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Analyzing Major U.S. Foreign Policies

45 min

Essential Question 

  • How does the United States determine when and how to interact with other nations? 

Guiding Questions 

  • How have U.S. foreign policies changed over time? 
  • What political, social, and economic reasons have led to different foreign policies? 
  • What political, social, and economic impacts have different foreign policies had on the U.S. and other countries? 


  • Students will be able to classify, explain, and evaluate numerous examples of U.S. foreign policies. 


Student Resources: 

  • Colored Pencils or other color-coding writing utensils 
  • Internet-enabled device or background information on policies  

Teacher Resources: 

  • List of Foreign Policies 


  • Depending on students’ background knowledge of the policies, the amount of class time may need to be adjusted. Teachers may want to provide some background information for policies ahead of time.  


  • Pose the following questions for students: “Two of your friends are fighting over something and want you to settle it. By settling it, you would be choosing a side. What do you do?” 
    • Students will likely have a lot of questions but leave it very vague and let them talk through the “what-if” scenarios.  
  • Pose the question another way: “Instead of friends, two people you work with are fighting about something, and work cannot get done until the debate is settled. What do you do?”  
    • The goal of asking this question is to get students to think differently since it is between coworkers and not friends, so the way they approach the resolution is likely to change.  
  • Transition: Say to students: I asked you these questions to get you thinking about how to work with people when there are resolutions needed. Now imagine doing that on a worldwide scale as the leaders of a country. Those are the decisions we will be working with today, what we call foreign policies.  


  • Somewhere visible to students (on a whiteboard, digital screen, posterboard, etc.) draw a long horizontal line with intervention on one end and isolation, on the other end.  
  • Let students know that today they will be looking at various U.S. foreign policies and determining where along the line they feel each fits best. The fit is based not only on the policy details but also on how it compares to other policies. There are twenty examples, spanning 200 years of U.S. foreign policy. 
  • Transition: Review the meaning of foreign policy, “intervention,” and “isolation.” Note to students that those meanings might look different over time, especially when comparing them to other policies. Isolation has had negative connotations throughout periods and with some policies. Non-intervention might be a distinction to make as well.  
  • Students will also be color-coding the policies based on their interpretation of the policies’ development, implementation, and consequences being more political, social, or economic in nature. (It is suggested to have all students use the same colors if possible, such as green for economic, to keep it consistent.)  
  • Transition: During the lesson, students will be looking back at the policy, so they can view it through a lens of political, social, or economic when they consider the reason for the policy, how it was carried out, and the effects/consequences. Review criteria with students to help determine what will classify as political, social, or economic so there is consistency, although students are still free to make their final determinations.  

Scaffolding noteDepending on class situations, work can be done individually, as partners, or in small groups. Teachers can determine how many examples students work with.  

  • Divide students and topics as best suited for the classroom. Have students research/review the purpose, success/failures during progress or implementation, and the outcome/effects (both direct and indirect) on the U.S. and the foreign nation(s). 
    • Declaration of Independence (1776)  
    • Louisiana Purchase (1803) 
    • Embargo Act (1807) 
    • Monroe Doctrine (1823) 
    • Amistad Case (1839) 
    • Trent Affair (1861) 
    • Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) 
    • Roosevelt Corollary (1904) 
    • U.S. entry into WWI (1917) 
    • U.S. and League of Nations (1920) 
    • Dawes Plan (1923) 
    • Lend-Lease (1941) 
    • Bretton Woods-GATT (1940s) 
    • U.S. joining the United Nations (1945) 
    • Truman Doctrine (1947) 
    • Marshall Plan (1948) 
    • Eisenhower Doctrine (1957) 
    • USAID and PL 480 (1960s) 
    • Helsinki Final Act (1975) 
    • Camp David Accords (1978)  
  • Students will collectively place each foreign policy example on the class line drawn at the beginning of class. (This can be done in groups if a whole class discussion does not suit the classroom environment) There should be ongoing discussions explaining why each policy is placed where it is, especially comparing the policies to one another.  
    • Starters such as “Why is the Louisiana Purchase more/less interventionist than the Chinese Exclusion Act?” might be needed to help facilitate conversation between students.  
    • If done in groups, have groups compare their final results.  

Assess & Reflect 

  • Ask students to identify (and explain when applicable) any patterns they notice in their political, social, or economic labels. 
    • For example, are there more politically labeled policies on one end of line than others? Is there more of one label than the others? 
  • Ask students to describe any patterns in the policy dates they might notice.  
    • For example, are the more recent policies clustered on one area of the line? 
  • Does it make sense for a country to move along the line over time? Why or why not? 
  • If you were in charge, which side do you think you would lean toward based on what you have seen from these examples of policy and why? 


  • Students can select foreign policy examples from the 1980s through the present to add to the assignment.  
  • Students can find foreign policy examples to fill in gaps from the time range featured in this lesson.  
  • Have students research the public’s response to foreign policies or how the policies influenced political debates.