Presidential Decision-Making: The Atomic Bomb

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Presidential Decision-Making: The Atomic Bomb
Should the United States have used the atomic bomb against the Japanese during WWII? After more than 50 years this question still remains controversial, stirring up strong feelings and heated debates. This lesson asks students to address this topic in a scholarly and objective manner. By setting themselves within the context of 1945 America, and understanding the arguments on all sides of the debate, students will gain an understanding of the complexities of presidential decision-making while being allowed to come to their own educated decision regarding the use of the bomb.
In 1945, the decision to use the bomb lay ultimately in the hands of President Truman. The President, however, did not make his decision in a vacuum, but sought the advice of many experts. In this lesson, students will take on the roles of these contemporary historical figures. They will become “experts” on their character, learning the arguments for and against the dropping of the bomb. Then, in an advisory conference format, each will present and defend their assigned position for or against the use of the bomb. The lesson will culminate with the students writing and defending their own, personal position on the use of the bomb.
*A basic understanding of World War II history is necessary for completion of this activity.

Time Required
One to two class periods will be needed to complete this activity – less class time will be needed if research and writing is done outside of class.


  1. The question of whether the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan was the right thing to do is still one of the most highly debated topics among Americans. An initial discussion might focus on the moral issue, since the issues surrounding the decision touch on core values of each individual. Should there be moral rules in war? What constitutes a violation of those rules? Who should decide what the moral boundaries are? Teachers also might ask students to write an initial opinion concerning the bomb decision. These opinions can then be compared with the final essays – did critical study of the presidential decision cause students to change their opinions, or did it serve to reinforce them?

  1. Pass out the ROLE CARDS, giving students time to read the descriptions. It would be best not to allow students to trade cards with others or chose their own role since part of the exercise is defending a position regardless of whether or not you agree with it. NOTE: since only sixteen cards are provided, if you have a larger class you have several options:

  1. You can create two large groups. At the end of the activity you can compare the decisions reached by each group.

  2. Additional role cards can be created emphasizing other people who were not necessarily part of Truman’s inner circle. Examples could include average American soldiers, U.S. citizens, or Japanese citizens.

  1. Students should create name cards to identify their role throughout the simulation.

  1. Divide the class into four groups as described below, and have them share their positions. Remind the students to stay in character throughout the simulation and argue only for their assigned position.

  • President Truman

  • Political Appointees - Byrnes, Stimson, Bard, Conant, Bush

  • Scientists - Oppenheimer, Compton, Teller, Szilard, Franck

  • Generals - Marshall, Leahy, Eisenhower, Groves, Arnold

  1. Each group should debate the various options coming up with a recommended plan of action for the president. Each participant must either sign onto the plan or write his or her own dissenting viewpoint. The question to be decided is, "Should President Truman drop the atomic bomb on Japan and why?" The groups should debate other alternatives and feel free to offer them such as, "Would a demonstration explosion or a specific warning be useful?" Three reasons should be given for the final decision that the group comes up with.

  1. In a meeting of all members under the direction of the decision-maker, President Truman, group leaders will present their plan to the President. Dissenters will have an opportunity to express their dissenting viewpoints. The President should feel free to have other members question a specific group's plan.

  1. The President should make his decision and announce it to the class.

  1. At the conclusion of the simulation, ask students to write a short essay on their personal opinion concerning the use of the atomic bomb. They will need to defend their position as the best and give reasons for why other alternatives would not have worked.

Role Cards

President Harry S. Truman
The atomic bomb is a terrible weapon that must only be used on military targets. The most important thing for you is to end the war as quickly as possible. However, to make a good decision, you need to carefully evaluate all of the advice available to you.

George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff

You have long advocated a plan to force the Japanese to surrender. Diplomacy has produced results but not to the extent of ending the war. Using the atomic bomb is one way to force an “unconditional surrender.” If the President believes that this is the best way to end the war, then you support the use of the bomb.

Arthur Holly Compton, physicist and scientific advisor to President Truman

You believe that the atomic bomb can be used for military purposes. A demonstration cannot be made to work; however, you have sympathy for the views of Leo Szilard. You believe that he raises good questions that must be addressed.

