While the United States Air Force systematically bombed the majority of urban Japan during the final months of World War II, the city of Kyoto remained nearly untouched, offering an almost pristine nuclear target. Yet Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the central figure behind the sparing of the city, struck Kyoto from the list of nuclear targets. Stimson’s efforts to preserve Kyoto have received only passing attention from postwar scholars. A review of relevant postwar historiography, however, reveals three frameworks that provide explanations for the sparing of the city: moralist, orthodox, and revisionist. The moralist approach views Stimson’s decision to preserve Kyoto as an effort to live up to the principles of an earlier era. Orthodox scholars suggest Stimson’s decision was driven by a desire to save lives and end the war quickly. Revisionists, by contrast, argue that Stimson’s calculus was shaped by concern over the growing specter of a standoff with the Soviet Union. The imprecise and at times contradictory explanations furnished thus far fail to provide a convincing interpretation of Kyoto’s role in the final years of the war. To understand Stimson’s adamancy requires examining references to the city in his diary and placing them into broader context to gain a sense of how the city related to the strategic objectives and challenges facing the secretary of war.
On 9 November 1945, three months after the larger of two U.S. atomic weapons detonated above the city of Nagasaki and killed 40,000 Japanese citizens, the New York Times ran a half-column article about Kyoto on page four explaining that U.S.-Japan relations were fast on the mend. After noting that Kyoto was “the only large city on the home islands [of Japan] that escaped damage in our air raids,” the report went on to observe that the city was beginning to resemble an Asian metropolis as Hollywood would have pictured it, “with American soldiers walking arm in arm with kimono-clad Japanese girls.” Oftentimes, outside tea houses, one could find “a couple of pairs of high, mudstained GI shoes…. Next to them were Japanese wooden clogs.”1
The image of rapid reconciliation between American soldiers and Japanese citizens is dubious,2 but the article itself and the message it conveys touch on a neglected issue in diplomatic and military history. Kyoto in 1945 was clean and unscathed by the ravages of war and offered an opportunity for erstwhile enemies to mend fences quickly and easily. That Kyoto fit this role so perfectly in light of U.S. bombing strategy at the close of the war in the Pacific is either a curious coincidence or indication of deliberate calculation. As Otis Cary has noted, U.S. officials in the Departments of War and State were well aware from high-altitude photography that military production facilities and equipment were being transferred into Kyoto during the final months of the war as the rest of urban Japan was systematically bombed and burned.3 Under these circumstances, Kyoto seemed to present an ideal military target as part of a larger effort to bring Japan to its knees. Yet General Curtis LeMay’s 21st Bomber Command was prohibited from targeting Kyoto. The city topped the list of prospective targets during the summer of 1945 as the first nuclear weapons were nearing completion; when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was briefed on the Target Committee’s recommendations, however, he immediately struck Kyoto from the list.
The sparing of Kyoto is often treated as an anomaly that bears little relation to the general historical argument at hand. Continual debate between orthodox and revisionist historians over U.S. motivations for the nuclear attacks in Japan, spurred along by waves of declassified evidence over the past six-and-a-half decades, has left the sparing of Kyoto largely unexplored. So little has been written directly on the subject that an historiographical review of the issue necessitates scouring the vast scholarship on more mainstream historical issues during the final years of World War II – the evolution of strategic bombing, the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the role of race in the Pacific theater—in order to identify key assumptions and frameworks and then apply these perspectives to the issue of Kyoto specifically.
Kyoto’s role in World War II deserves more attention precisely because it is anomalous. That a city of over one million residents with such historical and cultural value was left nearly untouched conflicts with the prevalent frameworks for examining strategic bombing during the war. As an outlier, Kyoto may offer insights into some of the limitations of established views. On close inspection, the sparing of Kyoto begins to break down some of the divisions between orthodox and revisionist scholars, which suggests that historians across the spectrum may be relying on critical assumptions that are too limited or insufficient for a full understanding of events as they evolved. Bringing Kyoto to the fore of historical analysis also demonstrates that the gap between orthodox and revisionist historians is not as wide, in some respects, as is often assumed. Scholars from both camps, as well as those who do not quite fit neatly into either, show the same problematic assumptions.
