Legislative Branch

Seeing the Big Picture: U.S. Foreign Policy 1920-2020


In this lesson students analyze primary source documents and a timeline of foreign affairs and domestic events to understand the role of U.S. foreign policy in world events and its impact on events in the U.S. The timeline and documents include information on the United Nations and UNICEF (The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) to illustrate the important role played by international agencies in advancing U.S. foreign policy and improving living conditions around the world.


This lesson enables students to gain an historical overview of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy by analyzing a timeline and primary sources. The lesson provides an opportunity to contrast pre- and post-World War II foreign policy; shows the major geographic divisions of U.S. foreign policy; and details important topics such as the Cold War.

Guiding Question

What major foreign policy issues have the United States and associated international organizations addressed since World War II, and how have the policies they created influenced recent history?


1920-2020 Timeline, available in 2 sizes: large (13 by 48 inches) and small (8½ by 11 inches)

12 Primary Source Documents

3 Worksheets


Civics, U.S. History

Grade Levels

7 – 12

Time Required

2 forty-five minute class periods

Learning activities

  1. Make 4 copies of the timeline and one copy of each of the primary sources. Arrange the materials at four stations around the classroom. (place documents 1 – 3 at Station A; 4 – 6 at station B; 7 – 9 at station C; 10 – 12 at station D) Make copies of Worksheet 1 and Worksheet 2 – (Sheets 1 – 4) for each student.
  2. Divide the class into 4 groups. Instruct each group to begin at one of the four stations. When each group has arrived at their first station, instruct the students to follow along as you point out the structural and organizational elements of the timeline (vertical columns are chronologically organized; horizontal rows show different topic of events that occurred within the same five year period.)
  3. Instruct each group to begin working collaboratively to complete the Introductory Activity, with each student recording the group’s findings on their individual copy of Worksheet 1.
  4. Instruct each group to remain at their first location and to collaborate to identify the place on the timeline each of the three documents at their workstation best matches. Instruct each student to select one of the three primary source documents at the station and analyze it by recording their answers on their individual copy of Worksheet 2 (using the sheet whose letter matches the letter of the station where they are working).
  5. When the students have completed their discussion and individual document analysis at a station, have the class rotate to the next station until each group has worked at all four stations.
  6. When the groups have completed their work at all four stations, distribute Worksheet 3 (Reflection Questions) and instruct the students to work individually to answer the questions on it, recording their answers on Worksheet 3.

Primary Source Documents and Station Where Each is Analyzed

  1. United Nations troops fighting in the streets of Seoul, Korea, September 20, 1950 Primary source preserved by: Army War College. Historical Section. NAID 531381 Use this image at Station A
  2. “Backing it Up.” Jim Berryman. The Evening Star, Washington, DC, May 6, 1957. Primary source preserved by: U.S. Senate Historical Office. NAID 5743241. Use this image at Station A
  3. Map of Vietnam - July 29, 1966. Primary source preserved by: U.S. Marine Corps. NAID 26395345. Use this image at Station A
  4. Photograph of Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin on the Moon July 20, 1969 Primary source preserved by: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NAID 4957965 Use this image at Station B
  5. One of Many Service Stations In the Portland, OR Area Carrying Signs Reflecting the Gasoline Shortage, June, 1973. Primary source preserved by: Environmental Protection Agency. NAID 548170. Use this image at Station B
  6. First Lady Betty Ford Greeting Children Participating in Trick or Treat for UNICEF Outside the White House, October 31, 1974. Primary source preserved by: White House Photographic Office. NAID 27575788. Use this image at Station B
  7. U.S. Marines Stop their M151 Light Vehicle at a Checkpoint Amidst Barricades on the Beach in 1983. (The Marines have been deployed in Lebanon as part of a multi-national peacekeeping force following confrontation between Israeli forces and the Palestine Liberation Organization) Primary source preserved by: Department of the Navy. Naval Imaging Command. NAID 6415815 Use this image at Station C
  8. Photograph of President Reagan Giving a Speech at the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Federal Republic of Germany, June 12, 1987. Primary source preserved by: White House Photographic Office. NAID 198585. Use this image at Station C
  9. A Member of the Nepalese Quick Reactionary Force (QRF) Stands Ready in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 with a variant of the Galil assault rifle. (The QRF provides foot patrols and guards convoys of United Nations staff members going to their homes) Primary source preserved by: Defense Visual Information Center. NAID 6492439. Use this image at Station C
  10. During a Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) Mission in the Zhawar Kili Area of Eastern Afghanistan Members of a U.S. Navy Seal Team Found Valuable Intelligence Information, (including this Osama Bin Laden propaganda poster.) (U.S. Navy Special Operations Forces (SOF) are conducting missions in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom,) January 14, 2002. Primary source preserved by: Defense Visual Information Center. NAID 6640991. Use this image at Station D
  11. U.S. Marines are on Patrol Providing Security for a Convoy Traveling through Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (There are 1,500 Marines in Haiti as part of a multi-national, UN military peacekeeping force.) Photo taken on March 5, 2004. Primary source preserved by: Defense Visual Information Center. NAID 6661009. Use this image at Station D
  12. President Barack Obama Delivers an Address to the Nation Regarding Syria in the East Room of the White House, September 10, 2013. Primary source preserved by: Office of White House Personnel. Photography Office. NAID 157649922. Use this image at Station D

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