Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts To War or Not To War: Modern Presidential Decisions

To War or Not To War: Modern Presidential Decisions

– NSS-C.9-12.1: Why are government and politics necessary? What purposes should government serve? What are the essential characteristics of limited and unlimited government?
– NSS-C.9-12.4: What is the Relationship of the United States to Other Nations and to World Affairs? How do the domestic politics and constitutional principles of the
United States affect its relations with the world? How has the United States
influenced other nations, and how have other nations influenced American politics and society?
– NSS-USH.5-12.9 ERA 9: Postwar United States (1945-1970s). Understanding how the Cold War and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam influenced domestic and international politics.
– NSS-USH.9-12.10 ERA 10: Contemporary United States (1968 to the present).
Understanding recent developments in foreign and domestic politics.

– To learn the options available to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as well as to President Bush in advance of the Iraq conflict in 2002.
– To comprehend the current issues relating to terrorism which face our country.

Lesson 1: Decision on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
Step a: This lesson fits nicely either within a discussion of the presidency of John Kennedy or on the Cold War. No introduction needed, though a little background knowledge on the tension between the USA and the Soviets will be helpful. To make this lesson work effectively, do not yet discuss how Kennedy ultimately decided to avoid a nuclear war in 1962.

Step b: Divide the class into groups comprised of about four students for each group. The number of groups in the class does not matter.

Step c: Ask for a volunteer. That volunteer does not need to know yet what he/she will be doing, however that student will serve as President Kennedy.

Step d: Inform the class that the setting is October 1962, and that they are advisors to the president. Shine on an overhead or PowerPoint the document entitled “Report to the President and advisors on the background to the current Missile Crisis in Cuba, October 17, 1962.”

Step e: Tell the class: “Thank you to all of you for coming here on short notice.
As you all serve as the president’s chief foreign policy advisors, we have called you today with grave urgency. Let me run down for you the recent events.” Then read over the “Report to the President and advisors…” document.

Step f: Pass out the options sheet (page 2 of the “Report to the Presidemnt…”).
Tell them, “In your groups, you must decide on which option you think is best
to present to the president on how to handle the missile crisis.” Give them time
to discuss and answer any questions for understanding.

Step g: Meanwhile, have the president sit in your desk chair or set up a desk with a chair or have a podium at the front of the room. Tell the student that his or her job is to listen to the opinions presented, then make a decision among the options presented. That student can have the options sheet for reference.

Step h: Have each group take turns informing the president as his/her advisors of their preferred option, mentioning why they think it is a better option than the others. They might make this in the form of a speech if so desired. I have found that almost always every option will be selected by at least one group.

Step i: When all groups have completed, announce, “Thank you advisors. The president is grateful for your opinions. Now, Mr. (or Madame) President, what will you do about the Cuba situation? The president then chooses an option.

Step j: Inform the class of President Kennedy’s real decision (blockade) and why he chose that route. Have the class discuss why that may have been the best choice, and what possible results may have come of the other options.

Step k: Show a clip from the movie Thirteen Days where Kennedy discusses the ethics of warfare and lessons learned from World War I. The clip on the DVD version is scene 17 from 1:05.45-1:12.50. The clip occurs before Kennedy made his decision on Cuba, and in the clip JFK discusses why he felt certain that quarantine was a much better option than the other options. It gets to the heart of the ethics of war. Discuss the clip and discuss overall thoughts on presidential decision-making.

Lesson 2: Decision on Iraq, 2002
Step a: This lesson fits nicely as a follow-up to the previous assignment, or as a
stand-alone lesson. This lesson leads into a discussion of why we went into Iraq in 2003. Previous discussion on the presidency either in a history or government class is helpful. Different from lesson 1, this lesson is designed as more of an individual assignment followed by large-group discussion, though it can be altered.

Step b: Pass out “Should We Use Military Force to Unseat Saddam Hussein’s Government,” or post it online for them to read. Tell them the following in advance of doing the assignment: “Much of the public believes that invading Iraq in 2003 was a foreign policy blunder. You’re going to do an assignment which may confirm that in your mind, or it may change your mind. To do this correctly, you must pretend it is 2002. George W. Bush is president. The attacks of 9/11 occurred just one year ago. We then invaded Afghanistan to destroy terror camps there and to overthrow the terror-supportive Taliban government. We now turn our attention to Iraq. Read over the “Memo to the President” sheet. Read the arguments that were put forward to President Bush of why we should take action in Iraq, and then read over the arguments of why we should not do so. Remember, it is 2002 and we have not yet gone into the recent Iraq War. You are an advisor on Bush’s national security team. Write a “Dear President Bush” letter as an advisor. In the letter write to the president explaining why you think we should go using arguments from the paper, or write why you don’t think we should go also using arguments from the paper. The assignment will be due and discussed the next class day.”

