Discussion Questions

These questions help students explore the major ideas and themes in the film. Read a Program Summary for descriptions of specific program segments.

Before Watching

1. Two of Truman's most famous mottos were: "The buck stops here" and "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Invite students to explore these aphorisms. What do they think Truman meant by them? Do they agree with them? As they watch the video, have them take notes as to what actions or policies expressed these philosophies. When was Truman able to live up to these mottos? How? When wasn't he able to? Why?

2. When Truman left office, he had the lowest approval rating of any president ever. As they watch the video, have students note the reasons for his unpopularity and prepare their own "report card" on Truman. Ask them to grade him in the following areas: Domestic Policy, Foreign Policy, Leadership, Decision-Making.

3. Ask students to contribute what they know about the atomic bomb. What was it? Why was it developed? Why was it used? Should it ever be used again? If so, why? What impact did dropping the atomic bomb have on the country? On the world? As they watch the video, have students note Truman's statements regarding the bomb.

After Watching

1. Truman's reputation has undergone a transformation over the last 40 years and he is now rated much more favorably by historians and others. Ask students to share their report cards on Truman. How did they rate him and why? Why do they think public opinion changed since his time? How does the passage of time contribute to or change how we view a president's performance?

2. Review Bess Truman's feelings about being first lady and her behavior as first lady. What was her influence on Truman? What was her affect on his presidency? How might she have been regarded today by the American people and/or the media? How might she have reacted to today's media spotlight? Have students compare Bess Truman's style to a more active first lady, such as Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton.

3. Discuss with students what were some of the effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, apart from forcing Japan to surrender. What did this demonstration of unprecedented power accomplish, in addition to ending the war? Continue the discussion by asking students how Truman's decision to drop the bomb changed international politics afterward. Why hasn't the U.S. or any other country used the bomb again? What if Truman had never used it?

Activities

Early Career -- World War I Journal

Suppose you are Harry Truman, leading Battery D during World War I. Write a journal entry telling how you feel as a leader and about the war, including your hopes and fears about your personal performance. Good resources for this project include Dear Bess, a book that includes letters from Truman to his wife during World War I and the program transcript. (Program References: Chapters 5-8)

Presidential Politics -- A Report on Alternative Parties

In the 1948 presidential election, the Democratic party fragmented. Former vice president Henry Wallace ran as a Progressive and southern Democrats left to form their own Dixiecrat party. In preparation for role-playing an interview, organize the class into teams of three. Have half the teams be Progressives and the other half be Dixiecrats. (You may also want to designate one team as Democrats, to provide a response to the representatives from the alternative parties.) One student on each team (the "reporter") should prepare and ask the interview questions, another should research and write the answers, and the third should role-play a member of his or her group's party.

In preparing for their interviews, which each team will present in front of the whole class, students should examine (a) why people felt it was necessary to form their alternative party -- (b) the issues that led people to support the alternative party -- (c) how the alternative party affected the issues, policies, and actions of the Democratic party -- (d) how the split affected the outcome of the election.

In addition to library research, students can read a Southern response to Truman's civil rights message and Truman's Democratic Convention Address, 1948. (Program References: Chapters 21-23)

Domestic Policy -- Civil Rights Article

Using Truman's speeches and writings, such as his NAACP Address, 1947 -- Civil Rights Message, 1948 -- and the Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the armed forces -- NAACP publications of the period -- and other resources, have students suppose they are reporters for a magazine with a particular political viewpoint (such as conservative, minority, liberal, Communist, etc.) in 1948. Have them write a feature article for the magazine explaining the state of civil rights for minorities in the U.S. at that time. The articles should examine the status of civil rights, Truman's proposals and their possible effects, and the reaction to these proposals. You might want to have the class first examine articles in major news magazines, such as Time or Newsweek for examples of news features. (Program References: Chapters 21-24)

