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Victory in the Pacific offers insights into American history topics including World War II, the U.S. role in the Pacific, military planning and strategy including the use of bombing campaigns, the human costs of war, the B-29 aircraft, first-person accounts of war, the decision to use atomic weapons, and more. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this website to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.
The following activities are grouped into four categories: geography, economics, history, and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.
Many people have wondered how the war in the Pacific would have ended if the United States had not dropped the atomic bomb, but the consequences of not dropping the bomb could well have extended far beyond Japan -- and continued long past 1945.
For example, if the United States had conquered Japan only after a long battle on the Japanese home islands that caused enormous casualties, how would that have affected relations between the two countries in the decades that followed? How would it have affected Japan's economic "rebirth" after the war?
In another example, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in August 1945. If the war had not ended around that time, how would that have affected Soviet actions in places like Manchuria, Korea, and Japan?
Or take this example: How might world events have been different after 1945 if the atomic bombings of Japan had not demonstrated the enormous destructive power of the bomb? Would fewer governments have attempted to build their own atomic bomb, or would countries that did build a bomb have been more willing to use it?
Working with one or two partners, think of one way in which later events would have been significantly different if the bomb had not been dropped. Then write a newspaper article based on this "counterfactual" scenario. (One example would be an article from December 7, 1946, describing ongoing combat on the Japanese home islands on the fifth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.) Compare your articles with those of your classmates: Which seem the most plausible? Do most of the articles suggest that the world was better off, or worse off, because the bomb was dropped?
The development of bomber aircraft.
The B-29 was a critical weapon in the war against Japan and one of the best-known bombers in U.S. history. How does it compare with the bombers that came before and after it?
Working alone or with a partner, research some topic related to this question. For example, you might compare the B-29 with two bombers used widely in the European war, the B-17 and B-24, both in the plane's capabilities and in the way it was used. Or you might compare the B-29 with today's B-2 "stealth" bomber in terms of size, range, crew, bomb load, and cost. Or you might prepare a "photo gallery" showing the most important bombers from World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the present day, along with basic information about each. Or you might look at the issue of bombing accuracy: how much more accurate are bombers today than they were in World War II, and how has this improvement affected the U.S. approach to bombing? Present your findings to the class.
Debating whether to drop the bomb.
Consult the results of this site's Online Poll which asks viewers what they would have advised President Truman regarding the possible use of the atomic bomb. Next, imagine that as an advisor to President Truman you have been told to prepare a memo for him outlining the arguments on both sides of this question. Your memo should present one moral argument for dropping the bomb, and one moral argument for not dropping it; one military argument for dropping the bomb, and one military argument for not dropping it; and one diplomatic argument for dropping the bomb, and one diplomatic argument for not dropping it.
Once you have completed this exercise, think about how it has changed your views on this issue. Would you have answered the poll question differently if you had done this exercise before voting? Read historians' answers to questions about the end of the war in the Online Forum to further explore these questions.
Civilians caught in the crossfire.
The war caused suffering to millions of civilians, like Koyu Shiroma and Yoshiko Hashimoto. What policy should the United States adopt regarding the protection of enemy civilians who are caught up in wartime combat?
Have the class vote on which of the following statements most closely expresses their view:
a) The United States should do whatever it takes to win any war it fights, regardless of the effects on enemy civilians.
b) The United States should never kill large numbers of enemy civilians deliberately, but can take actions that have a military purpose even if they are likely to have the side effect of killing civilians.
c) The United States should never take any military action that will kill large numbers of enemy civilians, regardless of the military benefits it would bring.
Record the results. Then conduct separate votes on that same question, using each of the following scenarios:
1) The war began with an unprovoked attack on the United States.
2) The enemy government is a dictatorship, so its civilians have no control over their government's policies.
3) The civilians who are at risk are not citizens of the enemy government but of a country that the enemy has defeated and occupied.
4) The enemy country is unable to defend itself militarily but refuses to surrender.
Record the results of all votes and compare them. Did the class's views on the question of protecting civilian lives change much under these different scenarios?
The "arsenal of democracy."
The U.S. economy's enormous productive capacity played a key role in the defeat of the Axis powers. Working together as a class, (a) prepare a graph on the board that shows the data in the table below, then (b) calculate the percentage increase in U.S. and Japanese military spending between 1939 and 1944. How would you summarize this data in a single sentence?
U.S. and Japanese Annual Military Spending, 1939-1944
(in billions of U.S. dollars)
1939 1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 United States 0.3 1.5 4.5 20.0 38.0 42.0 Japan 0.4 1.0 2.0 3.0 4.5 6.0
Figures adjusted for inflation to reflect 1944 prices.
