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Was the decision to drop atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a military necessity? If not, was it justifiable for a reason other than military necessity?


The following documents focus on the Pacific Theater during World War II and the decision by President Harry S. Truman and his advisors to use the world‟s first atomic weapons on Japan. You are to read/analyze each of the following documents in the order that they appear. Following each document you are to answer the questions based upon your reading/analysis to the best of your ability. Then you will utilize the documents, your answers to the questions, and your prior knowledge to write a well-organized 5-7 paragraph essay based on the following prompt. Your essay should include an introductory paragraph followed by a body that includes specific details from the documents that have been provided for you.

Essay Prompt

One of the most controversial turning points in history was the decision made by U.S. President Harry S. Truman to use atomic

weapons on Japan, the lone remaining Axis Power at the

A "Fat Man" test unit being raised from the pit into the bomb bay of a B-29 for bombing practice during the weeks before the attack on Nagasaki. (Photo from U.S. National Archives, RG 77-BT)
conclusion of World War II. In your opinion, was the decision to

drop atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a

military necessity? If not, was it justifiable for a reason other than

military necessity?

Historical Background

In the early morning hours of July 16, 1945, great anticipation and fear ran rampant at White Sands Missile Range near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, could hardly breathe. Years of secrecy, research, and tests were riding on this moment. "For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and when the announcer shouted, „Now!' and there came this tremendous burst of light followed abruptly thereafter by the deep growling of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief," recalled General L. R. Groves of Oppenheimer, in a memorandum for Secretary of War George Marshall. The explosion, which carried more power than 20,000 tons of TNT and was visible for more than 200 miles, had succeeded. The world's first atomic bomb had been detonated.

With the advent of the nuclear age, new dilemmas in the art of warfare arose. The war in Europe had concluded in May. The Pacific war would receive full attention from the United States War Department. As late as May 1945, the U.S. was engaged in heavy fighting with the Japanese at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In these most bloody conflicts, the United States had sustained more than 75,000 casualties. These victories insured the United States was within air striking distance of the Japanese mainland. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese to initiate United States entrance into the war, just four years before, was still fresh on the minds of many Americans. A feeling of vindication and a desire to end the war strengthened the resolve of the United States to quickly and decisively conclude it. President Harry Truman had many alternatives at his disposal for ending the war: invade the Japanese mainland, hold a demonstration of the destructive power of the atomic bomb for Japanese dignitaries, drop an atomic bomb on selected industrial Japanese cities, bomb and blockade the islands, wait for Soviet entry into the war on August 15, or mediate a compromised peace. “Operation Olympia”, a full-scale landing of United States armed forces, was already planned for the Japanese island of Kyushu on November 1, 1945, and a bomb and blockade plan had already been instituted over the Japanese mainland for several months.
The Japanese resolve to fight had been seriously hampered in the preceding months. Their losses at Iwo Jima and Okinawa had been staggering. Their navy had ceased to exist as an effective fighting force and the air corps had been decimated. American B-29 “Superfortresses” made bombing runs over military targets on the Japanese mainland an integral part of their air campaign. Japan's lack of air power hindered their ability to fight. The imprecision of bombing and the use of devastating city bombing in Europe eventually swayed United States Pacific theater military leaders to authorize bombing of Japanese mainland cities. Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe all were decimated by incendiary and other bombs. In all, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in these air strikes meant to deter the resolve of the Japanese people. Yet, Japanese resolve stayed strong and the idea of a bloody "house-to-house" invasion of the Japanese mainland would produce thousands more American and Allied casualties. The Allied leaders declared at the Potsdam Conference in late July 1945 that the Japanese must unconditionally surrender.
After Japanese leaders flatly rejected the Potsdam Declaration, President Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb anytime after August 3,1945. On the clear morning of August 6, the first atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy”, was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. Leveling over sixty percent of the city, 70,000 residents died instantaneously in a searing flash of heat, while many thousands more were killed as buildings crumbled as a result of the explosion‟s shock wave throughout the city. Three days later, on August 9, a second bomb, “Fat Man”, was dropped on Nagasaki. Over 20,000 people died instantly. In the successive weeks, tens of thousands more Japanese died from the after-effects of the radiation exposure of the blast.