The contours of three major interpretive frameworks emerge when we place Kyoto within the relevant historiography. The first approach, rooted in assumptions about Henry Stimson’s personal ethical struggles, views Stimson as a moralist, the product of another age. Stimson is forced to reconcile his personal beliefs with military and political expediency in the midst of brutal military campaigns during which the full force of scientific progress is brought to bear toward destructive ends. The preservation of an ancient cultural and intellectual center from atomic destruction allowed Stimson to express his moral sentiments. The orthodox approach generates different assumptions regarding the decision to remove Kyoto from the list of strategic air and nuclear targets. The core of this perspective is the argument that U.S. decisionmakers and strategists in the Truman administration were striving to end the war as quickly as possible and to save lives through the use of nuclear weapons. Finally, the revisionist approach offers a different explanation of why the United States used nuclear weapons in Japan, namely that the bomb was used with an eye toward postwar geopolitics, specifically, to influence postwar Soviet foreign policy rather than to bring the war to a quick conclusion. This framework also yields a set of strategic concerns that would have guided the decision to preserve Kyoto.
Each of these interpretive frameworks rests on assumptions that have yet to be examined closely in relation to Kyoto’s role in the war. Also missing from these approaches is a consideration of Henry Stimson’s personal understanding of the value of Kyoto to the Japanese and how this view may have shaped his formulation of wartime strategy, including his decision to preserve Kyoto. Existing relevant historiography provides limited insight into these issues. These oversights, in addition to certain inconsistencies in drawing inferences imbedded in the moralist, orthodox, and revisionist interpretations of the sparing of Kyoto, leave an insufficient explanation for why Kyoto emerged from World War II relatively unscathed.
“Mr. Stimson’s Pet City”
To point out that historians have given the sparing of Kyoto short shrift is not to say that the issue has never been examined. Otis Cary’s “Mr. Stimson’s ‘Pet City,’” a pamphlet published in 1975 by Amherst House at Doshisha University, is perhaps the sole work devoted specifically to the subject.4 Cary, a former naval language officer who served in the Pacific theater during World War II, had close ties to Japan. The son and grandson of missionaries in Japan, Cary was born in Otaru, Hokkaido, in 1921. He visited Kyoto several times in the years immediately after the war and eventually moved to the city in 1947 to take up a position as professor of cultural history at Doshisha University.5 His interpretation of the sparing of Kyoto lays the groundwork for the moralist argument while borrowing certain tenets from the orthodox perspective. In doing so, he highlights several of the challenges faced by existing frameworks in explaining the sparing of Kyoto.
