Lesson Plan on Mass Casualties
and Making Decisions About War — Grades 7 – 12


Give students an idea of the meaning of mass casualties — Provide information about the end of WWII, the beginning of the Cold War, and the nuclear era — Stimulate study and debate about the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan — Provide a framework for future voters to make decisions about war.


Three to five 50 minute class periods. Sections 1 – 5, which focus on the meaning of mass casualties, can usually be done in one or two class periods.


Introductory Note:

Why study the summer of 1945? Historian William Manchester described it as “a kind of historical hinge … everything which had been, no longer was … and everything that was to be, became.” The surprise atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of the most important events of that very important time.

Another reason to study the atomic bombing of Japanese cities arises from the fact that no mass casualty caused by human beings, save one, has ever had anything close to a reasonable justification. That one exception is the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While there are strong arguments that the bombing was not a legitimate way to bring a quick end to WWII, there are also strong arguments that it was.

In addition, the atomic attacks were not perpetrated by savages, fanatic nationalists, communist dictators, or repressive fascist regimes. The atomic bombs were unleased by the United States, a highly evolved democratic society which embodies many of the highest aspirations of humankind. The intentional killing of so many non-combatants by such a country adds significance to the event.

The skills taught by an in-depth analysis of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be especially useful for students in any country which possesses nuclear weapons or strong armies: the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, etc. Elections and the political process in these countries may determine important issues of war and peace. The ability to understand the meaning of mass casualties and to make principled, informed, effective decisions about war will be especially important to citizens of these countries in the 21st century.

Sections 1 – 5 will take approximately 1 to 1.5 class periods. If there is any additional time in the first period, you can move on to section 6, which is a discussion of stakeholders and values. The Comprehension Test should be given during the second class period and should take approximately 30 minutes to complete. The discussion sections, 6 & 7, should be permitted to extend for up to a fifth class period if the students are engaged. This lesson plan has a number of discussion questions with suggested answers which can stimulate class discussions. Section 8 is an open book take-home exam.

Notes on the Decision to End WWII with Surprise Atomic Bomb Attacks on Japan sets out important facts relating to this issue together with references to accepted scholarly writings. This document is more than 30 single-spaced pages and is presented for teachers to read to provide them with information to add during class discussions. It can be printed and distributed to students as a reservoir of information if the class discussion is organized as a debate. It can also be given to advanced students to serve as the basis for essays.

Preparation Assignment: Watch a Movie at Home and Write a Short Essay

A week or two before starting the lesson give the students the Preparation Assignment (Answer Key) to be turned in before the lesson starts. Seeing one of the recommended films before this lesson will increase its relevance and improve class discussion. Allow students to watch an additional film and answer the discussion question about that film for extra credit. The recommended films are:

  • Grave of the Fireflies — a heartrending anime story of two children orphaned by the incendiary bombing campaign in which the U.S. Air Forces were systematically destroying Japanese cities before the atomic attacks;
  • Fat Man and Little Boy — the story of the Manhattan Project which shows some of the debates described in this lesson plan;
  • Hiroshima Maiden — tells the uplifting talw of a Japanese girl, horribly scarred in the Hiroshima bombing, who is part of a program to bring children injured in the Atomic attacks to the U.S. for treatment;
  • Judgment at Nuremberg — a fictional account of the Nazi War Crimes trials at Nuremberg;
  • Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb — nuclear war begun by a rogue military officer; and
  • Fail-Safe — nuclear war begun by accident.

Several days before the lesson begins pass out Handout #2 – Basic Facts on the Decision to End WWII by Attacking Japan with Atomic Bombs and Handout #3, Decision Making in War Analyzed from An Ethical Standpoint. Instruct the students to read and understand these handouts before the beginning of the second day of this lesson. Be sure to check the possible problems section of each Guide before you send the list of movies home with the students.

Section One: The Difficulty of Thinking About Mass Casualties

  • Before class, write on the board the following quotes: Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” and Adolf Eichmann: “One hundred dead are a catastrophe, a million dead are a statistic.” At the beginning of the class, ask if anyone knows who these people are and what they did. (Josef Stalin was dictator of the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953 and probably the most accomplished mass murderer of all time. Adolf Eichmann was the man in charge of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. After WWII, he escaped to Argentina and hid there for many years. When his location was discovered, the Israeli secret service (the Mossad) kidnapped Eichmann and took him to Israel. He was put on trial, convicted of genocide, and executed.)
  • Write the numbers 255,000, 66,000, 69,000, 60% and 30% across the top of the blackboard space in your classroom. (Leave enough room at the top for the phrase “The consciousness of each person is an entire world.” Leave the numbers and the phrase on the blackboard for the duration of this lesson. Later you will be erasing the quotes from Stalin and Eichmann and writing below these numbers and the phrase.)
  • Tell the class or, if they have studied it, let them tell you, what these numbers mean in relation to the bombing of Hiroshima. According to a 1946 study by the Manhattan Project, 255,000 people were in the city and some 66,000 (25%) died instantly or within the next four months, with 69,000 (29%) being injured. Burns accounted for 60% of the injuries and falling debris accounted for 30%. The Avalon Project. Note that other estimates are higher both in terms of total population. For example, tens of thousands of Korean slave laborers in the city were probably not counted. See discussion at How many died at Hiroshima?.
  • Ask the class if anyone has an idea about how to help people think about the instantaneous death of 66,000 people from one bomb so that it’s more than just a statistic. You probably won’t get any takers, but if anyone comes up with a good idea have the class go through the exercise. (And please send it to us so that we can publicize it.)

Section Two: The Consciousness of Each Person is an Entire World

  • Tell the class that it has been said that each person’s consciousness is an entire world. For emphasis, you might want to write it on the board, again at the top. This phrase should remain on the board through the lesson.
  • Instruct the class to take a piece of lined paper and to write their name, the period, and the date at the top. Then instruct them to write the phrase “Each person’s consciousness is an entire world.”. Finally, ask the students to think of a person living in their own family or community. It can be a child or an adult. It can be themselves or another person. Give the class ten minutes to write down on a piece of paper a list of the most important things about the world of this person’s consciousness. They should include information on this person’s life: what motivates them, what interests them, who are their family and friends, what they like to do, what they’re good at, which are their prized possessions, and what they love about their home. Tell students that they can also describe their fondest memories, detail their dreams for the future and explain what makes them unique or different. Tell the class that the lists will be graded on imagination, effort, grammar, and penmanship.
  • When time is up, ask for volunteers to read their lists to the class and select three. Collect the other lists and time the presentations of the volunteers. Compliment the volunteers on their work.
  • Say something to the effect of “That’s three people and we’ve just begun to explore their worlds.” Once the responses have been read, tell the class that it took about 30 seconds (or however long it took) to read just a short description of a small part of the life of a person. And there was much more to each of these lives than what was just described. Comment that the Japanese in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 also had their own worlds just like the people the class has written about and “just like all of us in this room.” (All quotations in this exercise are only suggestions as to phrasing. Put them into your own words and tailor them to the class.)

