Experiential Education in High School as Harry Truman Returns to Seattle's Bush School to Discuss Dropping the Atomic Bombs

I was privileged to witness a truly amazing high school educational event as President Harry S. Truman (in the form of Seattle attorney Mike King) returned to the Bush School in Seattle. King / Truman began playing this role at the school in 2006 when his own boys were enrolled there. He works with students studying Truman's transition to President and then ending World War II. King, who bears a striking resemblance to Truman, has studied the 33rd President for many years and can speak with uncanny authority as Truman. When he walks into the room, the 33rd President commands center stage as a humble man dedicated to being of service.

Bush School history class students spent weeks studying the events that led to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and preparing to reenact the people involved including Albert Einstein, Dwight Eisenhower and Edward Teller. They then attended their "final exam" as the people they had studied, each student taking the role and position of a historical figure.

Acting as the different participants who might have advised Truman about that decision, the students debated the question fully and produced a rationale both for and against dropping the bomb. Then, King (fully acting the role of Truman) made his decision based on the students' arguments. In three classes of students who participated, King (as Truman) decided to drop the bomb once, decided against dropping the bomb once, and in the third class decided in favor of a "demonstration bomb drop."


When I casually asked Mike what he (as Truman) decided in the three sessions he conducted this year, I received the following written response,

"The decision by HST must be based on the arguments and supporting evidence offered during the briefing. Each briefing ‎therefore is distinctive, driven by the students' knowledge of their historical character, the surrounding events, and their ability to engage in give and take and develop arguments as the discussion evolves. But there are recurring issues that, time and again, shape the general contours.

This year the President's decisions ‎ran the gamut. In Briefing One, a powerful case against risking a nuclear arms race made by Albert Einstein, coupled with the pro-side letting the anti-side characterize Japan as ready to surrender if the imperial house was preserved, led HST to reject dropping the bomb. In Briefing Two, the ghastly prospect of an invasion that would -- according to unrefuted numbers -- kill 1,000,000 Americans and upwards of 20,000,000 Japanese -- coupled with no apparently plausible alternative moved the President to order a bomb drop. In Briefing Three, a swirl of issues left the President "splitting the difference," ordering a surprise bombing of a remote area, and a restudy of unconditional surrender, in the hope of avoiding the A-bombing of a city which he felt would have to be tried in order to avoid the alternative of an invasion."

And when I asked what he most admired about Truman, King responded,

"His sense of history. ‎It helped him to see beyond his immediate life experience and the here and now, and made a difference for the good in several of his key decisions."

Clearly, Mike King takes his volunteer work very seriously. He has been playing this unique role at the Bush School since 2006 when his sons attended Bush, and he was simply an involved parent. For two days last week, he has worked with history classes in this unique educational endeavor. It was truly an educational experience to be remembered for everyone who participated including me as an outside observer to the final production.

King's work was so successful, that it spawned a local stage production The Realm of Whispering Ghosts: If Truman Met Einstein that ran for three weeks in September 2013. King himself stood in for the professional actor playing Truman for two of the shows. Having seen a few performances of the show, I can attest to the fact that King was as good as, if not better than, the professional actor. He truly embodies the spirit of Harry Truman and the integrity of that great President.

King also volunteers as President Truman for other functions including twenty presentations of his talk "Making the Tough Decisions: The Paradox of Leadership in a Democracy" at Rotary Clubs throughout the Seattle area in the past couple years.

May all our children be fortunate enough to have people in their lives who are willing to give of themselves so freely in support of genuine education.