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Whitman Students Celebrated in Senate

Personal connections to atomic bomb led to award-winning research.

Blake Barrow’s great-uncle saw Japan through the bombsite of his B-29 Superfortress. On Aug. 9, 1945, he dropped the last nuclear weapon ever used in combat on Nagasaki, ensuring Japanese surrender. According to Barrow, his relative said he “regrets” dropping the bomb, but believes it had to be done.

Yuki Cantwell’s mother has a different perspective. She was a child in Japan when the atomic bombs killed about 200,000 people. “She thought it was unnecessary,” Cantwell said. On Feb. 8, Barrow, Cantwell, and Ryan Wood, all eighth graders at Walt Whitman Middle School, were honored at a breakfast in the Senate’s Russell Building for their National History Day project “We Knew the World Would Not Be the Same.”

National History Day, Inc. is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving history education. One of its largest programs is a national student research competition.

Whitman teacher Melissa Chesney, said she brought History Day to Whitman because it encourages in-depth research by allowing students to choose a topic that stimulates their enthusiasm. “It’s difficult to get children to do a research project in which the topic is assigned to them.”

Students must settle on a thesis then present their evidence with an annotated bibliography of sources and a process paper detailing each step of their research. Most projects have about 20 to 25 primary sources and secondary sources. Students display their findings with an exhibit, a documentary film or a dramatic performance. The Whitman students’ exhibit on the atomic bomb finished second in the state. The dramatic performance of the first-place winner (on Virginia governor Harry Byrd) eventually won the national competition.

“It’s an amazing, valuable tool to teach kids to search for information so they have all the aspects of a project instead of one particular point of view,” Chesney said.

WHEN THEY BEGAN their research, the Whitman students learned that their personal connections to the subject were only part of the story. “We didn’t really know all these people were involved in the bomb. We just thought it was Truman and he said, ‘Drop the bomb,’” explained Barrow.

Besides presidents Roosevelt and Truman and the men who headed the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves and scientist Robert Oppenheimer, the students highlighted a man whose contribution to the bomb effort is less recognized. Leo Sziland, an atomic scientist, encouraged and initiated the government’s creation of the bomb. But when he saw the results, the students said, he regretted he ever advocated for its creation.

But Barrow said his research convinced him the bomb had to be dropped. “Not that it was a good thing, but it saved a lot of lives.” Over 200,000 people are estimated to have died in the bombings. Many historians say casualties for an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have been far higher.

Cantwell said he is not so sure. “It’s around 50/50. I thought in the long run it was a little too much.”

In Barrow’s favorite research source, an e-mail exchange with Ambassador Linton F. Brooks, the Undersecretary of Energy for Nuclear Security and Administration told the students he thinks the debate over casualty figures may be misplaced, because an atomic bomb would have been dropped eventually, perhaps in Korea or on the Soviet Union in the late-1940’s. “The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was so great that it shocked most Americans and we never seriously considered using it again.”

Wood said he was struck by the secrecy of the program. Roosevelt never told Congress about the clandestine weapons system. “He was siphoning out almost a billion dollars for this project and they didn’t know.” When vice-president Truman asked Roosevelt about the Manhattan Project, the president told him, “You don’t need to know.” Truman only learned the bombs existed after he took office. He decided to drop them a few months later.

AWARD-WINNING GROUPS from the region and around the country presented their research at the breakfast. They heard speeches from the director of National History Day, the archivist of the United States and from Dr. Libby O’Connell, chief historian for the History Channel, who called on the federal government to dedicate $5 million in its budget to the National History Day organization, thereby “ensuring the future of our past.”

Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman spoke about the importance of history in the Senate and recalled, early in his Senate career, finding Harry Truman’s name carved into his desk. Ben Cardin said that on the morning he was sworn in as Maryland’s newest Senator, he visited the National Archives with his family. He said he had been studying the history of Sunni and Shiite conflicts in order to make decisions about the future of the Iraq war. “History is vitally important to understanding our future.”

When an aide from Sen. John Warner’s office arrived to greet the Whitman students, Chesney told him of O’Connell’s call for funding National History Day. She said school systems spend millions on textbooks, but “there’s nothing that inspires students like their own personal passions.”