The dropping of an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki finally persuaded the Japanese to surrender, thus ending the Pacific campaign and World War II.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
The U.S. victory over the Japanese Navy at Midway succeeded in stopping the Axis advance in the Pacific, and by early 1943 the Marines had driven the Japanese from Guadalcanal. Thus began the long, slow process of forcing the enemy out of a series of fortified positions in the Central and South Pacific. The strategy employed was often called "island-hopping" or "leap-frogging"—concentrating on certain critical enemy bases while bypassing others in the hope that, cut off from their supply routes, they would "wither on the vine," as the American commander, Douglas MacArthur, put it. By early 1945 the noose was tightening around Japan itself, as Allied forces captured islands close enough to be used as airbases for bombing raids against Japanese cities. One by one the largest cities in Japan were hammered from the air—a strategy that culminated in the use of the first atomic bombs, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945. The government in Tokyo announced its surrender soon thereafter, bringing World War II to an end.
This lesson will guide students through the military campaigns of the Pacific theater, tracing the path of the Allied offensives. Through an examination of historical documents and the use of an interactive map, students will gain an understanding of what the Allies were trying to accomplish, and why. Moreover, they will consider the controversial issue of the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
How did the Allies manage to defeat Japan?
After completing this lesson, students should be able to
While the primary Allied effort continued to be focused against Germany until the spring of 1945, public sentiment in the United States was very much in favor of doing more than remaining on the defensive in the Pacific. The crushing victory over the Japanese Navy at the battle of Midway, and the tremendous output of American industry made it possible to go on the offensive against Japan even before the end of 1942. By early 1943 the enemy had been driven from Guadalcanal, and the long slow process of overcoming the Japanese defensive perimeter began.
Allied military planners decided on a two-pronged approach to the Pacific. One drive, spearheaded by the army and led by General Douglas MacArthur, would continue through the Solomon Islands, then through New Guinea, and finally liberate the Philippines. At the same time the U.S. Navy and Marines, under the overall command of Admiral Chester Nimitz, would mount a series of amphibious operations against enemy positions in the Gilbert, Marshall, Caroline and Mariana Island chains. Eventually the two offensives would join together for an anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands.
To carry out these offensives MacArthur and Nimitz would employ a strategy called "leap-frogging." Allied military planners reasoned that it would not be necessary to drive the Japanese from every one of their island strongholds—the key to victory would be to overcome key points in the enemy defense and seize only those islands that were most strategically valuable. By early 1944 the Americans could count on virtually unchallenged control of the skies and most of the sea-lanes, so that certain Japanese positions could be safely bypassed—their garrisons, cut off from their supply lines, would be left to "wither on the vine."
Both MacArthur and Nimitz would make steady progress in 1943 and 1944, but as time went on, Japanese troops increasingly fought to the death, so casualties on both sides were often staggeringly high. Realizing that an invasion of Japan itself would likely cause even more loss of life, President Harry S. Truman—who succeeded Roosevelt after the latter's death in April 1945—decided to use a powerful new weapon: the atomic bomb. In August two such bombs were dropped, on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On 10 August Japan surrendered, bringing World War II at long last to a close.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.
Download the blackline master for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
Perhaps most importantly, you should become familiar with the interactive map which accompanies this lesson, and which shows the locations of important events in the Pacific theater. Clicking on these locations will bring up pop-ups that include a paragraph or two of basic information about what happened there, as well as links to pages with more in-depth coverage, plus relevant campaign maps, photographs, and/or personal accounts by those who were there.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.
Using the documents and the map below, have students make a list of the areas that the Allies hoped to capture. After they have done this, they should click on locations 18–36 on the interactive map. To help ensure that students use the map to its full advantage, teachers might wish to have them complete the "scavenger hunt" that is included in the Master PDF (pages 7–9 in the PDF). Based on their examination of these resources, students should be able to discuss broadly the overall Allied strategy and why it was adopted. Further, they should be able to identify which strategic goals were met, and which were not.
Direct students to the following documents, either online or as handouts printed from the Master PDF (pages 1–6 of the PDF).
Have the students answer the following questions based on their reading:
Next ask the students to consult the interactive map, which will demonstrate how the offensive played out in reality.
Distribute to the students the set of documents in the Master PDF (pages 10-15 in the PDF) pertaining to President Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb against Hiroshima. These are excerpts from longer documents found online at the EDSITEment reviewed resource Project Whistlestop.
Based on their reading of these documents, students should then write an essay in response to the following: "Why did President Truman decide to use the atomic bomb against the Japanese city of Hiroshima?"
Print out and distribute to students the set of documents in the blackline master dealing with the decision of the Japanese government to surrender in the summer of 1945 (pages 16-23 in the PDF). These include:
From the EDSITEment reviewed resource The Avalon Project at Yale University:
After the students have had an opportunity to read through the documents, divide the class into pairs and give them the following resolution to be debated:
“The use of the atomic bombs caused Japan to surrender.”
Have one student in each pair take the pro side of the debate, and the other take the con side. Each pair should use the worksheet for this activity (page 24 in the PDF) to conduct a silent "Yeah, but" debate. The first student should begin by citing a fact from one of the documents in support of the resolution; this should be written on the "pro" side of the worksheet. The second student then follows by citing another fact in opposition to that point. This should continue until one student or the other runs out of relevant facts.
After students have completed the debate, teachers may wish to have the class discuss this topic, bringing in what they have learned from the second activity to address the larger issue of whether or not Truman's decision to drop the bomb was wise.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1–2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:
Students should also be able to identify the following locations on a blank map of the Pacific region, available at this site, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters:
Finally, students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:
Any of the engagements listed as locations on the interactive map could be topics for research papers, PowerPoint presentations, etc., as each pop-up includes a wealth of source material on the subject.
A great many movies have been made about this phase of the war in the Pacific—Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Operation Pacific (1951), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), In Harm's Way (1965), and Windtalkers (2002)—are just a few examples. Students could be asked to watch one of these movies and write an essay comparing it to the real events on which the film was based. Here again, the sources linked from the locations on the interactive map will be useful for background.
3 class periods