Source: The Big 'L': American Logistics in World War II, edited by Alan Gropman (National Defense University Press, 1997).
Next, divide the items in the table below among the members of the class, individually or in groups of two. Each individual or group should (a) prepare a graph showing changes in output of the item between 1942 and 1944, (b) calculate the percentage change in output of that item during that period between 1942 and 1944, and (c) write a one-sentence summary of the available data on changes in output of that item.
Finally, discuss as a class why the 1941 and 1945 data should not be included in their graphs, but why this data is nevertheless valuable in analyzing changes in output.
U.S. Output of Selected Military Products
July 1, 1940 - July 31, 1945
Type of Aircraft
Military/special purpose (all)
Aircraft bombs (in tons)
Boots (in thou.)
Undershorts (in thou.)
Source: The Big 'L': American Logistics in World War II, edited by Alan Gropman (National Defense University Press, 1997).
War's ultimate cost.
As in any war, the most important "cost" of World War II was in lives. Analyze The Costs of War. As a class, brainstorm ways to make these large numbers of casualties easier to understand and appreciate. You might, for example, compare the number of casualties in one or more battles to the number of students in your class or school, or the number of residents in your community or county. For a more extensive investigation, research what proportion of the soldiers in a particular battle did not survive, then calculate the number of residents in your community that represents this same proportion.
Prepare a series of graphics that illustrate these comparisons and show them to other students: do the graphics succeed in making the number of casualties more meaningful?
Japan's expansion, America's response.
Review the maps charting Japan's imperial ambitions and the American military response. Then, as a class, use the information in those maps and other sources to create a series of cards, each containing a single location and a year in which an important event related to the conflict in the Pacific occurred, such as "Indochina 1940," "Philippines 1942," or "Philippines 1944."
When you have as many cards as there are students in the class, distribute one to each student. The student must find out what happened in that location in that year and write a sentence on the card summarizing that event. Then, have students attach their cards, one by one in chronological order, to a wall map to chart the rise and fall of Japanese power in the Pacific.
A global war.
Though the European and Pacific theaters of World War II were thousands of miles apart, critical battles in the two areas were occurring at the same time. Divide the class into two groups, one to examine each of the two areas. Using the timelines of the war in the Pacific and the war in Europe, each group should list the six events it thinks were most important in its theater of war. Then have the groups work together to construct a single timeline that presents both sets of events.
When you are done, each group should briefly describe each of the events on its part of the timeline and its reasons for including it. In your opinion, at what point in the war was the situation in each theater the most dangerous for the Allies? Did the "turning points" in the two theaters -- the point at which the Allies began to win the war -- occur around the same time?
- To get a feel for "counterfactual history," students might want to read the recent book What If? or other essays by historians on how history might have turned out differently if certain key events did not occur.
The U.S. Air Force website provides fact sheets on individual warplanes and a history of the air force. Information on the evolution of U.S. bombers can also be found at the Web site of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Information on the B-29 and other bombers made by Boeing is available at that company's website.
In this activity, the moral arguments should focus on whether dropping the bomb would lead to more or less human suffering. The military arguments should focus on whether dropping the bomb would shorten the war. The diplomatic arguments should focus on whether dropping the bomb would help the United States in its dealings with other nations.
You also could ask students to name other circumstances that might affect their views on what the U.S. policy should be in this area.
Students' graphs should accurately reflect the data, including the proper unit (e.g., numbers of ships, tons of bombs, thousands of pairs of boots). Students should also recognize that the 1940-1941 and 1945 figures are not comparable with those for 1942-1944 because they do not cover a time period of equal length (12 months), but that they are useful, for example, in showing the rapid increase in military production in 1942 compared to the previous two years.
You also might have students compare the casualties shown here to the Department of Defense's casualty update for the war on terror or in other wars. This link is directly to a .pdf document on the Department of Defense Web site. To get to the link via HTML, go to the department's Press Releases page and click on "OIF/OEF Casualty Update." (Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom).
To augment the events listed in the online maps, students can find more information on the war's early years in this timeline, and information on the war's final year in the Timeline on this Web site.
As background for this activity, you might ask students to research the Allies' "Europe first" strategy for fighting the war: the reasons behind it and its effects on the course of the war in each theater.
My American Experience
Were you there for the storming of Normandy beach? The Bombing of Germany? The Victory in the Pacific? Or perhaps your friends and relatives have passed on stories of their own World War II experiences that you would like to share.