Supersize Us: America’s Foreign Policy as a Superpower (12th Grade History)

This class uses an inquiry seminar model to focus on how the United States became a “superpower” and how wisely and effectively American power has been used internationally. The goal is for students to answer these questions by exploring and analyzing past foreign policy decisions and, using this analysis, to draw conclusions about when and how this American power should be used today. Topics include: Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War; the Spanish-American War; World War I; World War II; the Marshall Plan; the Cold War; the Cuban Missile Crisis; American foreign policy in Latin America; the Vietnam War; the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the class, assignments emphasize analysis and evaluation of multiple interpretations of historical events; analysis of primary sources is a central focus of this process. The class is framed by the following Essential Questions, which spiral throughout:
• What motivates US foreign policy? (What should motivate it?)
• When should we go to war? Is there ever a “right war?”
• How do we define freedom? What do you need to be free?
• How does behavior at home affect behavior in the world? How does behavior in the world affect behavior at home?

Gary Nash, American Odyssey
William Chafe, Unfinished Journey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (and A Young People’s History of the United States)
Jesus Garcia, et al., Creating America
Marilyn Young, The Vietnam War: A Primary Source Reader
Christian Appy, Patriots
Media Used: 
CNN, The Cold War
WBGH, Vietnam: A Television History
Dear America: Letter’s Home from Vietnam; Frontline
The War Briefing
Significant Assignments: 

Analytical essay on the Spanish-American War

Test on the Mexican-American War

Test on the Vietnam War

Significant Activities or Projects: 

Cuban Missile Crisis simulation and analytical essay

Document-based debate on the causes of the Mexican-American War

Document-based debate on multiple interpretations of what motivated American foreign policy in the Spanish-American War

Simulated debate of Johnson’s 1965 decision to escalate American war in Vietnam


Research and PBAT: To fulfill their graduation requirement for history, students must complete a PBAT consisting of a 10+ page historical research paper on a topic growing out of this class. Most students choose a topic related to the Vietnam War. Students must do independent research, develop a thesis that answers an authentic historical question (i.e. the paper must be more than a report), support their thesis with a well-developed analysis based on historical evidence from both primary and secondary sources, and examine and respond to alternative arguments. To fulfill the PBAT graduation requirement, students must present and defend their paper to a committee composed of East Side teachers and outside evaluators.

Sample PBATs: 
“Why did the United States lose the Vietnam War?”
“Was the American media biased during the Vietnam War?”
"Who or what was responsible for the My Lai Massacre?”
“What role did the anti-war movement play in ending the Vietnam War?”
“What was the significance of the Pentagon Papers and why?”