-taken from the President Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

Part I – Read/view the following historical documents. Answer each question immediately following the individual documents.
Document A: The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (from


The USS Arizona burned for two days after the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. The wreckage of the Arizona remains at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, where it still leaks a quart of oil daily.

  1. Why did the U.S. Navy never authorize the salvage of the USS Arizona?

  1. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began just before 8AM on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Within a short time, five of eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were sunk or sinking, with the rest damaged. Several other ships and most Hawaii-based combat planes were also knocked out, and over 2,400 Americans were dead. Was the devastation of Pearl Harbor a result of American unpreparedness, or of superior Japanese planning? Explain your answer.

Document B: WWII-Era U.S. Poster Depicting the Bataan “Death March” in the Philippines (from

  1. How is the Japanese soldier depicted in this poster?

  1. What effect do you think this poster had on its intended audience in the United States?

Document C: Japanese Kamikaze Attacks on U.S. Ships in the Pacific Theater (from images/g270000/g273032.jpg)

  1. What has happened to the American ship in the picture to the right?

  1. How does this picture illustrate Japanese desperation towards the end of World War II?

Document D: Memoirs of General H. H. Arnold, Commander of the American Army Air Force in the

Second World War (1949)
The surrender of Japan was not entirely the result of the two atomic bombs. We had hit some 60 Japanese cities with our regular H. E. (High Explosive) and incendiary bombs and, as a result of our raids, about 241,000 people had been killed, 313,000 wounded, and about 2,333,000 homes destroyed. Our B-29's had destroyed most of the Japanese industries and, with the laying of mines, which prevented the arrival of incoming cargoes of critical items, had made it impossible for Japan to carry on a large-scale war. . . . Accordingly, it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.

  1. According to the author, was Japan already on the verge of collapse? What evidence does he provide?

Document E: Dwight D. Eisenhower, recollections of a July 1945 meeting with President Harry S Truman (1948)
Another item on which I ventured to advise President Truman involved the Soviet's intention to enter the Japanese war. I told him that since reports indicated the imminence of Japan's collapse, I deprecated the Red Army's engaging in that war. I foresaw certain difficulties arising out of such participation and suggested that, at the very least, we ought not to put ourselves in the position of requesting or begging for Soviet aid. It was my personal opinion that no power on earth could keep the Red Army out of that war unless victory came before they could get in.

  1. According to Eisenhower, how could we stop the Soviets from entering the war?

Document F: Japanese Defenses of Iwo Jima, 660 miles south of Tokyo

“…seeing that it was impossible to conduct our air, sea, and ground operations on Iwo Jima toward ultimate victory, it was decided that in order to gain time necessary for the preparation of the Homeland defense, our forces should rely solely upon the established defensive equipment in that area, checking the enemy by delaying tactics. Even the suicidal attacks by small groups of our Army and Navy airplanes, the surprise attacks by our submarines, and the actions of parachute units, although effective, could be regarded only as a strategic ruse on our part. It was a most depressing thought that we had no available means left for the exploitation of the strategic opportunities which might from time to time occur in the course of these operations.”

- USA, FEC, HistDiv, "Operations in the Central Pacific"--Japanese Studies in World War II (Japanese Monograph No. 48, OCMH), p. 62.; cited in George W. Garand and Truman R. Strobridge (1971). History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II. Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. Vol IV, Part VI, Ch 1

  1. On the eve of the American invasion of the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima, how was the mood of the Japanese defenders of the island?

