IN MAY OF 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies, but Imperial Japan had yet to be defeated. By July, a U.S. presidential commission organized by President Harry S. Truman recommended dropping an atomic bomb on Japan to force a surrender. Truman gave the order to use the new weapon on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs were dropped on August 6 and August 9 respectively, and the Japanese surrendered on August 14. More than 200,000 people died as a result of the blasts while countless others suffered the terrible effects of radiation sickness. Today, survivors and their descendents still suffer as a result of the bombings.
The ramifications of that decision have haunted Americans ever since. There are those who decry America's action as unjust and immoral, suggesting that it constituted a war crime. Others, especially veterans, say dropping the bomb saved countless lives in the long term. This issue continues to be debated. In 1995, the Smithsonian Institution planned an exhibit displaying the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the two bombs. However, academics, scientists, politicians, and others protested the celebratory nature of the exhibit, claiming it legitimized the atomic bombings. Protestors called for an exhibit that spurred an honest discussion on the bombings and on U.S. nuclear policy. About the same time, I asked my uncle, a veteran of the Pacific War, what he thought about the use of the bomb. His eyes grew distant as he described how the Japanese had fought with suicidal tenacity, costing many American men their lives. He concluded by saying that the use of the bomb was "a terrible thing, but it had to be done."
Teaching about such an event poses a special challenge for the classroom teacher. On the one hand, as professionals we must put aside our own feelings to deal with the topic in as fair and unbiased a manner as possible. On the other hand, the teacher must help students appreciate the perspective of U.S. leaders at the time, as well as help students understand the moral implications regarding the use of such weapons. In an age when international terrorism poses a threat to peace and stability, the use of not only nuclear, but also biological and chemical weapons are important topics for classroom discussion.
In this article, I want to explore four approaches to teaching this topic. Certainly a well-crafted, thoughtful lecture can provoke meaningful class discussion. Yet I have found that any time students are actively engaged in a lesson, learning is enhanced and students are more profoundly influenced. Whatever methodology a teacher chooses, it is essential that students possess a solid background in World War II and the events that led American leaders to make such a momentous decision. It is also essential that teachers guide students and help them understand the arguments on both sides of the issue--arguments articulated in July of 1945 as well as those expressed today.
Opposition to Using the Bomb
Scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, the program to develop the first nuclear weapons by the United States, opposed the dropping of the bomb for fear it would unleash a nuclear arms race. Instead, they advocated turning the secrets of the bomb over to an international agency, which would assume responsibility for the use of nuclear fission for more peaceful pursuits such as the production of energy. Those same scientists suggested that the Japanese be given a detailed warning of the bomb's destructive potential or that a demonstration be carried out in an uninhabited area. A commission, known as the Interim Committee, led by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, rejected those recommendations and recommended that the atomic bomb be used on Japan.
Initially, scientists had worked feverishly to develop an atomic weapon because of rumors that Nazi Germany was already at work on a similar weapon; the United States feared Hitler would use the bomb on the Allies. …