as FDR, his cabinet members, Lindbergh, etc., if they wish.
- The pro-isolationists then have 2 minutes to make a case.
- They will then be questioned for 15 minutes by the internationalists, who then have 2 minutes to state their case and undergo questioning by the isolationist camp.
- After that, each side has an additional 2 minutes rebuttal time, after which the judges retire to make their decisions.
- Judges will need to justify their scoring of points after the debate with a typed critique of each participant.
- In order to help the groups find and research each point, a simple graphic organizer is provided.
- Groups will have one period (88 minutes) for library research.
- The debate will then take place in another period.
Song discussion questions and activities:
Refer to the responses on the active listening chart to complete this activity in class.
Students will be asked to identify words that evoke sympathy for the victims and words that inspire martial feelings or patriotic feelings. Students will be asked to analyze the song in terms of facts versus feelings. To what does Guthrie appeal emotion or intellect?
Five senses chart:
- Listen to the song as it is played the second time.
- What visual images do you get from the lyrics?
- What does the song make you see?
- As you listen to the song what do you feel, hear, taste and smell?
Assessable product or performance:
Research notes from everyone in the class, written questions and written summaries from opposing camps and the judges’ written comments.
“Sinking of the Reuben James” available at
Active Listening Chart
As you listen to the song “The Sinking of the Reuben James”, describe what you
see, taste hear, feel and smell.
Cohen, Ronald D. and Dave Samuelson. liner notes for “Songs for Political Action”, Bear Family Records BCD 15720JL, 1996, pp. 93-94.
Guthrie, Woody.“The Sinking of the Reuben James”, That’s Why We’re Marching [sound recording], Washington DC: Smithsonian/Folkways, 1996.
Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1980. p.209.
Minear, Richard H. Dr. Seuss Goes to War. New York: The New Press, 1999, p.29, 39, 41.
“FRA Branch 156 Seeks to Honor First U.S. Warship Lost in WWII”, Naval Affairs 13 August 1998.
HyperWar: USS Reuben James (DD-245) <http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ships/DD/DD-245_ReubenJames.html>