Leslie R. Groves, Commanding General of the Manhattan Project

In order to defeat Japan, we must use the bomb. The sudden shock and surprise of the bomb will force Japan to surrender. Furthermore, as director of the atomic bomb building project, you want to see the weapon used. It was one of the most expensive projects in military history, and you want to make sure that the atomic bomb makes a contribution to the war.

James Franck, physicist

You head a committee of scientists protesting the use of the atomic bomb as a military weapon. The development of nuclear power is dangerous. A demonstration should take place to show the nations of the world the power that the U.S. has harnessed. Also, an international agreement should follow the demonstration so that an arms race does not develop. The last thing we need is a world filled with thousands of atomic bombs.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the Manhattan Project’s Research Laboratory

As the chief scientist on the production of the atomic bomb, you believe that it has important military uses. A demonstration of the bomb would not be enough to cause Japan to surrender. By using the bomb, you hope to avoid a costly invasion of the Japanese mainland island.

William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to the President and Fleet Admiral

It is your opinion that the atomic bomb is of no military use because the Japanese are already defeated and ready to surrender. If the U.S. becomes the first to use the weapon then we will have adopted the ethical standard of barbarians. Atomic weapons are similar to poison gas – both are barbaric.

Dr. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development

Your initial thoughts were that a demonstration should take place either on enemy territory or in the U.S. However, when considering the current situation, you believe that the atomic bomb will create a powerful psychological shock to the people of Japan, such that they will want to surrender immediately.

James F. Byrnes, Secretary of State

You favor the immediate use of the atomic bomb. A warning would not be wise because it may give time for the Japanese to move American prisoners of war to the target site. Also, an air dropped atomic bomb has never been tested. If we announce a test and then the test fails, we would look foolish to the Japanese, and it might encourage them to continue their fighting.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, General of the U.S. Army

It is your understanding that Japan is already defeated, thus an atomic attack is completely unnecessary. Furthermore, the U.S. should not shock the world with such a weapon. A surprise use of the bomb would damage the respect that we have built up in the world community.

James B. Conant, Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee

At first, you advocated a demonstration strike, but as you researched the situation you came out in support for a real-world use of the bomb. A city with many war factories should be the target. However, you believe that caution should be used with such a weapon. The atomic bomb is so dangerous that international control should be placed on the technology. No one country should have a monopoly on its use.

Ralph Bard, Under Secretary of the Navy

As a member of the Interim Committee commissioned by President Truman to decide how to use the bomb, you have been highly involved in the discussions. You feel that Japan may be searching for an opportunity to end the war. This possibility should be given a chance. Furthermore, you think that a warning should be given before the bomb is dropped. A two to three day warning would demonstrate that the United States is a humanitarian nation.

Leo Szilard, physicist

You originally persuaded President Roosevelt to approve a plan to develop an atomic bomb. But your original intention was to create an A-bomb before Germany did. Because of the Holocaust, it was necessary to use such a destructive weapon. After Germany was defeated on May 8, 1945, there was no need to use the atomic bomb. In addition, the use of such a weapon could lead to a proliferation of similar weapons that would threaten future generations. To use it now would be an international crime.

Henry Arnold, Commanding General, U.S. Army Air Force

The current bombing campaign against Japan has brought the country just about to its knees. The atomic bomb will not push the Japanese to surrender any faster than the thousands of regular bombs that we are dropping on them daily.

Edward Teller, Manhattan Project physicist

The atomic bomb is an astounding achievement of American science. Its potential, as a tool of power, should not be restrained. It gives the U.S. the advantage over every other country. We should not be afraid to use it. Nor should we stop with production. An arsenal of nuclear weapons will ensure a long and stable peace.

Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War

You have been involved in the program to develop the atomic bomb for a number of years now. It is your opinion that the atomic bomb should be used to make a profound psychological impact on the Japanese people. If the bomb can speed up the end of the war then it should be used. A city with many war factories should be bombed, but not the capital.

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