Cary observes that Kyoto had probably the best chance of any large Japanese city to survive an incendiary campaign because of its extensive grid of wide avenues, the result of electric cable car installations and major traffic belts.6 Rather than extend this observation to conclude that General LeMay’s 21st Bomber Command – the unit responsible for implementing U.S. incendiary bombing throughout Japan from March through August – decided to avoid Kyoto for tactical reasons, Cary instead constructs an argument that blends orthodox understandings of the utility of incendiary bombing with Secretary Stimson’s personal moral qualms. Cary begins his analysis by identifying the predominant postwar view in Kyoto of why the city was excluded from strategic bombing target lists. He explains that, immediately after the war, most Japanese assumed that a lone individual was responsible for the act, undoubtedly a person of “surpassing sensitivity to appreciate the priceless treasures of Nara and Kyoto,” but also someone with access to powerful figures who would be able to “persuade the military” not to attack.7 This observation, substantiated by Cary with reference to his own personal travels in Kyoto, is similar to Herbert Feis’s account of his visit to Kyoto during the first few months after Japan’s surrender.8 To debunk the popular Japanese conclusion that Curator of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum Langdon Warner had intervened on the city’s behalf, Cary explains that Kyoto was never a high priority on the list of incendiary targets.9 In the early stages of U.S. strategic bombing in Japan, “war industries known to be in Kyoto or identifiable by photo intelligence were not of primary importance.”10
This argument is consistent with the orthodox interpretation of the U.S. strategic calculus behind incendiary bombing and nuclear targeting. Cary implicitly assumes that targeting was a function of identifying and eliminating military production facilities rather than attempts to undermine the willingness of the Japanese citizenry and government to continue to endure the conflict or to destroy broader national resources that could be harnessed for a continued war effort. This view contrasts with what Robert Pape calls “Douhet-style” bombing, based on the writing of Italian air theorist Giulio Douhet, in which military planners attempt to collapse the will of a nation’s military by targeting all elements of that nation’s war-fighting capacity – including national moral support provided by civilians.11 Cary adopts his explanation for incendiary bombing and associated targeting efforts from Stimson himself, who referenced similar logic to justify LeMay’s raids in the final months of the war. The logical inference from this line of thought is that Kyoto was preserved from incendiary raids not because of its rich historical and cultural treasures, but due to the fact that the city lacked significant Japanese military industries.
While perhaps a compelling argument with respect to the early years of the war, the question arises of why Kyoto was preserved when war-making materials began to funnel into the city as the rest of Japan’s industry was razed. By the time war production and supplies began to concentrate into Kyoto, the nuclear target selection process was already underway and Kyoto was at the top of the Target Committee’s list. Kyoto was not only becoming a military production base and an arsenal; it was also large, relatively untouched, and – because it was considered an intellectual center – an ideal target for psychological impact.12
Cary breaks from a hardnosed strategic perspective when he turns specifically to the issue of Kyoto’s removal from the list of nuclear targets. He ascribes this decision to the moral considerations of Henry Stimson. In a unique spin on this common interpretation, Cary delves into Stimson’s history with the city of Kyoto. He notes that Stimson spent several days in the Miyako Hotel in the fall of 1926 on a trip with his wife. Based on his own connections to the city, Cary concludes that “the glories of Kyoto in the fall” must have impressed Stimson to such a degree that he could not bear to see it destroyed in a nuclear blast. In spite of the “impressive intelligence data” he was shown by Generals Leslie Groves and George Marshall, which urged a sound strategic motivation to target the city, Cary posits that Stimson had already decided that he would never approve Kyoto’s inclusion on the list. Stimson’s leverage for ensuring that his decision was final came from the “respect and trust in which the new president held Stimson.”13
Cary’s explanation has several problems. One, expressed by Gar Alperovitz, is that Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, rather than Stimson, actually had the president’s ear regarding nuclear issues.14 However, Byrnes’s clout with the president does not necessarily mean that Stimson, still influential, would be dismissed, particularly if Byrnes was comfortable with, or even ambivalent about, the removal of Kyoto from the list of prospective nuclear targets. More problematic is Cary’s inconsistent framework for examining both incendiary bombing and nuclear targeting and Kyoto’s role at the nexus of these two strategic concerns. Cary describes a Stimson motivated by a desire to end the war speedily, a man willing to countenance incendiary raids against hundreds of thousands of Japanese in an attempt to win the war as quickly as possible by sapping Japan’s military production strength. At the same time, he cultivates the impression of a Stimson who, due to distant memories of a brief vacation week in Kyoto, is willing to look beyond intelligence that exposes the flow of military production equipment and materiel into Kyoto in order to preserve the city from nuclear destruction. If Stimson’s overarching goal was truly to end the war as quickly as possible, and he was willing to countenance mass incendiary bombing in pursuit of this objective, it is doubtful he would have discarded the strategic value of bombing Kyoto. Cary is not alone in viewing Stimson’s stand on Kyoto as an expression of moral sentiment. Several historians follow a similar tack in their treatment of the subject.