Foreign Affairs -- Map of Containment

Give students a blank map of the world. Then have them find and research a postwar world map, and read about the Truman Doctrine. Use these and other resources to create a map showing the areas where the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in conflict during Truman's presidency. Students should label the map to show countries, as well as physical features, capital cities, etc. Have them use one color to indicate communist nations and another to show which countries were aligned with the U.S. Then have students choose three areas of conflict and write a short description of each situation, the key people involved, and how the Truman Doctrine was applied or not. (Program References: Chapters 19-24)

Legacy -- Reflections on the Bomb

Have students read books (or excerpts) about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such as Hiroshima by John Hersey, Hiroshima by Laurence Yep, orHiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki. They may also want to read primary source materials relating to the decision to drop the bomb, including Einstein's letter to FDR from 1939 -- another Einstein letter from 1945 -- a description of the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico in 1945 -- the agreement from the Potsdam Conference, 1945 -- a letter from Stimson to Truman, 1945 -- the U.S. warning to Japan, 1945 -- a leaflet warning about the bomb from 1945 -- Truman's announcement about the bombing of Hiroshima, 1945 -- an atomic bomb press release, 1945 -- excerpts from Truman's Presidential Diary of July, 1945 -- as well as information obtained from other sources.

Offer students the opportunity to share their thoughts and reactions to what they have read. Then have students write a poem, short story, or journal or diary entry that expresses their feelings about the dropping of the bomb. Have students read their work to the class or bind copies of students' work together into a book for your school or class library. (Program References: Chapters 11-15)

The Era -- A Conversation on Women in the Workforce

Have students research the role of women in American society during World War II and how it changed in the postwar years. Using advertisements, posters, photographs, and magazine and newspaper articles of the time, as well as books on women's history, interviews with grandmothers or others who lived through the time, films and Web sites, have students focus on the following questions:

  • What percentage of the female population was in the workforce during the war?
  • What percentage was African American, white, or other?
  • What occupations did they hold, during and after the war? What was the median income of these women, during and after the war?
  • How were women perceived by society at the time and did this perception hold true across racial or class lines?
  • How and why did the U.S. government pursue a massive propaganda effort after the war to push women out of the workforce?
  • Given what you know about postwar life, was the propaganda successful? Cite evidence or examples.
  • If women had been allowed to remain in the workforce as they were during the war, how might American society been different over the last 50 years?

Organize the class into pairs. Using the information they have gathered, ask partners to create a dialogue between a woman today and a woman from the 1940s. What questions might they ask each other? What information might they share? How would they view the role of women in society? How would they feel about women working and other issues that concern them. Have students share their "conversations" with the whole class, and encourage class discussion after each presentation. (Program References: Chapters 17-19)

Take It Further

During this unit, students may be interested in doing the following activities related to Harry Truman and his times:

Interview someone who was alive when Truman ordered the atomic bomb dropped on Japan. When was the first they heard about it? What did he or she think about the decision at the time? What does he or she think now? Share your interview with the class.

Imagine you are a soldier in the Korean War. Write a letter home describing your experiences and your feelings about the war.

Write an outline (or a script) for an episode of M*A*S*H, the popular television series set during the Korean War.

Margaret Truman has become a well-known mystery writer. Her novels are usually set in famous places in Washington, D.C. Write a short mystery story that involves Harry Truman and other figures in the government at the time.

Research and report on the Manhattan Project, the secret U.S. project to develop an atomic bomb. Find out how it got started, the course of the project, and the fate of the various scientists involved.

Watch the satirical movie Dr. Strangelove or the films Fail Safe or On the Beachand write a review.

Write an essay supporting or arguing against the validity of the 22nd Amendment, which limits a president to two terms.

Make a list of the major United Nations organizations today and summarize the responsibilities of each. (Check the United Nations Charter.) Have these organizations changed since the founding of the UN, and if so, how? How effective are these organizations today?

Who were the "Hollywood 10"? Choose three and research their careers and work before and after the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. How did the hearings affect American moviemaking?

Locate a reprint of Lillian Hellman's famous letter to John S. Wood, chairman of HUAC, in response to a subpoena calling for her appearance before the committee. How do you think you would have responded if you had been called before HUAC?

Locate the lyrics of the song "Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds. How did this song express criticism of suburbia and housing developments such as Levittown?

