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Re-Thinking the Dropping of the Atomic Bombs: Lesson 2

Lesson Author
Required Time Frame
55 minute class period
Grade Level(s)
Lesson Abstract
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.

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.

Rationale (why are you doing this?)
  • 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.
Lesson Objectives - the student will
  • Analyze and interpret a variety of primary and secondary source documents through a Gallery Walk, examining them for particular perspectives or bias
  • Respond to questions in a Thought Museum activity as they grapple with the moral considerations of the dropping of the atomic bombs
  • Reach their own evaluations and conclusions about the dropping of the atomic bombs
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 sources needed (document, photograph, artifact, diary or letter, audio or visual recording, 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


" [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 (


(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 wi