Step c: The next class day, just as in lesson 1, ask for a volunteer, who will serve as the president. (If you do this lesson following the previous one, ensure that a different student serves as president).

Step d: State, “Thank you national security team for being here. As you know the situation in Iraq is a serious one. You have read the memo, and I’ve invited the president here to hear your counsel.” Have students take turns summarizing what they have written. I have always had classes with mixed opinions on the invasion.

Step e: Similar to lesson 1, have the president decide, “Should we ask Congress for authority to enter Iraq, or should we not consider invasion?”

Step f: Discuss their conclusions. I always ask why the public generally believes that the Iraq invasion was wrong, yet so many of the students argued that position as a presidential advisor.

Step g: As a follow-up, tell the students that Bush asked for approval from Congress before the March 2003 invasion took place. It might also be helpful to discuss what happened after the initial invasion all the way through the drawdown, and perhaps the varying opinions on how that may have led to ISIS.

Lesson 3: Security vs. liberty and the current issues in the War on Terror, 2015
Step a: This lesson is appropriate in an American government class or current issues course here current counter-terrorism measures are discussed. Show the preamble of the Constitution on an overhead screen and have students read it. Have them discuss why these items are listed in the preamble to the Constitution (answer: they outline what the purpose of government is). Then have them call out what the purposes of government are according to the preamble. Hopefully they will arrive at the following:
– Establish justice (i.e., creates a framework and system of rules)
– Insure domestic tranquility (i.e., keeps order & peace within the country)
– Provide for the common defense (i.e., protects us from outside our borders)
– Promote the general welfare (i.e., provides general service to citizens)
– Secure the blessings of liberty (i.e., protects rights & liberties)

Step b: Have students debate which is the most important of the purposes of government. (You will get varying answers).

Step c: Mention the attacks of September 11, 2001 forever changed both the role of government and the relationship of the government to its citizens. Show on a screen or write on the board the following quote from Bush’s attorney general John Ashcroft after 9/11: “We will take every possible action to make sure that this kind of injury and assault on America and on its freedoms does not happen again.” Ask them what they think that quote means and how it might change the role of government (answer: it expanded the power and purpose of government to provide for the common defense and to keep us secure). Then ask that if security increases, what other purpose of government might come into conflict with (answer: liberty). Inform them that even though Bush is no longer president, the same conflict of security vs. liberty remains.

Step d: Despite his opposition to Bush’s policies when he ran for president in
2008, President Obama has actually strengthened many of those efforts that he once opposed. Either write on the board, on PowerPoint, or orally mention the following Obama’s policies:
– Drones – Since he took office, the Obama administration has dramatically increased use of drones overseas to kill suspected terrorists
– Surveillance & spying – Obama extended wiretapping law, spying, and has
allowed NSA officials to collect and store data about Americans
– Secrecy – Despite his campaign pledge about “transparency,” the administration has tightly guarded information about its spying and drones, and has prosecuted “whistle-blower” leaks to media
– Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo)- Despite his pledge to close Gitmo Bay, he has retreated after from Congress

Step e: After briefly mentioning or writing on the board each item above, assign students or have them choose one of the above “Obama rules.” Assign them the following questions:
Write a written report analyzing one of the policies by answering these questions:
– Describe what the policy is and what it has entailed
– Explain why Obama chose to use this policy, and how effective it has been
– Provide criticisms of that particular policy from the courts, the public, political opponents
– How that policy has changed over the course of recent years
– Evaluate whether you think this is a good policy for the U.S. to be involved in, and judge both the ethics and the constitutionality of it.

Step f: When the reports are due, have the class discuss what they found. This has never failed to produce a very passionate debate about our current anti- terrorism policy, about the power of government in the name of security, and the importance of protection of liberties.

– As stated previously, one lesson or all three lessons can be used.
– For higher-functioning classes, the role-play or the written assignment in part 3 can be replaced by a debate.

– A questionnaire can be conducted interviewing people’s thoughts on the Iraq War
or the Obama counter-terrorism policies.
– Invite a guest speaker (especially a recent war veteran).
– Read the Senate report on the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program and have them explore that document.
– Watch a movie that relates to waterboarding. Rendition or Boys of Abu Grahib are particularly good, but extreme caution should be exercised as both are rated R for excess language and violence.

The Foreign Policy Research Institute ( has on their website many fabulous articles which relate to the current foreign policy issues in our country. ( is a great site on the pros and cons of many current issues.

Tom Craughwell’s book, The Buck Stops Here: The 28 Toughest Presidential Decisions and How They Changed History is a great reference for more on the many difficult decisions which presidents have had to face.

  • Ron Keller
  • Lincoln College
Related History Institute
Grade Level
  • High School: 9, 10, 11, 12
  • Collage: Freshman, Sophmore, Junior, Senior
Time Frame
  • Three to four one-hour class periods

If you have any questions about this lesson plan, or if you wish to contact the author, please email us at [email protected]