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Lesson Plan on Mass Casualties
and Making Decisions About War

Comments for Teachers on Handouts and
Suggested Answers to Discussion Questions


This document is in draft form and is not complete.

Introduction: We have looked at this in depth reading the major sources on this issue and on a limited basis going to original texts and documents and obtaining our own informaton. As you will see, many of the major facts are subject to dispute. Many of the assumptions on which prior opinions about the decision were based have been challenged by subsequent research. In addition, the record of both the American and Japanese decision making at the end of WWII is not complete. President Truman, for example, had many unrecorded meetings with his advisors, particularly Secretary of State James Byrnes, in July and early August of 1945. The Japanese Imperial Authority has not revealed many of Emperor Hirohito's documents from this period.

Handout #2 is a pedagogical document which is designed to form the basis for debates and papers to be written by students, defending one position or the other.

A note on bias. This article is written by a U.S. citizen who is mindful of the benefits that the U.S. has bestowed upon his family. His tendency is to give his country and its leaders the benefit of the doubt. His mind changed a dozen times during the research for this lesson plan and so it is clear that with new facts it may change again.

One thing is clear. This is the one instance of mass casualty that may have had some reasonable justification. It is therefor the best way to teach about mass casualties.

Before we start, a few notes about this subject:

Patriotism: A true patriot recognizes that his or her country can make mistakes. We expect the countries that were the Axis Powers in the Second World War (particularly Japan and Germany) to recognize that they made grievous mistakes in that war. We don't expect that Germans and Japanese will cease to love and cherish their countries. The United States is not immune from making mistakes, even grievous mistakes. There are many patriotic Americans who believe that the surprise atomic attacks on Japan were such mistakes. The solution, when a person or a country makes a mistake, is to examine the causes of the mistake and to try not to make it again.

There are some who cannot tolerate the thought that the U.S. made a mistake, especially a mistake that cost the lives of more than 300,000 people. This guide is being written in 2005 when the U.S. is at war in Iraq and is threatened from outside by terrorists. Feelings that it is unpatriotic to question our country's actions are especially strong during times of war or external threat. Therefore, before students are asked to analyze the facts relating to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or to answer questions about those attacks, they should be counseled that it is patriotic to analyze what our country has done in the past, acknowledge any errors that we have made.

Handout #1: The photographs of civilian casualties will certainly be disturbing.

Handout #2: We have reviewed the historical record and culled facts which we think should form the basis for an informed class discussion or an essay assignment on the issue. We have tried to include the major points made by each side of the argument. (For a version of Handout #2 with the authorities, see Handout #2 With Citations) This record is confusing, as many issues in history will be. Government officials and voters must often make decisions based upon confusing and contradictory fact patterns. We consider Handout #2 to be a work in progress and will add to this list as we are able to verify facts from time to time. We solicit submissions of any additional facts, but we will require documentary support for any additions to this list.

Handout #2 has been written for an advanced high school level class. For other classes feel free to edit what is provided.

INCLUDE IF POSSIBLE: (1) it was the primary duty of the U.S. government and President Truman to keep Allied casualties at a minimum and bring the war to a quick conclusion; this duty does not justify the killing of innocent civilians but it does inform the entire analysis;

(2) until August 14, 1945 the internal political stranglehold that the extreme militarists had over Japanese politics not been broken despite incredibly destructive conventional air raids, repeated defeats suffered by the Japanese Army, the virtual destruction of the Japanese Navy, an effective U.S. naval blockade, and the Alled triumph in Europe (the last of which allowed the Allies to press their full might against Japan); it was only after the atomic bombings and the Soviet Union's entry into the war that the Japanese politicians advocating surrender were able to summon the courage and political muscle to nuetralize the power of the militarists; and

(3) the main criticisms of U.S. policy are (a) the atomic bomb is a weapon of indiscriminate terror and should never be used; (b) the U.S. should have waited to see what the effects of continued conventional bombing of civilian areas, the blockade and the Russian entry into the war would have have been before using a weapon as terrible as the atomic bomb; (c) the U.S. should have offered a guarantee of Hirohito's safety and the continuance of the throne which would have ended the war without the use of the atomic bomb; (d) there were other less drastic means of using the bomb than an attack on a city with a primarily civilian population, such as a demonstration, an attack on a mitilary target such as what remained of the Japanese fleet, a large military base, etc.

