Response papers encourage you to articulate opinions and perspectives on important events or issues in history.

Such assignments are usually short in length and relatively informal. As for assignments of narrative history, the probable assumption of your professor is that you are familiar with the material: you have read about it and discussed it in class. Usually, you will not be asked to write on any sources other than those already assigned. (In the event that your professor asks you to access additional sources, go to Types of Sources).

As you will be engaging a specific issue or event (and, perhaps, the responses of relevant historical players) you will most likely be expected to quote from the assigned text(s). You will therefore have to display basic quoting skills. If required by the professor, you will need to provide a Works Cited page, or bibliography. You will introduce your paper by fomulating a thesis and end it with a conclusion. In the main body, you will cite the views (or review the event) at stake and, as you go along, offer your own response and opinion.

Here is a sample assignment of this sort, asking for your response to a specific historical issue of debate within our larger topic of "Events leading up to World War II." The focus, this time, is on U.S. foreign policy:

"Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1937 'quarantine' speech, held in Chicago, concludes with the statement that, 'America hates war. America hopes for peace. Therefore, America actively engages in the search for peace.' FDR's critics saw the speech as a tacit admission that the United States would, inevitably, be drawn into international conflicts. Respond to this criticism."

In order for you to fully address the question, you will have to read the speech (see the Archive or click here), then engage the criticism leveled against FDR.

The assignment is simple: You have the speech and you have the basic gist of the criticism. Respond to the criticism, quoting from the speech as you go along. Consider (and respond to) the following questions:

  • Is FDR developing an argument for U.S. intervention in world affairs?
  • Does he imply that, "in the search for peace," America may have to engage in conflict and war?
  • What reasons does he give for this view, if indeed he articulates it?
  • By what means - logical, moral, emotional, economic, pragmatic - does he seek to persuade his audience?
  • In sum, is the criticism against FDR justified?
As this is a response paper, interlace throughout, and conclude with, your own opinion (this really is the assignment, after all): if the criticism that FDR was positioning the U.S. to take a greater role in world affairs is accurate, how do you feel about the president's intention? Was he justified in taking this stance, given the global situation? Why/why not?

Please note: This sample assignment assumes your knowledge that a majority of Americans remained isolationist (i.e., generally opposed to any United States role in international affairs, and specifically opposed to U.S. participation in a possible war against Germany and its Allies) until Pearl Harbor, in December 1941. For more on the isolationist movement, whose prominent figureheads included famed American aviator Charles Lindbergh, see Annotated Bibliographies and the political cartoons reproduced in the Archives.