The Pangs of a Moralist
Michael Sherry offers a consonant, if more complex, analysis of Stimson’s role in preserving Kyoto. The basis of his argument is his observation that “Stimson knew the language of realpolitik, but he was also a moralist.” To substantiate this point, Sherry recounts Stimson’s expression of concern following General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s advice after the near-total destruction of Dresden. “We must not get soft,” Arnold counseled, “war must be destructive and to a certain extent inhuman and ruthless.” In response, Stimson “received reassurance by striking Kyoto from the lists for both conventional and atomic attacks.” Stimson and Truman were in accord that nuclear weapons should not be used on “women and children”; rather, they should be restricted to “military targets.” Ultimately, Sherry decides that Stimson resolved his moral disquietude over the air raids that incinerated civilians through self-deluded reassertions that the 21st Bomber Command was truly targeting military installations. In a move to comfort himself further, he removed Kyoto from all target lists.15
Yet Sherry’s interpretation supplements Cary’s account with a cultural facet. He devotes much of The Rise of American Air Power to building the case that popular pressure for retribution against Japan reached a fever pitch, and was fueled by an ingrained racial hatred for the Japanese.16 Sherry then extracts Stimson from the cultural mores that shaped his contemporaries by explaining away Kyoto as a moral stand – a last minute, solitary effort to preserve some semblance of battle as he had known it before the war. The notion that Kyoto was a moral crutch for Stimson was presaged in 1969 by Frederick Sallager in his analysis of the evolution of modern strategic warfare. Sallager, like Sherry nearly two decades later, saw this fundamental self-deception as a psychological device that enabled U.S. leaders to paper over the disjuncture between strategy and morality brought on by strategic air warfare. This view shows a reluctant Stimson led down a path he considers immoral, informed by a neo-Clausewitzian General Arnold that it is no use to set moral limits in warfare: Like Roosevelt, “Stimson was informed of progress in incendiary tactics against Japan but displayed no immediate concern with them.” As a result, the tactical implementation of incendiary bombing fell to Generals Arnold and LeMay.17
That Stimson claimed to have pondered the moral rectitude of targeting civilians is well documented in his diaries, though his views on race diverged from racist propaganda of the day only in limited ways. Stimson certainly had access to accurate information about the workings of Japanese politics and events on the battlefield, not to mention a long personal history in East Asia. Indeed, Stimson recounts in his diary a discussion he held with Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the “big political question lying apart from the military plans” of perhaps coaxing “a liberal-minded section of the Japanese” out of the woodwork to shorten the war. In recounting this interaction, he cites his own personal relationships with Japanese leaders.18
These nuances notwithstanding, Stimson was a product of the age of imperialism in East Asia. Stimson believed, as Sean Malloy has demonstrated convincingly, in the superiority of the white race over the “lesser breeds.”19 As his biographer Godfrey Hodgson puts it, Stimson shared with most of his white American contemporaries a hierarchical view of the world’s nations and peoples, a perspective evinced clearly by the enactment of the discriminatory National Origins Act of 1929 during Stimson’s tenure as secretary of state.20 Stimson biographer David Schmitz shares Hodgson’s assessment of Stimson’s views on the relationship between race and international politics. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Schmitz observes, Stimson believed in a racial hierarchy that placed whites at the top and all others below in terms of intelligence and ability to govern themselves, an outlook that fostered Stimson’s paternalistic attitude toward Asia and Latin America in particular.21
Sidestepping issues of race, Barton Bernstein has laid out an interpretation nearly identical to that of Cary, Sallager, and Sherry. Writing in Foreign Affairs nearly three decades after Sallager, Bernstein argues that Stimson was unable to give up the potential benefits of U.S. bombing, but also could not shake his old morality. To reconcile these conflicting impulses, “Stimson proved decisive – even obdurate – on a comparatively small matter: removing Kyoto from Groves’s target list of cities.”22 Bernstein alludes to similar moral struggles in the minds of the very individuals orchestrating the war that set new standards in wartime brutality.