Each of these criticisms has a rebuttal and the determination: Ultimately, it comes down to determining when either the will to fight or the power of the military extremists would have been broken within a short time after August of 1945. Events clearly show that the Japanese military would have sacrificed the Japanese nation to the Samuri credo that there was no honorable way to surrender. The will to fight remained even after the atomic bombings and Russian entry into the war and despite the fact that the U.S., which had been preoccupied with beating Germany, could turn the full force of its armed might against Japan. The question then remains over whether the civilian politicians advocating surrender would have been able to overpower the military or whether the Emperor would intervene and order the military to surrender, as he did on August 13. None of these individuals were known for their morality courage or interest in standing up to the militarists. The facts do not indicate that absent the atomic attacks, either would have occurred. On August 14, eight days after both atomic bombs had been dropped, the militarists were arguing that they could still win the war! They day before they had effectively blocked any move for surrender. One could only speculate whether or not the Emperor or the politicians would have acted or would have been successful in forcing the surrender of Japan in the absence of the atomic bomb attacks. Truman and the U.S. government as a whole, facing a daily mounting death toll and the impending gains by an increasingly hostile Soviet Union should not be called to account for not having relied on the ability of the civilian politicians or the Emperor to control the military exremists.

Of course, it is no excuse for American actions, but if the U.S. decision to fire bomb Japanese cities to the point of causing fire storms and to use atomic bombs on Japanese cities was morally questionable, the Japanese Emperor and those in control of the government of Japan at the time, bear even more responsibility. First, they conducted a war of agression on the U.S., the British Empire, China and many other nations. Japan claimed to be freeing Asian peoples from colonial dominance but imposed their own harsh rule in the areas that it conquered. Second, the first duty of the leaders of any country is to protect the lives and property of the people they rule. In the Spring or early Summer of 1945 no reasonable person could believe that Japan had any hope of winning the war. U.S. bombers cruised the Japanese skys at will, taking out entire sections of their cities. Second, the vaunted Japanese Army and its Navy had suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the Allies. Third, Japan was being choked to death by a naval blockade. Fourth, with Germany beaten, the U.S. and the Allies could muster their full might against Japan. Why didn't they surrender in June or July? There is no answer worth the several hundred thousand lives that were taken in those months and in early August.

The fact that Emperor Hirohito and the people around him would countenance delaying surrender for their own self-interest, to retain the imperial system, or to keep their own ideological purity shows an astounding lack of ethics. After all, what had the Imperial system done for Japan except to permit it to launch a failed war of agression that resulted in the deaths of millions of people. Hirohito and the Japanese government had the obligation to end the war in the Spring or early Summer of 1945, immediately, and without consideration for their own personal safety or for the continued existence of the institutions that brought them to power.

. was that there was a diplomatic solution that the U.S. should have explored more fully, i.e., allowing the Japanese to keep their Emperor. however, Hirohito had allowed the military extremists to use his name and the veneration that the Japanese people had for him to enlist support for a war of aggression in which millions of people died; in short, Hirohito was a war criminal; the Allies' reluctance to permit Hirohito to keep the throne as emperor of Japan was justified. +++++++

General Omar N. Bradley, Chief of Staff, United States Army, said in 1948, "We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon of the Mount . . . The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living." The Manhattan Project, Conclusions and Recommendations President Truman rightly described atomic bombs as a "a rain of ruin ... the like of which has never been seen on this earth." (Public Papers of the Presidents, Harry S. Truman, 1945, pg. 197, 199).

When President Truman told Winston Churchill at the Potsdam Conference of the tremendous power unleashed by the first test of an atomic weapon when they attended the July 1945 Potsdam Conference. Churchill said: "This is the Second Coming, in wrath."

For more on the destruction of Hiroshima, visit The Impact of the Atomic Bomb on Japan and Hiroshima--August 6th 1945. CNN has obtained a copy of rare footage made in the immediate aftermath of the attack by the Japanese Education Ministry. It had been confiscated by the American occupation force who feared that such stark evidence of the damage wreaked by the atomic bomb would lead to a worldwide outcry against the weapon and the country that had used it. To view parts of this film, visit this CNN site.