Student Activities, Other Education Materials

Debating the Atomic Bomb

Grade Level:
High School: Ninth Grade through Twelfth Grade
Social Studies
Common Core Standards:
9-10.RI.1, 9-10.RI.7, 9-10.RI.8, 9-10.RI.10, 11-12.RI.1, 11-12.RI.7, 11-12.RI.10, 9-10.SL.2, 9-10.SL.4, 9-10.SL.6, 11-12.SL.1, 11-12.SL.4, 11-12.SL.6, 9-10.W.2
State Standards:
Washington State: H1.9-10.2 H1.11-12.1 H2.9-10.4 H2.11-12.2 H2.11-12.5 H3.9-10.2 H3.11-12.1 H3.11-12.4 H3.11-12.7 H4.11-12.2 H4.11-12.3 

A black and white photograph of Dr. Leona Woods Marshall Libby.

Download Lesson Plan    

Essential Question 

Was dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a necessary use of force to end World War II? 


  1. Analyze primary and secondary sources to form a claim.  
  2. Detect useful pieces of text evidence.  
  3. Explain evidence and reasons with a clear line of reasoning. 
  4. Orally defend a position amongst a group of peers. 
  5. Recall and describe information from multiple sources. 


World War II officially began on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Soon countries from around the world were fighting the largest war the world has ever seen. There were two main groups of countries that fought in World War II: the Allied Powers and the Axis Powers. The United States (US) joined the Allied Powers after Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by Japan, an Axis Power, on December 7, 1941. These two groups were fighting the war on two main fronts referred to as the Pacific Theater and the European Theater. The European Theater included countries in northern Africa and western Asia. 

If they wanted to win the war, the US decided they had to create better weapons, and they were going to have to beat Nazi Germany in the race to create the atomic bomb. US Military leaders hired well known and highly skilled scientists and engineers to develop the new weapons. Many of them were refugees from the war or had fled Nazi Germany prior to the war to avoid persecution by the Nazi government. The government established this as a top-secret project so that these devices could be made without the Axis countries, especially Nazi Germany, knowing. The first secret headquarters for this project was in a skyscraper hidden in plain sight in the heart of Manhattan in New York City, hence the name “Manhattan Project.” Once the project leaders realized they needed thousands of workers and large areas of land to be successful, they created three “secret cities” in, Hanford Washington, Los Alamos New Mexico, and Oak Ridge Tennessee. There were many other secret sites located throughout the US and even a few in Canada, but none were as large as the three “secret cities” of Hanford, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge. 

World War II in Europe ended when Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 2, 1945, but Germany’s Axis ally Japan did not surrender, and war continued in the Pacific Theater. US President Harry S. Truman gave the order to drop Little Boy atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945 and then demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan. Japan answered with only silence, refusing to surrender. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb, Fat Man, over Nagasaki, Japan. On September 2, 1945, Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese government surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II. 

While the Manhattan Project was a wartime effort during World War II, it has had lasting impacts and the entire world is affected by the advent of nuclear science. The use of atomic weapons in the last days of the war launched the nuclear age and the many scientific developments during the Manhattan Project led to significant changes and evolutions in science and technology. Nuclear energy provides electricity for millions of people and nuclear medicine has created major advancements in health care and life-saving technology for many ailments, including cancer. 

On the other hand, when the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in the waning days of World War II, tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, lost their lives, and many who survived suffered lifelong health impacts. Further, the environment in and around Hiroshima and Nagasaki endured significant radioactive contamination. The Manhattan Project also started a “Cold War” and a nuclear arms race that resulted in the development of thousands of nuclear weapons throughout the world and it created environmental damage that will impact the earth for tens of thousands of years. In the development of the “secret cities” the Manhattan Project displaced people from their land, many of which were traditional homelands where their ancestors had lived and worked the land for thousands of years. Tens of thousands of people who moved to the secret cities to work on the Manhattan Project were people of color and the Manhattan Project would not have been possible without them. Yet, they were segregated from their white co-workers and required to live in terrible housing conditions, and many were not allowed to bring their children, nor could they live with their spouse. Most of them were only granted access to low paying jobs, often with no opportunity for promotion, and their work on the Manhattan Project is not well recognized. 

Manhattan Project National Historical Park is tasked with researching and learning about these stories and presenting them to the public in a genuine manner that talks about how the Manhattan Project impacted people, politics, history, science, technology, the environment, human health, and the modern world.


Prepare supplies and digital technology.   

  1. Print the Gallery Walk Visuals for the gallery walk and display them around the classroom, the hallway, the cafeteria etc. This lesson works well when students can spread out. Alternatively, they could display each one at laptop stations that students travel through. Or documents can be uploaded to a common interface and students can work alone from their seats.  
  2. Print Student T-Chart Worksheet.  
  3. Have the Teacher Example T-Chart available. 
  4. Print Student Webquest Worksheet.   
  5. Print Research Organizer.

