Ushering in the Atomic Age: Debate Lingers About the Bomb

Ushering in the Atomic Age: Debate Lingers About the Bomb
Bess Truman: Law, Politics and Govt

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Four to five class periods

Required Documents
Atomic Bomb Pictures


In the summer of 1945, following the surrender of Germany in May, the “big three” allied leaders—Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Joseph Stalin – met in Potsdam, Germany to negotiate terms for the end of World War II. This conference lasted from July, 17th to August 2nd. While at this conference President Truman received news of the successful test of the first atomic bomb (The Manhattan Project). He wrote to his wife, Bess, from this conference and in several of these correspondences he made reference to the United States possesion of the atom bomb and even hinted at his decision to use it on the Japanese. In later years, in a biography of Bess Truman written by her daughter, Margaret Truman discussed the fact that Harry Truman had made the decision to drop the atomic bomb without really consulting is wife. She was upset because she felt that “she had become a spectator rather than a partner in Harry Truman’s Presidency.” While we can only speculate what Bess Truman thought about the decision to drop the bomb on two Japanese cites, it is the case that the debate about whether it was a good decision still continues to this day.


Students will gain information regarding the use of the atomic bomb on Japan from a variety of sources. They will use this information to formulate a position or positions regarding the decision to use atomic weapons. Finally students will create and present a project that supports their position and cite resources.

Materials Required:

Images of Atom Bomb PowerPoint; access to the Internet; access to PowerPoint technology; paper; poster board; pens and markers.


Begin the lesson by showing students the short PowerPoint, “Images of the Atomic Bomb,” asking them questions about each of the images. Begin with basic questions such as What do you see? and spiral toward more difficult questions such as; Why do you think the pilo tof the Enola Gay is smiling?Where are the buildings?Do you think using this much force was necessary? Do you think there were children living in the city?
After a discussion about the images, students should go to the computer or the teacher can print the articles from the web sites listed below. The first two articles are on the debate, itself; the second two are an eyewitness account of the bombing by a survivor, and an article regarding Truman’s decision to use the bombs. Additional sites will give students insights through excerpts from President Truman’s letters and diaries, and from their daughter Margaret Truman’s book on her mother’s life.
Students will read these with a partner and discuss whether or not the bombs should have been dropped. Ask students to list pros and cons from the research they’ve done.  Following this activity the teacher may conduct a class discussion in which the question is thoroughly discussed.
Then, each student will write a position paper, create a PowerPoint Presentation, or create a poster display based on his or her ideas about whether or not Harry Truman should have ordered the use of the atomic bomb on Japan. Students must conduct some research on their own to complete their project and must include at least three sources of information besides those included in this lesson.
Finally, students should present their projects to the entire class. Teachers may want the students to work with partners or in small groups to complete these projects.

Extending the Lesson:

One extension of this lesson might be to study the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings on the survivors.
Students might also consider the question, “Why are we still debating the use of the atomic bomb on Japan?”

Sources & Resources:

Allen, Thomas B. and Norman Polmar. 1995. Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan--and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Compton, Karl T. 1946. "If the Atomic Bomb had not Been Used." Atlantic Monthly. December.
Websites :
Pro and Con Arguments on Dropping the Bomb 
Debate Over How to Use the Bomb 
Account of a Japanese Eyewitness
Truman’s Decision to Use the Bomb 
Newspaper Account of Bess and Harry Truman at the Time the Decision to Drop the Bomb was Made 
Truman Letters and  Diary entries from April 12, 1945 to August 11, 1945

This lesson was developed by Robert McClelland, Cleveland Municipal School District.