Section Three: Injuries Inflicted by the Atomic Bombing

Have the class pass around one or two copies of Handout #1 – Photographs of the Results of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. (Some of the pictures are gruesome. Make sure your class can tolerate looking at them.) These can be posted on a bulletin board or displayed on a screen from a projector. Alternatively, you can show a short documentary about war damage, e.g., “Hiroshima-Nagasaki: August 6, 1945.” (17 minutes, cost $95) or even a longer fictional treatment, e.g., for grades 7 & 8, Hiroshima Maiden, or for grades 9 and above “Black Rain”. CNN has posted about a minute of short snippets of original film from the time of the bombing. See, Rare film documents devastation at Hiroshima.

Section Four: Making the Numbers Real

  • Tell the class “Assume this classroom is the city of Hiroshima and all of us in it represents the population of Hiroshima on the day of the bombing. Each student in a 30 person class represents 8,500 inhabitants of Hiroshima. What was it like for 66,000 people to be killed by one bomb? There were 255,000 people in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing. 66,000 is a little more than one in every four people. Look around at your classmates. For a class with 30 people, seven would have been killed by the blast.”
  • Have the entire class stand by their desks. Pick one in four students to sit back down and give them the white pieces of paper or cardboard with the words “Killed”. Tell them to put the paper or cardboard on their desks facing up. Leave the rest of the class standing.
  • Remind the class that another 69,000 were burned or injured in some way or suffered from severe radiation sickness. Have another 27% of the class sit at their desks and take a red paper or cardboard with the words “Injured”. Leave the rest of the class (now about 47%, a little less than half) standing. Tell the class that people sickened or injured by the bomb probably endured more suffering than the people who were killed instantly. Many of them had to live without arms or legs, hands or feet, or with horrible disfiguring burns, and endure years of pain before they died. They also lived with the consciousness of what had happened to their loved ones and what they had lost. Many of the people who died were killed instantly or simply vaporized and felt nothing. Undoubtedly, there were many children left as orphans. They had to grow up without parents, if they survived.

Note on Section Four: There are a myriad of ways to do this exercise and it should be adapted for the age of the class. For example, older students probably won’t want to stand or move around the classroom. For these students, the teacher can simply indicate groupings, i.e., for a 30 student class, indicate seven students (about 26%), and say “These would have died from the blast.” etc. If you have a more dramatic flare, you could bring ribbon or rope and tie it around the seats. For grades 7 – 9, when students are chosen to represent the 66,000 killed and the 69,000 injured, you can ask them to assume a particular position at their desks. A good example is having their hands in the prayer/greeting position with palms together, hands held vertically in front of their faces, fingers pointing up, head inclined slightly forward. Students could be asked to stand in a particular part of the room and then move to another part of the room when they are chosen to be in a different group. This will leave the survivors among the empty desks. The class can be asked to make paper hats at home (give them a design). Assign 26% to make white hats (white is the color of death in many Asian cultures) and the rest another color. The assignment of writing out the list of attributes of a person’s consciousness can be done on the hats, which are then turned in for a grade. During the exercise, the students with the colored hats should be instructed to list three additional items on their hats: 1) the terror experienced from the intense flash and powerful blast of the bomb, the “pika-don” 2) the memories of friends and relatives who died, 3) pain and suffering from their own injuries. (Please email us with any methods that you have found that work.)

  • Ask the class to describe the lives of the survivors. (If you have had the “survivor” students stand, this can be done while they are still standing.) What must their experiences have been? (Look for the following: memories of their friends or loved ones who died or were injured; survivor guilt; their own injuries, like disfiguring burns, or loss of function of their arms, legs or hands; the memory of the event, called by the Japanese “pika-don”, meaning “flash-boom”, from the searing, burning flash of light and then the tremendous shock wave from the explosion; living in housing that had been damaged, being orphaned and living without parents, etc.) Tell the class that in any mass casualty the survivors will live with the terror of the events the rest of their lives. (Let the remaining students sit down, or remain standing at your discretion through the next section.) Do not collect the white and red papers/pieces of cardboard at this time.

Section Five: Remembering the Dead

  • Tell the class “Now, let’s think of it another way. Every human being has the right to have their life remembered, by people they loved, people they helped, co-workers or fellow students, and friends.” Remind them that earlier in the day it took only 30 seconds (or however long it was) to think of just a small part of the lives of other human beings. And we had just scratched the surface of the world that was their consciousness. If we took just 30 seconds to read a list of the important parts of the worlds of the first 66,000 people who died from the blast, it would take us 33,000 minutes, which comes to about 23 days reading 24 hours a day. (If the figure you use is different than 30 seconds, the numbers will be different. You may want to do the math for or with the class.) (The same exercise can be done with the 12 million people, 6 million Jews and 6 million others, who died in the Holocaust.) Collect the papers/cardboard. Ask whether they now understand the full meaning of the deaths of 66,000 people from one explosion. The correct answer is probably “no, we’re just beginning to understand the horror of that day and of many days the world has known.”

Section Six: Stakeholders and Values

  • Tell the class that: “This exercise is not to convince you that dropping the atomic bomb on Japan was wrong. The exercise so far has been just a start to answering that question. When people make tough ethical decisions, they must first understand the consequences of the various alternative courses of action open to them.”
  • Define stakeholders for the class (or if they are familiar with the concept, have one of the students define it). Ask the class to identify some of the stakeholders in the decision to use surprise atomic bomb attacks on urban areas to end WWII. Write summaries of the responses on the board in a row at the top below the numbers and the phrase already there. Erase the Stalin and Eichmann quotes. Examples of stakeholders are: 1) direct victims, “killed & injured”; (2) people who loved or depended upon the dead or injured, “related to killed/injured”; (3) Japanese civilian and military who would have died if the Allies had invaded the home islands, “Japanese invasion casualties”; (4) the Allied soldiers who would have died in the invasion, “Allied invasion casualties”; (5) the relatives and loved ones of all of these people, “Relations”; (6) all the people of the world because the use of an atomic weapon for the first time was a substantial escalation in the types of weapons used on human beings, “humankind”; (7) people who could have used the physical assets, food, building materials, clothing, that would not have be made available to them because of the effort involved in the invasion or that would be destroyed in the invasion, “people needing resources”.
  • Define values for the class. Ask the class to describe the values that the bombing served or frustrated for each of the stakeholders. If you have enough space, write the values on the board underneath the description of the stakeholder. (E.g., under “Japanese invasion casualties” put the values of “life”, “avoiding physical injury”, “keeping personal property” etc.)
  • Tell students that during a war, the prohibitions against injuring or killing enemies and destroying their property are modified so that the war can be fought. Tell the students that they will have a classroom test on Handout #2- Basic Facts on the Decision to End WWII by Attacking Japan with Atomic Bombs and that they should be familiar with Handout #3 – Decision Making in War Analyzed from An Ethical Standpoint.

Section Seven: Applying Five Ethical Tests

After the comprehension test, review Handout #3 with the class, especially the Rule of the Most Honoring Choice (the least destructive alternative). Review with them or hold a debate on how the Five Ethical Tests described in Handout #3 relate to war and to the decision to mount surprise attacks on Japanese cities as part of the effort to end WWII.

