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Monday, July 19, 2010

Teaching the Impact of the Atomic Bomb

As a teacher of United States or World History, we must at some point discuss the impact the Atomic Bomb had on shaping the world and shaping the foreign policy of the United States.  I have seen some teachers talk about the bomb in the abstract, focusing on the options that President Truman had and the difficulty he had in making the decision.  However, I like to present students with the information, let them make a decision, and then let them see the power this bomb truly has.

A film that I use in my classroom to discuss how the bomb impacted the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is Steven Okazaki's White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This film is broken into four parts, each with interviews of people who survived the bomb, Americans who dropped the bomb, and Japanese youth and citizens living in the rebuilt cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This film is one that you should watch before showing it in class and make a decision, based on the comfort level of you and your students, if you need to contact parents/guardians to watch the film.  

The Lesson--
I usually first ask students to look at the various options that were available to the United States and the decision makers at the time.  I make use of the "Choices: Truman, Hirohito, and the Atomic Bomb"   resources and ask student to write a one-page position paper that discusses the options and then provide advice to President Truman on what they believe the best option would be to bring the war in the Pacific to a close.  The day the assignment is due, I have a brief discussion with them about the options and take a tally of the number of students who advised the president on the various options.  I have also completed this activity as an alternative if I have more time and can go more in-depth.  I like to make sure to focus on the time constraints due to the negotiations at Potsdam the U.S. had before the Soviets entered the war.  It adds an interesting perspective that I don't think is touched on in the post-war build up to the Cold War in regular high school classes.

I am usually not one to require worksheets during films, but when I was preparing to teach this film, I came across a guide to teaching the film and made a worksheet for my students to follow along.  I like to tell students that this worksheet is not one that you can listen for key words and fill in the blank, but instead is one that requires them to think and ponder the important critical thinking questions.  You may want to stop the film throughout the time watching it in order to allow students to think and respond to the questions.  I like to stop it after each section and discuss the questions students are unable to create a response to immediately.  Be careful not to discuss them too much as you want to make sure you can have a thorough discussion at the end of the film.

At the end of the film, I provide a set of guiding questions for students to think about as homework and come back to discuss the following day.  I require them to journal their responses to the film and then ask them, at the conclusion of our discussion, to reflect on their advice to the president earlier.  There are many different ways you can go with this discussion, and each individual teacher, using his/her own style, structure, and course goals, can personalize this section as they please.

Have more time?
I also include readings from different perspectives of World War II to make sure that students get a more balanced approach to their study of this war.  Many call it a just war and I like to include readings about what a just war is.  One that I have recently found is from a San Diego State University Philosophy course reader taught by Tom Weston which provides a brief overview of "Just War" theory.

I also like to include readings about the events leading up to the United States' involvement in the war:
Four Freedoms
Atlantic Charter
Lend Lease
FDR's Speech to Congress

Prior to learning about the Atomic Bomb, I like to include readings from Studs Terkel's The Good War and E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, especially chapters three and five, (those two chapters are available on Google books)



  1. I visited your blog for the first time today and am looking forward to sharing it with students in the social studies pedagogy courses that I teach. You model a very thoughtful and meaningful way to use films in secondary social studies classrooms. Thanks!

  2. Thank you Terry. I appreciate your comments. The next few posts are going to be fairly short, but I will be providing much more when we get back to school.