Create a chronology of the life of Douglas MacArthur, and find out how he spent the rest of his life after he was dismissed by Truman.

Read the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. How would you amend or change it? Create your own Human Rights Declaration.

Chart the "baby boom" by creating a graph of how many babies were born between 1947 and 1961. Find out what were the most popular names for boys and girls during those years.

Read a book about the postwar world, such as All Together Now by Sue Ellen Bridgers, Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, orTransport 741R by T. Degens, and write a review.

There has been much speculation about what life would be like after a nuclear war. Read a fictional account, such as On the Beach by Nevil Shute or Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien, or a nonfiction account, such as The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell and write a reader's response.

Imagine you are at the first major league baseball game played by African American star -- and breaker of the color barrier -- Jackie Robinson. Write a sports or news commentary.

Who coined the term "iron curtain"? Develop a glossary of 10-15 words or phrases that evoke Truman's years in office, focusing on new terminology such as bikini, Cold War and A-bomb (see the Terms to Know, below, to get started).

Find an early edition of Dr. Benjamin Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (first published in 1947 -- the public library may have older editions) and write a one-paragraph description of his approach to child care. Find out what made his book so popular and how it influenced child-rearing practices today.

In 1950 Daniel Marsh, president of Boston University, said, "If the television craze continues with the present level of programs, we are destined to have a nation of morons." Using magazines and newspapers of the time, as well as books about the history of television and popular culture, recreate a TV "guide" for one week during Truman's presidency. What shows were popular? Do you agree with Marsh's assessment? Why or why not?

Watch a film made during the Truman years, such as A Streetcar named Desire,The African Queen, or South Pacific, and write a review. Was the movie representative of its time? If so, how?

Who's Who

Have students choose one of the following individuals who influenced American life and society during Truman's time, and present a short biography to the class highlighting the person's achievements. Students might also enjoy creating a poster featuring their subject, which could include photos and drawings, a chronology of life events, and symbols representing the person's work. They may also choose to perform a song, recite poetry, or do an oral reading of a speech or an essay.

Dean Acheson: Secretary of state -- major contributor to the Marshall Plan

Omar Bradley: World War II general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Truman

Ralph Bunche: UN mediator in Palestine, under-secretary of the UN, winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize for Peace

Chiang Kai-shek: Chinese general who established the Nationalist government on Formosa (now Taiwan)

Thomas Dewey: governor of New York and Republican presidential candidate in 1944 and 1948

John Foster Dulles: U.S. delegate to the UN under Truman and secretary of state under Eisenhower

Albert Einstein: German physicist and Nobel Prize winner who developed the general theory of relativity

Dwight D. Eisenhower: World War II general and 34th president of the United States

Enrico Fermi: Nobel Prize-winning Italian nuclear physicist prominent in encouraging the U.S. government to use atomic energy

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi: Indian leader whose campaign of civil disobedience was instrumental in forcing the British out of India

Lillian Hellman: author and playwright who stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy

Alger Hiss: State Department official accused by HUAC of passing secret documents to the Soviets

Douglas MacArthur: World War II general who was fired by Truman

Joseph McCarthy: senator and chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee

Margaret Mead: anthropologist and author

J. Robert Oppenheimer: lead scientist on the Manhattan Project, America's successful effort to develop an atomic bomb

Jackie Robinson: baseball player who broke the color barrier

Franklin D. Roosevelt: 32nd president of the United States

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: Americans executed for espionage

Margaret Chase Smith: Republican congresswoman and senator who spoke out against Senator McCarthy; also an advocate for women's rights

Josef Stalin: dictator of the Soviet Union

Robert Taft: Republican senator and prominent isolationist

Marshal Tito: communist premier and president of Yugoslavia

Chuck Yeager: Air force test pilot who broke the sound barrier

Mao Zedong: Chinese revolutionary leader

Terms to Know

Atomic Energy Commission: a civilian group established in 1946 to preserve government control over fissionable materials, and to encourage private and government research into both military and peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Berlin airlift: the effort in which the U.S., France, and Britain flew in thousands of tons of supplies to Berlin in response to a 1948 Soviet blockade. The airlift was successful and Stalin lifted the blockade in 1949.

brinkmanship: the U.S. strategy used in dealing with the Soviet Union of not backing down on an issue or situation. The term comes from the idea of forcing a situation to the "brink" of war.