The purpose of this discussion is to acquaint students with some of the concepts involved in making decisions relating to war. It would be a good idea for teachers to read TeachWithMovies’ annotated, Notes on the Decision to End WWII with Surprise Atomic Bomb Attacks on Japan before this discussion so that you can have extra facts at your fingertips to guide and enliven the discussion. This discussion will also help with the take-home exam suggested below.

There are many alternatives to organizing the class discussion. Take one of the alternatives set out in the examination question and get the class to talk about it. You can divide the class into groups and assign different positions on the question of whether the U.S. should have used atomic bombs to end WWII or any of the discussion questions. This discussion will probably go over into the third class period.

Section Eight: Take Home, Open Book, Examination (Click here for PDF)

QUESTION #1. Was it within the range of acceptable ethical decisions for the U.S. to use atomic bombs to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians for the following purposes: (a) ending the war quickly, thereby reducing Allied military casualties and Japanese military and civilian casualties; (b) ending the war fast enough to keep the Russians from having a role in the occupation of Japan; and (c) countering the numerical superiority of the Red Army in Europe by making Stalin understand that we had a military weapon of unparalleled destructiveness and the will to use it?

Use the factual description in Handout #2 and the ethical analysis contained in Handout #3. Assess the importance and legitimacy of the three U.S. policy goals.

QUESTION #2. For each of the possible alternatives set out below: (i) describe how it would affect four major types of stakeholders and their values, (ii) apply four ethical tests: the Golden Rule, the Six Pillars of Character (not all apply), the Rule of Universality, and the Rule of the Most Honoring Choice to the decision; and (iii) discuss the effectiveness of the alternative in meeting U.S. goals described in Question #1. Base your answer on the information contained in Handout #2.

A. Attempting a demonstration of the bomb in a deserted or sparsely populated area or on a military target in a sparsely populated area and using it on densely populated areas if the demonstration didn’t work;

B. Allowing the policy of strategic bombing and blockade to proceed and, if the Japanese didn’t surrender by mid-October, demonstrating an atomic bomb, followed up by using the remaining bombs (by that time it would have been six or seven) for the dual purpose of forcing a surrender or preparing for an invasion; (note that the Russians would have had a greater chance to participate in the occupation of Japan as time went on);

C. Using the two atomic bombs that the U.S. had in August, 1945 immediately on urban areas with warning;

D. Using the two atomic bombs that the U.S. had in August, 1945 without warning (this was the policy that was implemented); and

E. Not using atomic bombs at all because they kill indiscriminately over a large area, even though it meant that the U.S. risked losing 100,000 soldiers and sailors in an invasion; hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians would also have died in an invasion.

3. Based upon the analysis contained in Section 2, answer the question.

You will be graded on mastery of the content of Handout #2, the quality of your logical analysis, how well you use the ethical analysis in Handout #3, grammar, and punctuation. If you respond with a handwritten paper, you will be graded on penmanship. Estimated time for the test is 2.5 hours.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS/ESSAY TOPICS — with suggestions as to answers

Note on Suggested Responses. The questions posed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are complex and experts disagree about the answers. The suggested responses are solely for the purpose of supporting a debate about the issues. Teachers should feel free to add their own perspectives.


1. Were surprise attacks on Japanese cities with atomic bombs within the range of morally acceptable choices available to U.S. leaders in August 1945?

Suggested Response:

The basic facts are set out in Handout #2. A summary of the arguments are set out below. Responses should be judged on how well they deal with these issues and with the rebuttal arguments. Rebuttal arguments are in brackets after the argument. Each rebuttal argument is also an argument for the other position.


1. A primary and legitimate war aim was to end the war and minimize the deaths of American soldiers. The use of atomic bombs helped to achieve that goal by putting maximum pressure on the Japanese. To fail to employ such a weapon would have been a violation of the President’s duty to American soldiers. The primary stakeholders are the U.S. soldiers and their families and friends. The values for these stakeholders are their lives and living without injury. Subsidiary stakeholders with the same values are the populations and military of China, Great Britain, Australia and other opponents of the Japanese. [Rebuttal: Certainly the U.S. government has an obligation to keep military casualties low, but does this mean that the U.S. can slaughter several hundred thousand non-combatants, women, and children to save just the few hundred or few thousand soldiers? After all, soldiers are combatants and know that they might be killed. Traditionally, the intentional killing of civilians has been off-limits in war. The primary stakeholders for this rebuttal point are the Japanese citizens of Hiroshima who were killed or injured in the bombing. The values for these stakeholders are their lives and living without injury. The power of this argument is strongest with the innocent, i.e., children and women who had no say in Japanese war policy.]

2. When your opponent is down you keep at him until he surrenders. [Stakeholders, value, and rebuttal are the same as above.]

3. The Japanese had started the war in Asia and in the Pacific. The Japanese had committed atrocities against civilian populations in China and our POWs. They deserved no compassion. [Rebuttal: What did the tens of thousands of non-combatants, especially the children, who were killed, burned and maimed in the atomic blasts do to deserve their fate?]

4. The Japanese military fanatics were irrational. Even though Japan had no hope to win the war, they were willing to subject the Islands to an invasion just to protect themselves and their sense of national honor. Note that they had a strong class interest in each of the four conditions that they wanted to place on the surrender: (1) Emperor remains as the head of the Japanese government (their patron who would protect them from postwar reprisals); (2) limit the occupation (so that they could get back into power more quickly); (3) military disarms itself rather than having the U.S. military do it; and (4) the Japanese conduct their own war crimes trials, rather than having the U.S. do it.

The atomic bombings provided material aid to the end-the-war party in Japan so that they could overcome the military fanatics. In addition, the bombings gave the ruling elites an excuse to surrender without fear of a revolution or retribution for leading the country into a losing war. [Rebuttal: No government could continue the war even without the atomic bomb attacks, given the conventional bombing, the naval blockade, Russian entry into the war, and the virtual powerlessness of the Japanese Navy and Air Force.]


1. U.S. leaders, when they decided to use atomic bombs against Japan were attempting to intimidate the Soviet Union (Russia) and deny it any role in the postwar occupation of Japan. Given that Japan was virtually defeated and it was just a matter of time before it collapsed, the only reason to rush to use the atomic bombs was the Russian factor. Keeping Russia out of the Japanese occupation and providing a counterweight to the Red Army was not worth the lives of more than 300,000 people (the death toll from the bombings over time). [Rebuttal: First, the U.S. population was war-weary and wanted the war to be finished. Anything that kept up the pressure on Japan served that goal. Second, Stalin was probably the greatest mass murderer in history. The Soviet Union oppressed those who lived under its rule. Limiting the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union was a legitimate aim of U.S. policy. Keeping the industrious and talented people of Japan from control by the Soviet Union had important benefits for the future. The nuclear umbrella and the knowledge that the U.S. had used atomic weapons in the past served as a counterweight to the numerical superiority of the Red Army. In other words, there were important and valid reasons to bomb Japanese cities to intimidate Russia.]

