Lesson Plan

Title F.D.R.’s Quarantine Speech and Media Reaction
Subject U.S. history
Grade(s) High School
Standards CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2


Keywords/phrases Bill of Rights, freedom of the press, isolationism, origins of World War II, rise of fascism (in Germany, Italy, and Japan), Second Sino-Japanese War, commander-in-chief power and diplomatic power of the president

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Essential questions Should a president adopt interventionism or isolationism, or something in between, as a foreign policy to protect U.S. citizens? Does media reaction at the time give us any insight today about public opinion regarding interventionism and isolationism?
Synopsis This lesson focuses on an analysis of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 message to Congress and U.S. citizens. He discussed the growing threat to world peace by unnamed aggressor nations. Roosevelt was both praised and criticized by the U.S. press, including editorial writers from four newspapers.
Standard Alignment(s) used English Language Arts Common Core (reading historical sources)
Recommended Teacher Background Teachers should watch the 10- or 40-minute introduction to the Spanish Civil War among the ALBA teacher resources.
Connection to other disciplines English Language Arts, World History, European History, U.S. Government
Number of class periods 1 or 2


Objectives Standards adressed
Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2
Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.  CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3

Primary Sources

(documents located in lesson appendix)

  • Excerpts from Roosevelt’s speech from October, 1937, referred to as the “Quarantine Speech.”
  • Excerpts from four newspaper editorials.
  • Access (by teachers and students) of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives website.
  • Access to approved encyclopedic websites.


  1. Lead-In/Hook:

    Ask students some or all of the following questions: What responsibilities does the President have as “chief diplomat,” and “commander in chief”? What do those terms mean? What examples can you think of where a president has acted effectively as chief diplomat? What does the Bill of Rights say about criticizing your country or your president? What is meant by “freedom of press”?  As students, to what degree are you influenced by opinions expressed by journalists, editorial writers, and other news sources?

  2. Informal pre-assessment and activation of prior knowledge:

    Review the terms fascism, Nazism, isolationism, interventionism. What does a “quarantine” usually imply? What are examples, either from history or modern times, of an “economic sanction”?

  3. Step by Step:
    1. After students understand vocabulary from the pre-assessment, break students into heterogeneous groups of four or five and have one or several from each group read the quarantine speech aloud to group members. Encourage group members to stop at the paragraph breaks to clear up misunderstandings.
    2. Post the following questions for group members to discuss together:
      • From the first two paragraphs: What do you think Roosevelt means by “well-founded grievances”? What does he mean by “honoring the sanctity of treaties”?
      • What accusations is Roosevelt making against unnamed lawless aggressors? Who do you think Roosevelt is suggesting are the unnamed aggressors?
      • From the third paragraph: Paraphrase Roosevelt’s foreign policy in regards to aggressor nations. What does he think is the United States’ role in world affairs? Does this fit with your knowledge, from hindsight, of Roosevelt’s later policies? How so or how not? Does Roosevelt appear to be responsive to Americans who believe in isolationism, or is he warning of a movement away from isolationism?
      • From the fourth paragraph: What does Roosevelt mean by saying that war is a “contagion”? What threat does war-as-contagion pose to the U.S.? Use parts of the text to support your conclusions.
      • How does Roosevelt recast his message in the fifth paragraph? What might he be suggesting about the unnamed aggressor nations? What is his purpose in recasting his message? To whom specifically might he be directing this message?
    3. After a whole-class discussion of the preceding questions (as needed to check for understanding or debate alternative viewpoints between small groups) hand out JUST ONE of the four editorial responses to each group (an editorial can be used in more than one group). Again, have one student from each group read the response aloud, and then pose the following questions to the groups?
      • Where, if anywhere, does your editorial writer speculate that Roosevelt is referring to the actions of specific countries? What are the countries and what is Roosevelt suggesting about them?
      • Does your editorial writer appear to be mostly supportive or critical of Roosevelt? Use parts of the text to support your conclusions.
      • Does your editorial writer seem to support the idea of aggressive, interventionist foreign policy or isolationism? Support your conclusions.
      • Do the views of your editorial writer suggest anything about American popular opinion in 1937? Are the writers attempting to influence and shape public opinion? Support your views from the text.
  4. Closure

    Discuss in greater detail the Spanish Civil War, noting that many individual Americans had differing viewpoints. Those with left-leaning political views were supportive of the Spanish republic and favored intervention by the U.S. government on its behalf. When no direct aid was given by the U.S. government, about three thousand Americans chose to defy U.S. law and fight in the international brigades against Franco. Conservative Americans, particularly political isolationists and religious Catholics, supported non-intervention and expressed sympathy with Franco.  Pose the following questions: What is the relationship between the president and the media in shaping foreign policy? Why was Roosevelt vague in his identification of aggressor nations?


