Scenes from the Headlines: Lessons and Ideas for Discussion Lesson Plan

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J. Paul Getty Museum Education Department

Scenes from the Headlines: Lessons and Ideas for Discussion Lesson Plan

Debating the Bomb

Grades: High School (9–12)

Subjects: Visual Arts, History—Social Studies

Time Required: 3–4 class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

Featured Getty Artworks

Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud by anonymous U.S. Army Air Force photographer, August 9, 1945
Lesson Overview

Students will research how the development of the atomic bomb affected people in World War II, participate in a debate over its use, and investigate how the bomb has affected people’s lives since 1945.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

- analyze photographic images.

- research a specific topic within world history.

- participate in a debate about whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb to end World War II.

-understand what it was like to live during the Cold War with the threat of nuclear weapons.


- Image of Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud

- For background information, see “Timeline: The Atomic Bomb”

- Research materials such as encyclopedias, the library, and the Internet

Lesson Steps

The decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was and still is a controversial subject. The ramifications of creating and using the world’s first nuclear weapon are still with us today and have shaped much of world history for the past 60 years. Through research and debate, this lesson will allow students to examine the reasons the bomb was made and used, and to determine its long-term effects.

1. Begin by using the following questions to examine the image, Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud.

- This is a photo of the atomic bomb blast over Nagasaki, Japan. Begin by describing what you see in the photograph.

- From what point of view do we see the atomic bomb blast?

- Where is the photographer situated? Why would he or she have wanted to take the photo from that location?

- Do you think the photograph glorifies or condemns the power of the bomb? What aspects of the image support your conclusion?

- Do you think this image removes the emotional impact of the devastating effects of the bomb? Why? Why would you want to remove the emotional impact pf such a destructive device?

2. Divide the students into groups and have them research and answer the following questions:

- Describe the events leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What was happening in the war? What was happening in the U.S.? How was the atomic bomb developed?

- If you were the president in 1945, would you have used the atomic bomb on Japan?

- What was the justification for using the bomb and killing so many people?

- What were the effects of the bomb in the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the days and years following its detonation?
3. Once they have completed their research over a couple of class periods, have them report their findings to the class.
4. Once everyone has presented, hold a class debate about the conflicting issues over the use of the bomb, considering this question:

Looking through the lens of history at all that we know has happened since 1945, do you think we can look back on this moment and make a clear judgment on whether or not we should have used the atomic bomb on Japan?

5. Have students interview someone who lived in America from the 1950s through the 1980s, during the Cold War. Students should write a report on their findings.

- What are their interviewee’s thoughts on the A-bomb and its use on Japan in 1945?

- Was the person afraid of a possible nuclear war?

- What country did they fear was most likely to start a nuclear war?

- Were they afraid of being killed by a nuclear bomb?
6. After students have debated the issues and spoken to someone about the Cold War, have them re-examine the image of the Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud and ask some of the same questions you asked at the beginning of this lesson to see if their interpretation of the image has changed:

- Do you think the photograph glorifies or condemns the power of the bomb? What aspects of the image support your conclusion?

- How has your impression of this image changed after doing all of your research?

- Do you think this is an unemotional image? Why or why not?

- Do you think it is possible to understand this image without knowing the history behind it?

Students will be assessed based on their participation in class discussion and their ability to work collaboratively to do research on the topic.


A. Have a discussion about nuclear proliferation (the spread from nation to nation of nuclear technology), including both nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

- What are the threats of nuclear weapons being used today?

- Why are many countries concerned with the development of nuclear weapons by countries like India and Pakistan, or North Korea?

- With our knowledge of the destructive power of such weapons, consider the motivations of countries who are still pursuing the development of such weapons.

- What is a dirty bomb? What do government officials mean when they talk about the possibility of terrorists creating a “dirty bomb”?

- What should be done with the weapons that are still lingering from the stockpile of nuclear arms created in the Cold War?
B. Look in books or on the Web for other images of the bombing and destruction of Nagasaki, Japan, and compare them to the image Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud. How do other images portray the bombing or its destructive power?
While we assume the person who took the mushroom cloud image was an Air Force serviceman we don’t know that for sure. It is known that there were three other planes on the mission, and that a reporter for The New York Times was on one of them, covering the story. Write a job description for the photographer who would be going on assignment to capture the devastating effects of the nuclear blast over Nagasaki. Students can use encyclopedias and books and search the Internet for writings about the subject.
C. Investigate how Japanese Americans were treated in the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war. The lesson and image listed below address this issue:
- Image: Pledge of Allegiance by Dorothea Lange
- Lesson Plan: Dorothea Lange and the Relocation of Japanese Americans

Standards Addressed
Visual Arts Proficient Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grades 9-12

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context

Diversity of the Visual Arts
3.3 Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.
History—Social Science Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 10

10.9 Students analyze the international developments in the post-World World War II world.

Analyze the causes of the Cold War, with the free world on one side and Soviet client states on the other, including competition for influence in such places as Egypt, the Congo, Vietnam, and Chile.

Understand the importance of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, which established the pattern for America's postwar policy of supplying economic and military aid to prevent the spread of Communism and the resulting economic and political competition in arenas such as Southeast Asia (i.e., the Korean War, Vietnam War), Cuba, and Africa.

© 2005 J. Paul Getty Trust

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