2. A demonstration of the immense power of the atomic bomb would have convinced the Japanese to surrender. No rational government would permit its people to be subjected to such devastation, especially when they had no hope of winning the war. Even if it had not worked and the U.S. then had to explode the remaining bomb on a military target, or even a city, the world would have known that we had tried not to use the bomb and we would have retained more moral leadership. The principal of not using atomic weapons whenever possible would have been established. [Rebuttal: The military fanatics would have come up with some reason or some excuse, i.e., that we didn’t have another bomb (we only had one other at that time), that it wouldn’t really destroy a city, etc. These people didn’t see reality. Some of them even tried to mount a coup after two cities had been destroyed and the Russians had entered the war. It was the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with horrifying results that, more than anything else, has restrained world leaders from using atomic bombs.]

3. The U.S. missed a golden opportunity to end the war without using atomic bombs and without Russian participation in the war by refusing to agree to allow the Emperor and the monarchy to remain. Had this one phrase been added to the Potsdam Proclamation, as the Secretary of War had requested, then the Emperor would have forced the military to surrender. After all, that is what he was angling for all the time. [Rebuttal: It is unlikely that conceding that the Emperor could remain on the throne would have helped end the war. First, the liberal surrender terms of the Potsdam Proclamation was seen by the Japanese as showing weakness even without the added assurances for the Emperor. They would have thought the U.S. position was even weaker if Potsdam had contained such assurances. The Emperor was not absolutely powerful, although he was an important force in the government. Under the Japanese Constitution at the time, a unanimous vote of the cabinet was required for surrender and the military services had voted in the cabinet. The militarists were insisting upon their four conditions until the very end, five days after the Russian declaration of war, after two atomic bomb blasts, the naval blockade and continued conventional bombing. If the U.S. had given them the maintenance of the emperorship, they would have demanded something more and surrender would have been delayed.]

4. Because atomic bombs kill over a very large area without discriminating between combatants and non-combatants, they should never be used on populated areas. [Rebuttal: If the bombs had not been used to kill tens of thousands of people, the Japanese government would not have been brought to its knees, the war would have continued, and there would have been even more casualties.]

5. Japan was so weak that it would have surrendered within a few weeks or a few months without the atomic bomb attacks. [Rebuttal: See rebuttal to # 2 above.]

6. After the city of Hiroshima had been destroyed by an atomic bomb, was dropping a second bomb on a city necessary or should the U.S. have waited and let the fact that Russia attacked Japan on August 9 lead to Japan’s collapse? [Rebuttal See #2 above.]


2. What can be learned from the history of the decision to end the Second World War with atomic bomb attacks on Japanese cities?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right response. Good answers will be informed from the class discussion of stakeholders and values. Here is one view: In modern times, perhaps because the world has seen the terrible effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is less tolerance for civilian casualties. Firebombing enemy cities and dropping atomic bombs is to be avoided at all costs. This has been the policy of every U.S. and Russian government after the Second World War, beginning with President Truman, who came to recognize that atomic bombs were weapons of terror and who refused to use them again, even in the darkest days of the Korean War. With this change in mind as a guide for future actions, the events relating to the atomic attacks on Japan show that every avenue of diplomacy and every reasonably possible alternative other than using nuclear weapons must be attempted. Before nuclear bombs or other mass indiscriminate attacks on civilians can be used with any semblance of morality it must be very clear that, in the “awful arithmetic of war”, it is certain that the attack on civilians would result in fewer casualties on both sides than any other reasonably possible alternative. It is difficult to imagine what that ever occurring. For an exposition of this logic in action, see Learning Guide to “Fail-Safe”.


3. Was the purpose of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki primarily psychological or were those cities put on the target list because of their military value?

Suggested Response:

The purpose was primarily psychological. One of the reasons that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were selected as targets was that they were relatively free from damage due to conventional bombing. For that reason, the damage from the atomic weapons would be that much more dramatic. Moreover, their military importance was slight. The term “psychological” translates into terror. Atomic bombs are weapons of terror.


4. Are atomic bombs such indiscriminate and destructive weapons that they should never be used? [Before asking this question, briefly describe the concept and history of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). See the suggested answer that follows].

Suggested Response:

The answer to this question is one of the great tragedies of man. It is “yes … but there is something that gives us pause. … ” And in that pause could be the seeds of turning the “yes” to “no” and the destruction of civilization. Good answers will include the following concepts: The “yes” is easy. In any atomic bombing, most of the people killed and injured (each of whom are stakeholders) will be innocent non-combatants. How can you kill hundreds of thousands or millions of such people? Unfortunately, the only method developed by the international community to prevent the use of nuclear weapons has been the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Briefly stated, MAD keeps nuclear war from occurring because each side sees unacceptable casualties in any war using nuclear weapons. In its purest form, MAD leads nations to ban weapons that could defend against a nuclear attack, such as limitations on anti-ballistic missiles. The U.S. and Russia entered into such a pact in 1972. MAD depends upon nations being able to (1) effectively control the armed forces that maintain their nuclear weapons (see Learning Guide to “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”) and (2) avoid accidental nuclear war (see Learning Guide to “Fail-Safe”). The success of MAD in preventing nuclear war during the Cold War makes a strong argument that the best way to avoid being bombed is to maintain a credible threat of bombing the other country if they try to bomb you. The other alternatives are renouncing nuclear weapons or international controls. Renunciation won’t work because the countries that renounce nuclear weapons are vulnerable to countries that don’t. International controls are highly unlikely. That is a topic in itself, but some of the problems are: who would control this organization, would countries be willing to give up an important part of their sovereignty to such an organization, and wouldn’t the international organization have to possess nuclear weapons so that it could intimidate countries that might seek to develop them?


5. Did the Truman Administration fully know the extent of the destruction that the atomic bombs would cause when it ordered the atomic attacks on Japan?

Suggested Response:

There is an argument on this as well as everything else dealing with the question of whether surprise atomic nuclear attacks should have been used to end WWII. See Excerpts of General Groves’ Report to Secretary of War Stimson. The test bomb destroyed a well-constructed steel tower 1/2 mile from the point of the blast. This was clear evidence that an atomic bomb exploded over a densely populated urban area would kill tens of thousands and injure many more.


6. Would Japan have surrendered without the use of the atomic bomb within a few weeks or months?

Suggested Response:

The basic facts are set out in Handout #2. A summary of the arguments are set out below:

Yes: The U.S. controlled the seas and its blockade prevented the Japanese economy from obtaining the raw materials necessary to function; there were severe food shortages in Japan; the U.S. controlled the air and was systematically destroying Japanese cities and infrastructure; Russia had just entered the war against Japan, which meant that in addition to the armed forces of the U.S. and Britain, Japan had to contend with the Red Army. No rational leadership could continue to have its citizens fight and die for such a hopeless cause. Many people, including numerous U.S. military leaders, believed that Japan would have surrendered within a few weeks or months without the use of the atomic bomb.