Document G: 'Memoirs of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson (1947)
The principal political, social, and military objective of the United States in the summer of 1945 was the prompt and complete surrender of Japan. Only the complete destruction of her military power could open the way to lasting peace. . . .
In the middle of July, 1945, the intelligence section of the War Department General Staff estimated Japanese military strength as follows: in the home islands, slightly under 2,000,000; in Korea, Manchuria, China proper, and Formosa, slightly over 2,000,000; in French Indo-China, Thailand, and Burma, over 200,000; in the East Indies area, including the Philippines, over 500,000; in the bypassed Pacific islands, over 100,000. The total strength of the Japanese Army was estimated at about 5,000,000 men. These estimates later proved to be in very close agreement with official Japanese figures. . . .
As we understood it in July, there was a very strong possibility that the Japanese government might determine upon resistance to the end, in all the areas of the Far East under its control. In such an event the Allies would be faced with the enormous task of destroying an armed force of five million men and five thousand suicide aircraft, belonging to a race which has already amply demonstrated its ability to fight literally to the death.
The strategic plans of our armed forces for the defeat of Japan, as they stood in July, had been prepared without reliance upon the atomic bomb, which had not yet been tested in New Mexico. We were planning an intensified sea and air blockade, and greatly intensified strategic air bombing, through the summer and early fall, to be followed on November 1 by an invasion of the southern island of Kyushu. This would be followed in turn by an invasion of the main island of Honshu in the spring of 1946. The total U.S. military and naval force involved in this grand design was of the order of 5,000,000 men; if all those indirectly concerned are included, it was larger still.
We estimated that if we should be forced to carry this plan to its conclusion, the major fighting would not end until the latter part of 1946, at the earliest. I was informed that such operations might be expected to cost over a million casualties, to American forces alone.

  1. According to the author, what was the only way that we could open the way to a lasting peace?

  1. According to the author, what other plans were in place before the atomic bomb was tested?

  1. Would those plans have worked? At what cost might they have worked?

Document H: Physical Map of Japan (from

  1. By the summer of 1945, American military strategists were planning “Operation Olympia”, a full-scale invasion of the Japanese home islands. Based on the map above, what would be difficult in conducting an invasion of Japan to force its surrender?

  1. Based on your prior knowledge of the Battle of Iwo Jima, for what other reason(s) would an invasion of the Japanese islands be a concern for American military planners?

Document I: The Boeing B-29 “Superfortress”

  1. This is a picture of a Boeing B29 “Superfortress” bomber. The Superfortress was a larger, faster bomber used by the American Army air force in the last months of World War II. It was also able to carry a larger payload than other American bombers. For what reason would it need to carry a larger payload?

Document J: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's recollections of news received during the Potsdam Conference, July 1945 (1953)
On July 17 world-shaking news had arrived. . . .
The atomic bomb is a reality. . . . Here then was a speedy end to the Second World War, and perhaps too much else besides. . . Up to this moment we had shaped our ideas towards an assault upon the homeland of Japan by terrific air bombing and by the invasion of very large armies. . . .

Now all this nightmare picture had vanished. In its place was the vision-fair and bright indeed it seemed-of the end of the whole war in one or two violent shocks. . . .

Moreover, we should not need the Russians. The end of the Japanese war no longer depended upon the pouring in of their armies for the final and perhaps protracted slaughter. We had no need to ask favours of them. A few days later I mentioned to Mr. Eden: "It is quite clear that the United States do not at the present time desire Russian participation in the war against Japan." The array of European problems could therefore be faced on their merits and according to the broad principles of the United Nations. We seemed suddenly to have become possessed of a merciful abridgment of the slaughter in the East and of a far happier prospect in Europe. I have no doubt that these thoughts were present in the minds of my American friends.

  1. According to Churchill, did the Allies want Russia to enter the war? Why or why not?

This is the mushroom cloud rising over Hiroshima, Japan. The city of Hiroshima was the target of the world‟s first atomic bomb attack at 8:16 a.m. on August 6, 1945. The cloud rose to over 60,000 feet in about ten minutes.

About 30 seconds after the explosion, the Enola Gay circled in order to get a better look at what was happening. By that time, although the plane was flying at 30,000 feet, the mushroom cloud had risen above them. The city itself was completely engulfed in a thick black smoke.

After the detonation and the subsequent destruction of Hiroshima, one of the crewmembers of the Enola Gay muttered, “Good God, how could anyone survive that down there?”
Document K: The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima (from


  1. From an altitude of over 40,000 feet, how immense must the destruction of Hiroshima been for the Enola Gay‟s crew to have been able to see it?

  1. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima actually killed less Japanese civilians than the fire-bombing of Tokyo several weeks earlier. Why was there no outcry after the Tokyo bombing?