Prior to the lesson, advanced students could examine more primary sources from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives website to understand why Americans were willing to break U.S. law and travel to Spain to fight for the republic. Their knowledge could be shared during the lesson. Of particular usefulness would be letters by Carl Geiser, Hyman (Chaim) Katz, and Canute Frankson.

Prior to the lesson, struggling students could examine the summary of the Spanish Civil War on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives website, or other appropriate encyclopedic sources, in order to understand the two sides fighting in the conflict, and share their knowledge during the lesson.

An optional assignment would be for students to read the entire quarantine speech to glean additional meaning from passages not used in the lesson’s excerpts. The speech can be found at http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=956.


  • Describe the basic message of Roosevelt’s quarantine speech and outline the support and opposition from American editorial writers. How do you think these documents influenced public opinion in 1937? Were their regional differences (keeping in mind that the newspapers were from different parts of the country)?
  • Did the U.S. government and most of its citizens (based on editorial writers) support or reject U.S. involvement in Spain and/or China?
  • You are the publisher of a large metropolitan newspaper in 1937. Write your own editorial in response to the quarantine speech, especially in light of the attitudes of international brigade participants and/or other information you have gathered during the lesson. Should the U.S. remain neutral even if it means victory for fascism against a democratic republic?
  • You are a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting in Spain. Craft a letter home to a friend or family member explaining your interpretation of the quarantine speech and why you chose to fight in Spain.

Appendix 1: Excerpts from Roosevelt’s “Quarantine Speech” of October 5, 1937

“…It is true that the moral consciousness of the world must recognize the importance of removing injustices and well-founded grievances; but at the same time it must be aroused to the cardinal necessity of honoring sanctity of treaties, of respecting the rights and liberties of others, and of putting an end to acts of international aggression.

It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.

It is my determination to pursue a policy of peace and to adopt every practicable measure to avoid involvement in war. It ought to be inconceivable that in this modern era, and in the face of experience, any nation could be so foolish and ruthless as to run the risk of plunging the whole world into war by invading and violating, in contravention of solemn treaties, the territory of other nations that have done them no real harm and which are too weak to protect themselves adequately. Yet the peace of the world and the welfare and security of every nation is today being threatened by that very thing…

War is a contagion, whether it be declared or undeclared. It can engulf states and peoples remote from the original scene of hostilities. We are determined to keep out of war, yet we cannot insure ourselves against the disastrous effects of war and the dangers of involvement. We are adopting such measures as will minimize our risk of involvement, but we cannot have complete protection in a world of disorder in which confidence and security have broken down.

If civilization is to survive, the principles of the Prince of Peace must be restored. Shattered trust between nations must be revived. Most important of all, the will for peace on the part of peace-loving nations must express itself to the end that nations that may be tempted to violate their agreements and the rights of others will desist from such a cause. There must be positive endeavors to preserve peace.

America hates war. America hopes for peace. Therefore, America actively engages in the search for peace.”

Appendix 2: Press Reactions to President Roosevelt’s “Quarantine Speech”

 From the New York Herald Tribune:

President Roosevelt, for all his eloquence at Chicago, cannot be credited with anything…specific. His world audience no doubt thinks that much of his speech had reference to Japan. But he did not say so. His talk of “quarantine” may be construed as an endorsement of economic sanctions but he did not mention them. His appeal was wholly emotional. It named no names. It cited no specific treaty clauses that are in default and no specific way of resenting treaty violation. If it was an appeal for anything it was a popular emotional mandate to the President to take whatever course in our international relations seemed to him the best.

From the Washington Post:

This speech, coming at the psychological moment, may well foreshadow a turning point in world history. The forces now fighting intolerable aggression, whether in the case of the Chinese at Shanghai or the Spaniards defending Madrid, are neither cowards nor weaklings. They are prepared to carry on the fight for human decency unaided. But with the assurance that the United States has not forgotten all moral standards in its ostrich hunt for security, the strength of their resistance will be redoubled. President Roosevelt has only to make explicit the assurances implied in yesterday’s speech and the turn toward peace will, for the first time since 1931, become apparent.

From the Boston Herald:

The mantle of Woodrow Wilson lay on the shoulders of Franklin Roosevelt when he spoke yesterday in Chicago. It may be true that “the very foundations of civilization are seriously threatened.” But this time, Mr. President, Americans will not be stampeded into going 3,000 miles across water to save them. Crusade, if you must, but for the sake of several millions of American mothers, confine your crusading to the continental limits of America!

From the Chattanooga Times:

Did Mr. Roosevelt intend to indicate, as it is apparently believed in some quarters, that the United States will join other powers and be contributing police work in the Far East and the Mediterranean, try to “quarantine” aggressor nations? Or does the President desire to encourage Great Britain and France to follow a more determined course in Europe and Asia, while standing on this nation’s traditional policy of isolation?