No: The Japanese military believed that death with honor was preferable to defeat, and that they could turn back an invasion with Kamikaze pilots, frogmen, and suicide bombers who would throw themselves under tanks, thereby making the invasion too costly for the U.S.; they could then negotiate for peace on better terms than were offered in the Potsdam Proclamation. A plan for such a defense was being implemented. Even after all of the reverses of the war, the blockade, the devastating U.S. conventional bombing, the two atomic bombs, and the Red Army’s deep penetration into Japanese lines in Manchuria, some officers began a coup when they heard of the decision to surrender. They murdered the commander of the Imperial Guard and forged orders to give them control of the troops guarding the palace. The Minister of War, Anami, knew of the plans for the coup and did not arrest the coup plotters, but allowed them to proceed. It was only later that Anami, after direct intervention of the Emperor, turned against the coup. Even after the atomic attacks, surrender short of an invasion was touch and go.


7. Would Japan have surrendered if there had been a demonstration of the bomb that did not result in the massive destruction of life and property?

Suggested Response:

See the response to the preceding question and the following:

Yes: It would have been more likely that Japan would have surrendered and the U.S. would have been able to retain some sense of moral leadership as a country exercising self-restraint. (The question is whether this “more likely” and moral leadership is enough to justify the use of one of only two existing atomic weapons. It was estimated that the U.S. could create 6 – 8 atomic weapons before November, the scheduled date for the invasion.)

No: Persons arguing that the demonstration would not have worked will contend that moral leadership was not what the world needed at the time, instead we needed to overawe the irrational Japanese militarists and to intimidate Josef Stalin, a man who only responded to power. The two bombs in rapid succession that destroyed cities were needed to shock the Japanese into surrender, and even then, the militarists objected and the leaders of the armed forces almost participated in a coup rather than surrender.


8. Would the war have ended before the atomic attacks if, as many in the U.S. government urged, the Allies had explicitly defined “unconditional surrender” to include permitting the people of Japan to retain the Emperor?

Suggested Response:

The basic facts are set out in Handout #2. See the arguments set out in the previous two suggested responses and the following:

Yes: If the U.S. had clearly stated that the Emperor would remain, the end-the-war faction in the Japanese government would have been strengthened and would have had a better chance of overcoming opposition by the militarists. In fact, on August 10, the Japanese offered to surrender on condition that the Emperor be allowed to remain and the next day the U.S. gave an equivocal response that held out some hope that the Emperor would be retained. However, to make this stronger, the Japanese Foreign Office mistranslated the reply to make it appear that the U.S. was implying that the Emperor would remain at the head of the Japanese government. This was the basis on which peace was achieved. In addition, it was clearly in the best interests of the U.S. government to use Hirohito’s authority to get the 5,000,000 man Japanese armed forces to surrender.

No: It would have shown weakness at a time when strength was required. Agreeing to allow the Emperor to remain before the surrender would have set back the cause of democracy in Japan for years. The U.S. was committed to keeping the Emperor only after Japan had surrendered and the U.S. found that it was in its interests to keep the Emperor.


9. Should Hirohito have been permitted to keep the throne or should he have been tried as a war criminal?

Suggested Response:

The basic facts are set out in Handout #2. A summary of the arguments are set out below:

He should have been permitted to keep the throne: Hirohito’s authority was the only thing that caused the 5,000,000 men in the Japanese armed forces to surrender without fighting to the last man. The experience in Okinawa and Iwo Jima showed that unless Hirohito used his authority to ensure an orderly surrender of Japanese troops, many thousands of American soldiers, and perhaps millions of Japanese, would have died before the Japanese military was subdued. Millions of lives are not worth that type of principle. After all, some Japanese leaders were tried as war criminals and Hirohito claimed (falsely) that he was just a figurehead.

He should have been tried as a war criminal: Hirohito had (1) authorized and cooperated in a war of aggression against the U.S. and (2) he was complicit in a war that caused the deaths of more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops and millions of people who lived in Asia. The fact that he escaped punishment, while the millions that he helped to kill rotted in the ground or at the bottom of the sea, is a sorry spectacle that undermines the rule of law. Any war criminal will know that he can escape justice if he has something to bargain with. (The same lesson was taught with respect to the German scientists who worked on the buzz bombs that were used to terrorize Britain. The U.S. and Russia needed their skills and they were not tried as war criminals for making weapons of terror. Instead they were sought after and when they produced rockets for their new masters, at least in the U.S., they were admired, held in high esteem and honored. See Learning Guide to “October Sky”.)


10. Put yourself in the role of an analyst at the Japanese Foreign Office on July 26, 1945. You know that Japan has lost virtually all of its Navy and Air Force. It is being strangled by the U.S. Naval blockade and is totally defenseless against the 20th Air Force, which was decimating entire sections of Japan’s cities. With the defeat of Germany, even more, U.S. troops, planes, ships, and tanks are being sent to the Pacific theater. The Soviet Union has not responded to Japan’s requests to mediate an end to the war. Ominously, it is massing troops along the Manchurian border. You do not know about the atomic bomb. How would you analyze the Potsdam Proclamation? What, if anything, did it tell you about how the U.S. intended to treat the Emperor? Finally, describe what you would do upon receipt of the Proclamation.

Suggested Response:

The Potsdam Proclamation was, in fact, one of the most generous peace offers in history. After three and a half years of vicious warfare, it promised that occupation would not last forever; Japan would be allowed to establish peaceful industries and trade freely, and its people would be allowed to chose their government in democratic elections. The Proclamation threatened the “prompt and utter” “devastation of the Japanese Homeland” if Japan did not accept. In fact, as the embargo continued and the B-29’s destroyed entire square miles of Japanese cities, this was occurring. Any reader of the Proclamation would know that quick action was required because the Allies had said that they would “brook no delay.” As to the Emperor, there were two key and contradictory concepts in the Proclamation. The first, set out in sections six and ten, was that “There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest … [and that] … [S]tern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals ….” The second was that the Japanese people would be permitted to establish “a peacefully inclined and responsible government” “in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people” (Section 12). Any rational person would immediately ask for clarification concerning what would happen to the Emperor. Under pressure from the militarists, Japan rejected the Potsdam Proclamation as not meriting consideration. See Handout #2. In fact, after an unconscionable 10-day delay, this is what Japan finally did, but only after two atomic bombings, a Russian declaration of war and hundreds of thousands of fatalities. This question and the answer highlights the fact that although our focus should be on whether the actions of U.S. policymakers were justified, the Japanese government, which had the primary responsibility to protect its people, failed utterly and miserably in that regard.


11. Some historians say that the deciding factor in the decision to use the bomb in early August 1945 was to prevent the Soviet Union from playing a significant part in the war against Japan and to show Stalin that we were willing to use the bomb. Truman wanted to minimize Soviet influence in the Far East and to impress upon the Russians, in the maneuvering over the fate of Europe, that the U.S. had the bomb and would use it. Do you think that these reasons justified the quick use of the atomic bomb on Japan?

Suggested Response:

The argument for justification: Clearly, if this was the only factor motivating the Allied leaders, then the case for dropping the bombs would be far less compelling. However, that was not the case. Truman had a responsibility to consider, and so far as we know, he did consider the potential cost in Allied lives of an invasion as well as the high toll that it would take on the Japanese people. In addition, Stalin was a brutal dictator. Limiting his influence was a benefit to humankind. Moreover, the nuclear umbrella allowed the U.S. and its allies to counter the threat posed by the massive Red Army without building their own armies to a size that would have severely stressed their economies. The argument against justification: You don’t kill 300,000 people and destroy two cities for geopolitical concerns, bargaining position, or for economic advantage. In addition, much of the purpose of intimidating the Russians could have been served by a demonstration bomb.


