Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Re-Thinking the Dropping of the Atomic Bombs: Lesson 2
Meghan Burns
US History
Time Frame:
55 minute class period
Atomic Bomb
World War II

Grade Levels:
9, 10, 11, 12

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • In this lesson students will continue with their examination of the dropping of the atomic bombs, this time focusing on varying historical perspectives. In particular this will include the Japanese perspective. Students will read and analyze a myriad of primary and secondary sources through a Gallery Walk, and then participate in a Thought Museum activity before de-briefing in a closing discussion.

  • Students often have already pre-conceived notions about the dropping of the atomic bomb, and while this is still a morally fraught topic, new scholarship is often times not very well known in many classrooms. My hope is that by introducing some of this new scholarship and sources from a variety of perspectives (e.g. Japanese and American, supporters and opponents, etc.), I can challenge students to re-think this topic and make their own critically thought out conclusions. Due to the breadth of the topic, and the limited time frame, I have made the decision not to focus on the question of whether or not the bomb was used as a political motive against the Soviets, and do not explore Soviet intervention in the war in depth. That certainly could be the topic of another lesson.
  • In this second lesson, after having focused on the American and in particular Truman’s perspective, I think it is important to also incorporate the Japanese perspective. I chose to include selected excerpts from some of the Magic Intercepts to address the whole issue of whether or not Japan was ready to surrender, and also wanted to include survivors’ testimonies to allow their voice to be heard. Having provided more of the empirical context the day before, this lesson will attempt to move to more of the moral considerations of the dropping of the atomic bombs. Finally, I wanted to use this lesson as an opportunity to introduce students to some of the historiography surrounding this topic by selecting viewpoints from a variety of historians.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1:  Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific detail to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WH.9-10.1:  Write arguments focused on . . . (a) Introduce precise claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among the claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WH.6-8.1:  Write arguments focused on . . .  (b) Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources.
  • USII.16 Explain the reasons for the dropping of atom bombs on Japan and their short and long-term effects.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

Below are the remaining primary and secondary source excerpts for the Gallery Walk. In reality they would be listed separately, but for the purposes of this lesson plan, they are copied and pasted here:


"My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped to raise. In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us, I believe that no man in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hand a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterward looked his countrymen in the face."

                                                                                                            -Secretary of War Henry Stimson, 1947


"...in [July] 1945... Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. ...the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent.

"During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of 'face'. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude..."

                                                                                                                        -General Dwight Eisenhower, 1963


“One consideration weighed most heavily on Truman: the longer the war lasted, the more Americans killed…Truman, the old artilleryman who had seen war close-up, understood from his own experience the hopes and fears of…young combat officers dreaming of families and futures, just as he had a generation earlier. Their survival would be the ultimate vindication of his decision.


                                                                                                                        -Professor Alonzo Hamby, 1995


In view of the evidence now available, the answer is yes and no. Yes, the bomb was necessary to end the war at the earliest possible moment. And yes, the bomb was necessary to save the lives of American troops, perhaps numbering in the several thousands. But no, the bomb was probably not necessary to end the war within a fairly short time without an invasion of Japan. And no, the bomb was not necessary to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of American troops 


                                                                                                                        -Dr. J. Samuel Walker, 1997



"It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons." 

                                                                                                                        -Admiral William D. Leahy, 1950


“Considering the continuing high casualties of the incendiary raids, the imminent sealing of the naval blockade, the growing food shortages in the cities, and the promise of high Japanese casualties in the invasion, it can be argued that the early end of the war saved far more Japanese lives than American.”


                                                                                                                        -Professor John Ray Skates, 1994


The following sources are all taken from the Stanford History Education Group’s website (www.sheg.standford.edu)


(Source: Excerpts from “Three Narratives of our Humanity” by John W. Dower, 1996. The following is from a book written by a historian about how people remember wars. John W. Dower explains the two different ways that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is remembered.


Hiroshima as Victimization

 Japanese still recall the war experience primarily in terms of their own victimization. For them, World War II calls to mind the deaths of family and acquaintances on distant battlefields, and, more vividly, the prolonged, systematic bombings of their cities. If it is argued that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima was necessary to shock the Japanese to surrender, how does one justify the hasty bombing of Nagasaki only three days later, before the Japanese had time to investigate Hiroshima and formulate a response?


Hiroshima as Triumph

To most Americans, Hiroshima—the shattered, atomized, irradiated city – remains largely a symbol of triumph – marking the end of a horrendous global conflict and the effective demonstration of a weapon that has prevented another world war. It is hard to imagine that the Japanese would have surrendered without the atomic bomb. Japanese battle plans that were in place when the bombs were dropped called for a massive, suicidal defense of the home islands, in which the imperial government would mobilize not only several million fighting men but also millions of ordinary citizens who had been trained and indoctrinated to resist to the end with primitive makeshift weapons. For Japanese to even discuss capitulation (surrender) was seditious (against the law).


My division, like most of the ones transferred from Europe was going to take part in the invasion at Honshu (an island of Japan). The people who preferred invasion to A-bombing seemed to have no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves. I have already noted what a few more days would mean to the luckless troops and sailors on the spot…. On Okinawa, only a few weeks before Hiroshima, 123,000 Japanese and Americans killed each other. War is immoral. War is cruel.


-Source: Paul Fussell, a World War II Soldier, Thank God for the Atom Bomb, 1990.