Cold War: as opposed to a "hot war," the term -- first coined by Bernard Baruch in a speech in 1947 -- used to describe the worldwide struggle primarily between the United States and the Soviet Union for control and influence. It ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

containment: the U.S. policy after World War II of attempting to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding its influence and control.

Fair Deal: Truman's attempt to extend and expand the goals of the New Deal. The program included legislation for civil rights, fair employment practices, and national health insurance, but most of the proposals were not passed by Congress.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the two Japanese cities targeted by American atomic bombs in 1945. Hiroshima was struck first on August 6, and Nagasaki two days later.

iron curtain: the term coined by Winston Churchill to describe the invisible boundary between Soviet-controlled eastern Europe and western countries.

McCarthyism: refers to the 1950s hunt for communists in the U.S. government, and the suspicion of communist activity in general. The term derives from the name of leader of the Congressional investigations in the matter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Manhattan Project: the secret and successful U.S. program, begun under FDR, to develop an atomic bomb

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO): the military pact among the United States, western European nations, Turkey, and Canada formed for mutual defense in 1949 against the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact nations. Dwight Eisenhower was the first supreme commander of the organization. (See the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949.)

radiation sickness: the effects of contact with extremely radioactive material or being near the detonation of a nuclear device.

satellite nations: countries that are under the control of another country, especially in reference to those eastern and central European nations that were controlled by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

thirty-eighth parallel: the line of latitude marking the division between North and South Korea. During the Korean War the U.S. military's goal was to keep the communist North Koreans and the Chinese above the parallel. It remained the site of the border between North and South Korea, patrolled by troops on both sides.

Truman Doctrine: the policy announced by Truman in 1947 that provided economic and military aid to nations threatened by communist rule.

twenty-second amendment: the constitutional amendment, ratified in 1951, that limits a president to two terms.

Warsaw Pact: the organization of Eastern European nations under the control of the Soviet Union formed in opposition to NATO.

In "Quotes"

Below are quotations from the speeches and writings of Harry Truman. Each is followed by a series of questions you may want to raise with your students.

"The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."

Questions to Consider:

  • What does Truman mean by this?
  • Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

 

"Secrecy and a free, democratic government don't mix."

Questions to Consider:

  • Why is freedom of information important in a democracy?
  • Are there situations or issues that should remain secret?
  • What might happen when a government is not obligated to disclose its actions to its citizens?
  • How does the sentiment expressed in this quotation contrast with Truman's creation of the CIA?

 

"Most of the problems a president has to face have their roots in the past."

Questions to Consider:

  • Why do you think Truman, especially, felt this way?
  • What "problems" might he have been referring to?
  • Can you think of other presidents who faced problems they had inherited from a predecessor? What were the problems? How were they handled?
  • Why might a president pass a problem on to a successor?

 

"When Kansas and Colorado have a quarrel over the water in the Arkansas River they don't call out the National Guard in each state and go to war over it. They bring a suit in the Supreme Court of the United States and abide by the decision. There isn't any reason in the world why we cannot do that internationally."

Questions to Consider:

  • What does this statement show about Truman's personality?
  • Do you agree that international differences should be solved in the way he suggests?
  • How effective has the United Nations been since it was established?
  • Has it been effective or ineffective in maintaining peace and/or preventing war?

 

"The presidency of the United States carries with it a responsibility so personal as to be without parallel... No one can make decisions for [the president]. No one can know all the processes and stages of his thinking in making important decisions... To be president of the United States is to be lonely, very lonely at times of great decisions."

Questions to Consider:

  • How does this quotation reflect Truman's experience?
  • Does a president always have to be "lonely" in his decision making?
  • Do you feel that's the way things should be? Why or why not?

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?



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