12. Describe the change in American attitudes toward bombing civilian populations from WWII until the present. How does the willingness to bomb indiscriminately in Japan and Germany compare to what the United States is doing in Iraq? Should civilian populations ever be targeted for the psychological effect that it has on the opposing side?

Suggested Response:

The attitude toward civilian casualties has changed drastically since the end of WWII and would not permit cities to be obliterated by nuclear weapons or firebombings. This is probably due in large part to the realization of what the Allies did when they started firestorms in Axis cities with incendiary weapons, the damage suffered by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the limited war value (as opposed to the terror value) gained by these bombings. In addition, attitudes have been influenced by the terrible potential of the hydrogen bombs and the realization that anyone in the world can be a target. The destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center is an example of this.


13. Some are convinced that racism influenced the decision to bomb Japanese cities, that the United States would not have used the bombs against the Germans even if they had been ready before the German surrender. What evidence supports this view, and what contradicts it? Do you agree that the United States finds it easier to wage total war against countries that are not Caucasian?

Suggested Response:

The best argument for this proposition is that atomic bombs have only been used on Asian people. The arguments against are as follows: The bomb was intended for use on Germany and was used on Japan only because Germany had already been conquered by conventional means. Many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were Jewish and once Germany surrendered, they began to question whether the bomb should be dropped on Japan. While the U.S. waged war on “gooks” in Vietnam, the U.S.S.R. was primarily Caucasian and during the Cold War, the U.S. was ready at a moment’s notice to annihilate the Soviet Union with atomic weapons.


14. In determining whether the U.S. should have ended the Second World War using atomic bombs, why do we consider what alternatives were available at the time and how effective these alternatives would have been?

Suggested Response:

To determine whether any action is the right action to take, we always need to consider the alternatives. If, for example, the U.S. had only to demonstrate the destructive power of the bomb and inform the Japanese that the Soviet Union would be coming into the war on the Allied side in a few weeks (actions that would not have resulted in any additional casualties) then the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not justified. If, however, this alternative would not have worked and all of the other alternatives would have resulted in very large casualties among Allied soldiers, then there was more justification for the bombing. (We would still have to deal with the ethical questions of a large number of civilian deaths and the fact that the first use of atomic weapons may make the next use of such weapons easier.) However, an important step in any decision is an evaluation of the alternatives.


15. Does the fact that Japan surrendered shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki mean that the bombs were the only way to make Japan quickly surrender?

Suggested Response:

No. Logically, just because one event occurs after another event doesn’t mean that the first event caused the second. For example, in between the two bombings, an event occurred that the Japanese had feared for years and which they understood would make it impossible for Japan to win the war. That event was the declaration of war on Japan by the Soviet Union and its attack on Japanese positions in Manchuria.


16. Since the atomic attacks actually ended the war, isn’t it speculation to say that they were not necessary?

Suggested Response:

Yes. But it is also speculation to say that they were necessary.


17. Was the use of the bomb justified because, had the Japanese militarists had the bomb before the U.S., they would have used it on the Allies?

Suggested Response:

Just because your opponent would have committed an atrocity if it had the means, doesn’t give you the right to commit the atrocity. For that matter, the fact that the other side does commit an atrocity doesn’t give you the right to respond in kind. We do not use the lowest common denominator to set moral standards. Moreover, the victims of the bomb, the stakeholders, were innocent women, children and non-combatants. The atrocities were committed by the Japanese government and its armed forces.


18. Is questioning the use of the bomb unpatriotic?

Suggested Response:

No. A blind and unthinking reaction and unwillingness to consider the evidence is unpatriotic. A true patriot will realize that sometimes his country makes mistakes and that the best way to avoid mistakes in the future is to examine what we have done to see if there was a way that we could have done it better. After all, would we expect the Japanese and Germans who survived WWII to reject their nationality and become Americans? No, you work with what you have, learn from your experiences, and when appropriate, atone for harmful actions taken in the past.


19. Does questioning the use of the atomic bombs on Japan dishonor our veterans?

Suggested Response:

No. The decision to drop the bomb was made by civilian leaders with the assent of the top military leaders. Military personnel on the battlefield or below the highest ranks didn’t have anything to do with it.


20. Can anyone say, with any assurance of being correct, that offering to allow the Emperor to remain as the head of the Japanese government would have led to the end of the war, eliminating the need to Japan with atomic bombs?

Suggested Response:

No. The irrational thought process of the military clique in power could not be predicted with any certainty.


21. Why can’t historians just report the facts and not continually analyze whether the U.S. was right to drop the bombs or not?

Suggested Response:

If we don’t try to understand what happened and why, and whether the right decision was made, we will be doomed to repeat history.

Links to the Internet:





Books on Hiroshima For Middle School and Above:

Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima, by Keiji Nakazawa. Nakazawa was a child in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, and since becoming a cartoonist has devoted his energies to describing the Japanese militarism that led to the war, the blindness of nationalistic Japanese who followed their leaders into catastrophe, and the experience of those who survived the bombs. Nakazawa has made the mission of his life to “oppose war and militarism” and to “work to eliminate nuclear weapons.” His work has been taken to the screen with the film “Barefoot Gen”. Though Americans generally associate comic books with children, Nakazawa’s work is powerful and meaningful to all ages. To see examples of the art, visit the website The Black Moon Art, Anime, and Japanese Culture.

No High Ground by Fletcher Knebel traces the lives of people who lived through the bombing.

Rain of Ruin: A Photographic History of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by Donald K. Goldstein, J. Michael Wenger, Katherine V. Dillon. This book has more than 400 black and white photographs of U. S. preparations for the attacks and their impact upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the modern cities that have grown up from the rubble.

Day One: Before Hiroshima and After, by Peter Wyden, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1984. This book is one of the best introductions to the development of the bomb and its use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Well written with lots of quotes and anecdotes, Weyden’s book makes a difficult and unimaginable experience understandable.

Hibakusha: Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kosei Publishing Company, Tokyo, 1986. Hibakusha (pronounced “hih-BACK-shah”) means literally the “bomb affected ones,” what we would call survivors in America. However, the term “survivor” has a negative connotation in Japan and is avoided. This is a powerful book that begins with a rather clinical description of the bomb damage and then is followed by account after account of people who lived through the atomic attacks. It is accompanied with some of the earliest photographs of August 1945. Like so many books on the subject, it ends with a plea to prevent future horrors. “Hiroshima is not simply a fact of history,” Akihiro Takahashi, a child at the Hiroshima Municipal Middle School in August 1945 writes. “It is a warning and an admonition to the present…. we must prevent nuclear war.” Because these are first hand accounts, children as young as middle school could benefit from reading this book.

Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6-September 30, 1945, by Michihiko Hachiya. This is the diary of Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, the director of the Communications Hospital, written during his 56-day hospitalization for wounds from the bomb. Published in 1955, the book has been translated into 14 languages. Dr. Hachiya used all the royalties generated by the publication to help children orphaned by the bomb. Because this is written in diary form, it is valuable for students as young as middle school.