“One of my classmates, I think his name is Fujimoto, he muttered something and pointed outside the window, saying, "A B-29 is coming." He pointed outside with his finger. So I began to get up from my chair and asked him, "Where is it?" Looking in the direction that he was pointing towards, I got up on my feet, but I was not yet in an upright position when it happened. All I can remember was a pale lightening flash for two or three seconds. Then, I collapsed. I don’t know much time passed before I came to. It was awful, awful. The smoke was coming in from somewhere above the debris. Sandy dust was flying around. . . I crawled over the debris, trying to find someone who were still alive. Then, I found one of my classmates lying alive. I held him up in my arms. It is hard to tell, his skull was cracked open, his flesh was dangling out from his head. He had only one eye left, and it was looking right at me. . . . he told me to go away. I, so, was running, hands were trying to grab my ankles, they were asking me to take them along. I was only a child then. And I was horrified at so many hands trying to grab me. I was in pain, too. So all I could do was to get rid of them, it’s terrible to say, but I kicked their hands away. I still feel bad about that. I went to Miyuki Bridge to get some water. At the river bank, I saw so many people collapsed there. . . I was small, so I pushed on the river along the small steps. The water was dead people. I had to push the bodies aside to drink the muddy water. We didn't know anything about radioactivity that time. I stood up in the water and so many bodies were floating away along the stream.”


Source: Yoshitaka Kawamoto was thirteen years old. He was in the classroom at Zakoba-cho, 0.8 kilometers away from the hypocenter. He is now working as the director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, telling visitors from all over the world what the atomic bomb did to the people of Hiroshima.


Full description of activity or assignment.
  • 1. To begin the lesson, the teacher will ask the students to complete a 3-2-1 (3 facts, 2 questions, 1 main idea) from the previous day’s lesson. They will write this quietly in their notebooks and then the teacher will ask for a few volunteers to share what they wrote down.
  • 2. Next, the teacher will introduce the objectives for today’s lesson and again state the essential question.
  • 3. The teacher will then explain that today’s lesson will attempt to bring in more eyewitness accounts as well as secondary sources and contemporary historical voices, in order to round out a discussion of the dropping of the atomic bombs. Specifically, more of this lesson will also address the issue of Japanese surrender and the Japanese perspective.
  • 4. In order to achieve this, the teacher explains the directions for a Gallery Walk activity in which the students will walk around the room as they read and analyze a variety of primary and secondary documents that are taped around the classroom walls. For this activity, the students will continue to use the essential question as their guiding question. They may also refer back to some of the analysis questions from yesterday if needed, and may want to carry a notebook with them in which to take notes. As the students complete the Gallery Walk, the teacher makes sure they stay on task.
  • 5. Similarly to the jigsaw activity, the teacher will facilitate a de-brief after the Gallery Walk, asking students to share what stood out to them as a whole, and with particular documents.
  • 7. The teacher will then introduce the final activity, a Thought Museum. These questions will attempt to get at the moral dimensions of the dropping of the atomic bomb. Having being presented with empirical information and having interacted with evidence from a variety of perspectives from primary and secondary sources, students will now come to their own conclusions about the dropping of the atomic bombs. The teacher will tape the typed questions around the room and pass around post-it notes, instructing students to take three post-it notes. The teacher will ask the students to respond to any three of the questions of their choice, writing their responses on each post-it note. Then will then go and stick the post-it note by the appropriate question. The written nature of the activity will allow for more anonymity (students don’t need to include their name) and also give more reticent students an opportunity to share their opinion on such a controversial topic without speaking up in front of everyone. In reality, each question will be typed in big, bold print on a separate piece of paper, but for the purposes of this lesson plan, here are the Thought Museum questions:
  • Is it morally justifiable to target civilians during war?
  • Where was a greater moral threshold crossed, at Tokyo or Hiroshima?
  • To what extent do you believe the dropping of the atomic bombs contributed to the Japanese surrender?
  • How ought we to remember the atomic bombs and what is their legacy?
  • Do you think an understanding of nuclear fallout would have influenced the decision to drop the atomic bombs?
  • Do you believe there is any moral difference between the dropping of the 1st vs. the 2nd atomic bomb?
  • 8. The teacher will ask for six volunteers to act as “museum curators.” These students will each choose one of the questions and be responsible for reporting back to the class what the responses to that question were. The student can re-arrange the post-it notes as he/she sees fit, organizing like and unlike ideas, and then summarizing the most salient points (without reading each post-it note word for word) with the rest of the class.
  • 9. After all of the museum curators have shared, the teacher will facilitate a concluding discussion, returning to the essential question and asking students to share their final thoughts after having completed both lessons. Have their initial thoughts in response to the essential question changed after participating in both lessons?
  • 10. Finally, the teacher will assign the homework assignment as a way to assess the students’ knowledge and give them one last opportunity to synthesize their final thoughts. See below under “Assessment” for the homework assignment.

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:
  • Once again, the teacher can first assess the students’ understanding through formative assessment. The teacher can assess during both the de-brief after the Gallery Walk, through the responses shared on the post-it notes, and by listening to student contributions during the final discussion.
  • The teacher will again use a homework assignment as another means of assessment. For homework, students will articulate, in a 2 page take-home essay, their final evaluation of the dropping of the atomic bombs. The specific directions state: Having been presented with a wealth of primary and secondary source documents, decide whether you support or oppose the dropping of the atomic bombs. Whichever side you choose, present what you believe are the strongest arguments to support your position. Please cite specific evidence from the documents. How do you believe opinion about the atomic bomb has changed over time? In what ways has the historiography contributed to that change?