Document L: Paul Fussell, U.S. Infantryman in Europe, upon Receiving Word of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki
“When the atom bombs were dropped and the news began to circulate that we would not be obligated in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared and shelled we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.”

– “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” by Prof. Paul Fussell

  1. Why would American troops assigned occupation duty in postwar Germany be relieved that American bombers had deployed two atomic weapons on Japan?

Document M: Nuclear physicist Leo Szilard's recollection of a 1945 meeting between James Byrnes and a

group of concerned atomic scientists (1949)
The question of whether the bomb should be used in the war against Japan came up for discussion. Mr. Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war. He knew at that time, as the rest of the Government knew, that Japan was essentially defeated and that we could win the war in another six months. At that time Mr. Byrnes was much concerned about the spreading of Russian influence in Europe. . . . Mr. Byrnes' concern about Russia I fully shared, but his view that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe I was not able to share. Indeed I could hardly imagine any premise more false and disastrous upon which to base our policy, and I was dismayed when a few weeks later I learned that he was to be our Secretary of State.

  1. Why did Mr. Byrnes believe the US needed to use the atomic bomb?

Document N: Report of a Scientific Panel (composed of nuclear physicists A. H. Compton, Enrico Fermi, E. 0. Lawrence and J. R. Oppenheimer) to the Secretary of War (June 16,1945)
The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous: they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of the military application best designed to induce surrender. Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this special weapon.

  1. What are the two sides presented in this report?

Document O: President Harry S. Truman’s Press Release Announcing the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and Statement Defending the Use of Atomic Weapons

I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb. Its production and its use were not lightly undertaken by this Government. But we knew that our enemies were on the search for it. We know now how close they were to finding it. And we know the disaster which would come to this nation, and to all peaceful nations, to all civilizations, if they had found it first.

That is why we felt compelled to undertake the long and uncertain and costly labor of discovery and production.
We won the race of discovery against the Germans.
Having found the bomb, we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned the pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.
…The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development… We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war… It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.

  1. According to Truman, who were we racing against in the quest for the atomic weapon?

  1. According to Truman, what would have happened if we didn’t find it first?

  1. According to President Truman, for what reason(s) was the atomic bomb used on Japan?

Document P: Letter from President Truman to Senator Richard Russell, August 9, 1945. [In response to Sen. Russell's wish that Japan be hit with more atomic and conventional bombing:]
I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can't bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in the same manner. For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the 'pigheadedness' of the leaders of a nation and, for your information, I am not going to do it until it is absolutely necessary... My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children in Japan."

  1. How does Truman’s tone change from the Document O to Document P?

Document Q: The Soviet Invasion of Japanese-Held Manchuria, August 8, 1945

  1. Why would the Soviet Union have ordered an invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima?

  1. Did the Soviet invasion of Manchuria influence President Truman‟s order for the bombing of Nagasaki the next day, or do you think it would have happened anyway? Explain your answer.

Document R: Critics of Truman’s Decision to Use Atomic Weapons

“…It is the Survey‟s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945 (well before the date of the [proposed] invasion) Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.”

-United States Army Air Force Strategy Bombing Survey, 1946

“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…My own feeling was that being the first to use [the atomic bomb], we adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children”

-Admiral William D. Leahy, President Truman‟s Chief of Staff, in his memoir “I Was There” (Whittlesey, 1950)

  1. For what reasons do these critics of President Truman‟s decision oppose the use of the atomic bomb?

  1. Based on the above statements, why do you think President Truman ordered the use of atomic bombs to end the war with Japan?

Document S: Colonel Paul Tibbets, Jr., and His Thoughts on the Use of Atomic Weapons on Japan
Colonel Tibbets was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B29 Superfortress that dropped the world‟s first atomic weapon on Hiroshima. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Tibbets was asked how he felt about his role in the world-altering events of August 1945:
“I was anxious to do it… I wanted to do everything that I could to subdue Japan. I wanted to kill the bastards. That was the attitude of the United States in those years…I have been convinced that we saved more lives than we took. It would have been morally wrong if we‟d have had that weapon and not used it and let a million more people die.”