Hiroshima by John Hersey. Hersey’s book was first published as an entire issue of the New Yorker magazine, in August 31, 1946. Within a day, 800,000 copies had been sold as Americans began to understand the bombing and its impact upon the people of Hiroshima. In this nonfiction book, Hersey follows the experience of Miss Sasaki, Dr. Fujii, Mrs. Nakamara, Father Kleinsorg, Dr. Sasaki, and the Reverend Tanimoto, from shortly before the explosion and for the next few days, thus putting human faces upon what to Americans were only statistics. The most recent editions have an additional chapter entitled “Aftermath” in which Hersey updates readers on what has happened to the people in the forty years after Hiroshima. In the part that deals with Reverend Tanimoto, he details the Hiroshima Maidens project. Columbia University selected this book as one 20th century books to carry into the 21st, and it is commonly assigned reading in high school.

Hiroshima: The Story of the First Atom Bomb, by Clive A. Lawton. This book uses a photo-essay format to good advantage, telling the story of the development of the bomb through to the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. In an effort to be fair to both sides, Lawton has included information both on Japanese wartime atrocities and civilian casualties in the American bombing campaign.

One Sunny Day: A Child’s Memories of Hiroshima, by Hideko Tamura Snider. This poignant story tells of the author’s life from her trauma as a 10-year-old in Hiroshima to her life as an American psychotherapist who works with the Radiation Oncology Department at the University of Chicago Hospitals. As both a Japanese and an American, Dr. Snider is uniquely qualified to discuss the relationship between the two countries, and as a survivor, she courageously describes her story of devastation and recovery.

A Place Called Hiroshima, by Betty Jean Lifton. Lifton is the wife of Robert Jay Lifton (see below) and has clearly been as affected by her time in Hiroshima as her husband. She made her first photographic study in 1970 (Return to Hiroshima) and follows up with this examination of the effects of radiation and burns that are still in evidence in Hiroshima. The photographs of burns and illness are graphic, and the stories of psychological torment are quite affecting, while accounts of human perseverance and an indomitable spirit also appear.


Books on Hiroshima For High School and Above:

The Atom Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by Kyoko Selden, Mark Selden, and Robert Jay Lifton. This book is very critical of the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan, and the accounts by survivors can be stomach churning. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to use atomic bombs to end WWII, the book makes an important contribution by collecting survivor stories for future generations along with short stories, poems, and drawings.

Black Rain, by Masuji Ibuse. “This painful and very beautiful book gives two powerful messages–of drastic warning, yet also of affirmation of life” –John Hersey. Ibuse has won every major literary prize Japan has to offer and he brings his humor and irony to the story of a young woman who was showered with the radioactive “black rain” after the bombing and finds her life forever altered. Ibuse based his fiction upon interviews with actual survivors and diaries of victims. In 1990, a film was made from the book.

Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, by Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton and his wife, Betty, lived in Hiroshima in the 1960s and returned there during the 1970s and 1980s to interview survivors. This weighty tome has chapters on the experience of the bomb, radiation, American and Japanese relations, Atomic bomb literature and art, and the struggle of survivors to get help from their government and the world community. Lifton is a psychiatrist and has written a number of books, including one entitled Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial in which he argues that Americans have dealt with the threat of atomic warfare through “psychic numbing” and a steadfast refusal to look at the truth.

Hiroshima Notes, by Nobel prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe. Mr. Oe wrote these seven essays after visits to Hiroshima in 1963 and 1965. They examine the ethical, military and scientific implications of the bomb. The essays are made more poignant by the fact that Oe’s son was born in 1963 with a lesion on his brain, and Oe was struggling with the question of whether to agree to an operation that would leave his son brain damaged, but alive. He finds hope in the ability of atomic survivors to live with dignity despite horrific disfiguration and pain.

Hiroshima: Three Witnesses, by Richard H. Minear. Believing that the truth of the atomic attack can never be told through statistics, Minear has undertaken to present the best of the Japanese writing on the subject to the English-speaking world. This book is the first English translation of some of the most important writing by Japanese authors on the atomic holocaust, that of Hara Tamiki, Ota Yoko, and Toge Sankichi. As the publisher notes, all three writers had a unique sense of both experiencing and observing the destruction of Hiroshima. “Within forty-eight hours of August 6, before fleeing the city for shelter in the hills west of Hiroshima, Hara jotted down this note: ‘Miraculously unhurt; must be Heaven’s will that I survive and report what happened.'” Similarly, Ota said to her sister as she walked down the corpse-littered street, “I’m looking with two sets of eyes–the eyes of a human being and the eyes of a writer.”

Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima, Susan Lindee. This is an account of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), the first permanent agency in Japan set up to study the medical impact of radiation upon survivors. The ABCC was resented by the Japanese because of the policy of only observing, not treating, victims.

The Day Man Lost: Hiroshima, 6 August, 1945, The Pacific War Research Society. This book was the product of three years of research by 14 Japanese members of the Pacific War Research Society. Drawing upon Japanese and American accounts, it is a powerful and well-written account of the development of the atomic bomb in the United States and the comparatively primitive efforts by Japanese scientists to construct a nuclear weapon. Part III is devoted to a detailed description of events on August 6, 1945, the day Hiroshima was destroyed by a nuclear bomb.

The Atom Bomb, Tamara L. Rollef, Editor, 2000, Greenhaven Press, Inc. This book is designed for students and contains excerpts of articles relating to the first use of the atom bomb. Some articles are from participants in the decisions; others from well-known scholars and commentators.


Fictional Accounts

  • “Barefoot Gen” (pronounced with hard “G”). Artist Keiji Nakazawa was a child of 6 in Hiroshima, and in this story, he tells about 6-year-old Gen and his experience in Hiroshima during the atomic attack. At that point, the animated film “shifts into overdrive, showing in graphic detail men, women, children, and dogs being incinerated in gruesome detail as their eyeballs fall out and melt.” See Barefoot Gen These experiences have authenticity because they are the experiences of Nakazawa himself. The film is strongly anti-war and tends to blame both the Japanese militarists for starting and prolonging the war and the Americans for a bombing campaign that destroyed civilians as well as war materiel and military personnel. “I named my main character ‘Gen’ in the hope that he would become a root or source of strength for a new generation,” Nakazawa explained, “one that can tread the charred soil of Hiroshima barefoot, feel the earth beneath its feet, and have the strength to say ‘NO’ to nuclear weapons.” The film has English subtitles.
  • “Black Rain” by Shohei Imamura (1990). Imamura is considered one of Japan’s greatest directors and he has made a powerful film about the day of the blast and the years of suffering that followed. The beginning is quite graphic, portraying the ghastly burns that caused the skin to melt and people to walk like zombies, holding their mutilated arms in front of them. However, much of the film’s real power comes with the aftermath of the bombing and the efforts of the family to get the survivor Yasuko a groom. The discrimination against the hibakusha is dramatically illuminated as matchmakers and possible mates shrink from contact with someone who may produce deformed children and suffer the physical effects of radiation all her life. The strict class consciousness of Japanese society is also apparent when Yasuko finds a suitor who loves her and whom she loves, but who is unacceptable to the family because of class differences. This film, shot in black and white, makes it clear that no survivor can ever escape the impact of the bomb. While some of the make-up showing injuries does not meet modern standards and some of the acting is a bit exaggerated, the film is quite affecting. Do not confuse this film with the mediocre production of the same name starring Michael Douglas that was released in 1989.
  • “Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes” (1990). The video began as a made-for-television movie directed by Peter Werner and starring Max von Sydow and Judd Nelson, as well as Tamlyn Tomita, the star of “Hiroshima Maiden.” It was nominated for awards by the American Cinema Editors and the Directors Guild of America. It was also nominated for an Emmy Award. The film is a sanitized version of the attack on Hiroshima, possibly because American movies have not been interested in examining the horrific human effects of the bomb. Interweaving several stories along the lines of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the film is best in telling the story of Dr. Hara, a physician overwhelmed with critically ill people who continue to die weeks and months after the bomb. Dr. Hara begins to argue that their deaths were the result of radiation, then called “the A-Bomb disease.” Another benefit of the film is that it shows that the Japanese were not the only victims on August 6, 1945, as there were some American prisoners of war being held in the city as well as 30,000 Koreans who had been enslaved by the Japanese to work in war industries.