Lesson Hook/Preview 

Gallery Walk:  

  • Students will complete a gallery walk around the classroom, viewing different texts/visuals that relate to the atomic bombings.
  • As students walk around, they will fill out the Student T-Chart Worksheet. The left side is “What do you see, what do you notice?” For example, students might notice who the author is, describe the picture they are seeing, or write down an interesting quote. The right side is “What could it mean? What does it show?” For example, students might explain the meaning of a quote, or provide deeper thoughts on the photo.   
  • Before students begin the gallery walk the teacher may model how to complete one row of the T-Chart (see Teacher Example T-Chart).  
  • After the gallery walk the teacher can have a class discussion explaining the importance of each text/graphic. Making sure that students were correct with their initial observations. 


  • After the gallery walk, ask students to stand up. Students who are leaning towards the claim that the atomic bombs were necessary can go stand on the left wall. Students who are leaning towards the claim that the atomic bombs were unnecessary may go stand on the right wall of the classroom. Students who are undecided may stand at the back of the classroom. 
  • Ask students to turn and tell a partner “Why they chose this side of the room?” Give 3-4 minutes for students to share. Teacher conducts whole class discussion asking various students to share their reasoning with the class. Undecided students can share what part of the research they want to dive deeper into before making a decision. 


  1. Students are given the Webquest Worksheet and they can work through it alone or with a partner. Before dismissing class have students turn and talk with a partner to share the most interesting thing they learned. Allow some students to share with the whole class.  
  2. Students choose a side to defend and work to complete the Research Organizer. Students will choose a source, evaluate its credibility, cite evidence, and explain what the evidence shows.   
  3. Teachers may give students the list of possible sources, just some of the sources, or none at all (see Teacher Source List). Modifications can be made to decide what is best for your students. 
  4. Students watch a video that shows an example of a Socratic seminar. Teacher has students write two higher-level questions in preparation for the Socratic seminar. Teacher may scaffold with Sample Question Stems.   
  5. Teacher reiterates the purpose of the inner circle is to have the discussion while the outer circle observes. Halfway through the class period the circle participants will switch. The “hot seat” is one open chair in the inner circle, where an outer circle student may sit if they have a burning piece of information to share. After sharing they return to the outer circle. After clarifying expectations, teacher supervises the Socratic seminar.  
  6. After the Socratic seminar students write a concluding statement, summing up their claim while also explaining the implications and relevance of this topic today.  


  1. Petition- a formal written request, typically one signed by many people, appealing to authority with respect to a particular cause. 
  2. Declaration- the formal announcement of the beginning of a state or condition. 
  3. Elders- a leader or senior figure in a tribe or other group. 
  4. Legacy- something handed down from an ancestor, or someone older in the family 

Assessment Materials   

Students participate in a Socratic seminar to show an understanding of the standards. Teacher may print a class roster and give students a check-mark each time they participate in a meaningful way. The roster and Research Organizer can be used to assess the standards.  

Enrichment Activities 

Students may consider: 

  • A tour out to the B-Reactor 
  • Interviewing a docent 
  • Conducting deeper research, searching in the Hanford History Project archives
  • Completing a public service campaign that supports their claim 
  • Writing a poem that has a tone fitting to the audience and purpose 
  • Writing a letter to a government official about Hanford clean-up or necessity of keeping peace a priority 
  • Publishing a speech about their claim onto YouTube 

Support and Additional Resources 

  • Support for Struggling Learners: Many scaffolds are available in this lesson. Academic vocabulary is already added to gallery walk document. Consider using the question stems, and self-selecting sources for a struggling learner. Make sure closed captioning is on for all videos shown. Students may be pulled into a small group while teacher models how to analyze a source closely. Students nervous about speaking in a large group may also practice in one-on-one situations with teacher and even a small group setting beforehand. 

Contact Information 

Email us about this lesson plan 


Full lesson plan.

Download "Debating the Atomic Bombs" Lesson Plan

Students will walk around the classroom, viewing the different visual that relate to the atomic bombings.

Download Gallery Walk Visuals

As students walk around, they will fill out a T-chart worksheet.

Download Student T-Chart Worksheet

Teachers may refer to the sample T-chart.

Download Teacher Example T-Chart

Students are given a webquest worksheet.

Download Student Webquest Worksheet

Students work to complete the research organizer.

Download Research Organizer

List of possible sources.

Download Teacher Source List

Sample question stems for the Socratic seminar.

Download Sample Question Stems

Last updated: March 1, 2023