-“The Men Who Brought the Dawn: The Atomic Missions of Enola Gay and Bock's Car”, Smithsonian Channel (1995)

  1. Does Col. Tibbets appear to have any remorse for dropping “Little Boy” on Hiroshima? Explain.

  1. For what reason(s) does Col. Tibbets support President Truman‟s decision to use atomic weapons?

NAME: ________________________________________ BLOCK: ____________DUE DATE: _____________________

DATA COLLECTION CHART: To be completed before the discussion/debate. You do not need to use all of the sources, just the ones that help support your claim below. Please fill in each space provided.

D.I.S.C. QUESTION: Was the decision to drop atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a military necessity? If not, was it justifiable for a reason other than military necessity?

  • Yes

  • No

Source / Author


Collect and list points from the sources that may help formulate a position on this question. Use quotes, paraphrases and explanations or descriptions of the sources to strengthen your argument and to refer to during our class debate and discussion.

CONCLUSION: To be completed after the discussion/debate.

  • After considering the evidence presented in the sources, answer the discussion question in a well-reasoned response that draws from the sources to support your position.

In your opinion, was the decision to drop atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a military necessity? If not, was it justifiable for a reason other than military necessity?


DEBATE PREPARATION: (teacher assessment)

  1. Tasks are completed in full before the class discussion.

  2. Answers to document questions are accurate.

  3. Shows evidence of a variety of sources being used to determine a position.

  4. Shows evidence of careful reading and analysis of sources.

  5. Shows evidence of careful selection and detail in evidence collection.

  6. Shows evidence of critical thinking about the issue or problem. Conclusions are well-reasoned.

20-18 = outstanding  17-15 = achieved expectations

14-11 = minimum achievement  10-0 = not achieved/incomplete

___ /20

DEBATE PARTICIPATION: (self assessment)

  1. Shows evidence of active, respectful listening. Is engaged in the discussion.

  2. Makes his/her position clear by sharing 1-2 comments during the discussion.

  3. Uses examples and evidence to support comments. Avoids vague or hypothetical comments.

  4. Shares well-reasoned points. Makes specific counter-points to other students’ ideas.

10-9 = outstanding  8.5-7.5 = achieved expectations

7-6 = minimum achievement  5-0 = not achieved/incomplete

___ /10

DISC CONCLUSION RUBRIC Name:________________________________
Score of 5

o Thoroughly addresses all aspects of the task by accurately analyzing and interpreting most of the documents.

o Incorporates relevant outside information

o Richly supports outline with relevant facts, examples, and details

o Writes a well-organized outline, consistently demonstrating a logical and clear plan of organization.

o Includes a strong introduction

o Includes a strong conclusion

o Includes an original thesis statement

Score of 4

o Addresses all aspects of the task by accurately analyzing and interpreting most of the documents.

o Incorporates relevant outside information

o Supports outline with relevant facts, examples and details-may be more descriptive than analytical

o Writes a well-organized outline, demonstrating a logical and clear plan of organization

o Includes a good introduction

o Includes a good conclusion

o Includes a clear thesis statement

Score of 3

o Addresses most aspects of the task or all aspects in a limited way

o Incorporates limited or no relevant outside information

o Uses some facts, examples, and details-but is more descriptive than analytical

o Writes a satisfactorily developed outline, demonstrating a general plan of organization

o States the theme in the conclusion

o Includes a thesis statement
Score of 2

o Attempts to address some aspects of the task by accurately analyzing and interpreting most of the documents

o Incorporates limited or no outside information

o Uses few facts, examples, and details-simply restates contents of documents

o Writes a poorly organized outline, lacking focus

o Has a vague or missing introduction

o Has a vague or missing conclusion

o Lacks a clear thesis statement

Score of 1

o Shows limited understanding of the task with vague, unclear references to the documents

o Presents no relevant outside information

o Attempts to complete the task but demonstrates a major weakness in organization

o Uses few or no accurate or relevant facts, details, or examples

o Has vague or missing introduction or conclusion

Score of 0

o Fails to address the task

o Writing is illegible

o Blank paper


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