  • “After the Cloud Lifted: Hiroshima’s Stories of Recovery.” This documentary from RMS Communications, Inc. would be useful to show in conjunction with the “Hiroshima Maiden” because it has the story of Koko Kondo, daughter of Reverend Tanimoto, who came to the United States with the Hiroshima Maidens and came face to face with Captain Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the “Little Boy” bomb on Hiroshima. Made in 1996, this 35 minute documentary is recommended for high school students and above.
  • “Enola Gay and the Atomic Bombing of Japan.” This 1995 documentary from the History Channel deals with the harrowing fighting endured by American military on islands like Iwo Jima and the debate about whether to use the atomic bomb to end the war. Drawing upon new scholarship, the program suggests that President Truman knew that Japan was close to surrender even without the bomb and that much of his motivation in using the new weapon was to frighten the Soviets.
  • “Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima.” The art of Iri and Toshi Maruki is the subject of the 58-minute documentary. The artists began painting their murals of the atomic bombings in 1953 and later undertook the depiction of the Japanese atrocities in Nanking and the sufferings of those at Auschwitz.
  • “Hiroshima: Hallmark/Showtime Presents.” This 1995 documentary runs 165 minutes and begins when Franklin Delano Roosevelt dies and the momentous decision about what to do with the just developed nuclear bombs falls upon Harry Truman. Using archival film and reenactments, students will see a fair presentation of the alternatives available to the United States and will witness the consistent rejection by Japanese militarists of the possibility of surrender. Variety said that the program “emerges as a searing, mesmerizing dramatic event: it’s about as good as TV can offer.” The video is recommended for secondary students.
  • “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Was Truman’s Decision to Use the Bomb Justified?” This 20 minute video is a good introduction to the debate over whether the United States was right to use the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan. It gives a balanced summary of both sides and allows students to make up their own minds. It is produced by Zenger Video.
  • “Hiroshima-Nagasaki: August 6, 1945.” This 17 minute documentary was produced in 1970 but remains a classic. It features the first footage shot after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In August, 1945, the Japanese government commissioned Akira Iwasaki, a filmmaker who had been in prison for his anti-war beliefs, to go to the ruined cities and photograph the destruction. Unfortunately, the United States classified the footage for 20 years, fearing that documenting the extent of the devastation would lead to anti-nuclear sentiment. In 1970, the film was at last edited and released, and its simple eloquence makes it wear well these decades later. It is recommended for secondary schools and colleges.
  • “Hiroshima: Why the Bomb was dropped.” Peter Jennings narrated this 1995 documentary. He begins by asking: “Why was it dropped? Did it shorten the war? Did it save American lives? Was it necessary? Were there alternatives? Did the United States need to be the first and only nation to use an atomic bomb?” The phrasing of the questions suggests the answers, and in interviews with scholars like Gar Alperovitz, the program suggests that the Japanese would have surrendered without the bomb, and that even if an invasion of the home islands had been necessary, it would have been far less costly in human lives than President Truman contended. The documentary created a firestorm when it was produced, and could be used to examine how America views itself as a nation and the American way of war.
  • “No More Hiroshima!” During the 26 minutes of this award-winning video produced in 1984, students will hear the accounts of “hibakusha” or those who survived the atomic attack. As the title indicates, much of the emphasis is placed upon making sure that no other people ever have to endure what the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. It is available from First Run/Icarus Films and is recommended for middle school students and above.
  • “The Spirit of Hiroshima” Three survivors tell their harrowing stories and their determination to share their experiences with the younger generation so that the tragedy of the bombing will not be repeated. This 56-minute video uses interviews and archival footage to make the atomic attacks vivid to high school and college students.


  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Japanese Experience. This excellent lesson plan was written for grades 9-12 and college for a two-week unit using three documentaries (Hiroshima-Nagasaki: August 6, 1945, Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima, and Hiroshima: Why the Bomb was Dropped) and three feature films (Barefoot Gen, Black Rain, and Rhapsody in August, about Nagasaki). The most useful part of the guide are the suggestions for specific clips to be shown to the class.
  • “Hiroshima: Perspectives on the Atomic Bombing.” This guide is for use with secondary school students and contains 11 activities, reproducible pages, and 46 slides to illustrate lectures. A strength of the project is the use of primary sources and small group work. It is available from the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education.


In addition to the websites which may be described in the text, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Lesson Plan:

  • “The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered” by Barton F. Bernstein, Foreign Affairs, January, 1995; pp 135 – 152;
  • “Ike on Ike; Newsweek, Nov. 11, 1963 pp 167 – 168;
  • Japan’s Decision to Surrender, by Robert J.C. Butow, 1954, Stanford University Press;
  • Fighting to a Finish, Leon V. Sigal, 1988, Cornel University Press;
  • Turbulent Era, by Joseph C. Grew, 1952, Houghton Mifflin Company;
  • The Rising Sun, by John Toland, Random House;
  • The Pathology of Power by Norman Cousins,W.W. Norton & Co.;
  • I Was There, by William D. Leahy, McGraw-Hill;
  • The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. II, The Atomic Energy Years, by David E. Lilienthal, Harper & Row Publishers;
  • The Last Great Victory by Stanley Weintraub, Truman Talley Books, 1995;
  • The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb by Gar Alperovitz, 1995, Vintage Books;
  • The Atom Bomb, Tamara L. Rollef, Editor, 2000, Greenhaven Press, Inc.; This book is designed for students and contains excerpts of articles, some from participants in the decisions and others from well-known scholars and commentators, relating to the first use of the atom bomb;
  • “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” by Henry L. Stimson, Harper’s Magazine, February, 1947;
  • “The Scientists: Their Views Twenty Years Later,” by William L. Laurence in Hiroshima Plus 20 prepared by The New York Times.

Credits and Thanks: The Bridges to Reading and Movies on Related topics were written by Dr. Kathleen Minnix.