That Stimson would single out Kyoto and consistently press for its safety in the midst of six months of systematic extermination of Japanese civilians solely to assuage his personal moral anguish is difficult to accept. Equally dubious is Bernstein’s assertion that Truman, on whom Bernstein also projects a personal moral struggle, decided that “the horror of mass death” from two atomic bombings made him “willing to return partway to the older morality.” Bernstein later suggests that Stimson was actually trying to preserve the city’s relics, not its people, “lest the Japanese become embittered and later side with the Soviets.”23 This intriguing conclusion rests on a fundamentally different appraisal of Stimson’s reasoning. Rather than a morally besieged statesman, Stimson is a calculating geopolitician constructing a pragmatic footing on which to enter the postwar period. Unfortunately, Bernstein never reconciles these views into a comprehensive interpretation.
Many other scholars tap the moralist argument in an effort to explain the sparing of Kyoto. The title of Elting Morison’s work on Stimson reflects his perception that Stimson was a man trapped between ages, forced to reconcile his traditional morality with the changing face of warfare. In Turmoil and Tradition, Morison’s unalloyed assertion is that the preservation of Kyoto was a single act of valor: “When the B-29s went out on their first raids into Japan the Secretary of War, against much opposition, struck from the target list the city of Kyoto, a cultural and religious as well as an industrial center.” He describes Stimson as a man “rigid … in his definition of the old moralities” and “dogmatic … on matters of personal conduct.”24 To bolster this image he highlights Stimson’s softer actions as secretary of war. Stimson proposed that the U.S. Army warn of impending destruction in advance of an atomic attack; he pressed for a modification to the unconditional surrender approach to ending the war. Morison also demonstrates Stimson’s ability to forgive and forget by quoting his 8 August memo to the president in which he points out that “when you punish your dog you don’t keep souring on him all day after the punishment is over.” The conclusion of this quotation, which Morison omits, is more telling of a geopolitically inclined Stimson than a moralistic one. Stimson went on to explain that, “if you want to keep his affection, punishment takes care of itself. In the same way with Japan.”25
The unaddressed question remains why Stimson decided to fixate on Kyoto to assuage his guilt. Stimson could just as easily have wrestled down his moral demons by pushing for a tactical application of nuclear weapons on pure military targets or providing adequate warning before the bombs were detonated. Stimson mooted both proposals, but moved on when faced with bureaucratic opposition. A related question is why Stimson focused on Kyoto when it was clear to him that the city was becoming a militarily significant target as weapons and production equipment were moved into the city. The very reason Stimson needed a moral crutch in the first place, according to Morison, was his commitment to ending the war as quickly as possible. This focus also necessitated the incendiary bombings that apparently made Stimson so uncomfortable. The moralist explanation for the sparing of Kyoto is not the only approach to show confusion in its inferences and assumptions. The orthodox approach, too, provides incomplete and, at times, contradictory explanations.
Orthodox Interpretations: The ‘Rain and Reign of Flame’ to Surrender
Paul Fussell’s “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb” recapitulates the core of the orthodox perspective that took the field almost immediately at the close of the war. His central tenet is that atomic and incendiary bombing – both clearly in violation of the normative values that Roosevelt declared at the beginning of the war – were justified by the fact that they expedited the Japanese surrender and obviated an American full-scale invasion of Kyushu planned for November 1945. Contrary to those who have fallen into the trap of “a historian’s tidy hindsight,” Fussell claims that U.S. planners in the summer of 1945 were still focused on more immediate concerns rather than anything as portentous as the future age of nuclear warfare.26
Contrary to these and earlier claims by historians in the orthodox approach, Stimson’s diary shows that he was heavily engaged in the longer-term strategic issues that accompanied the advent of nuclear weapons. By early June 1945, Stimson was absorbed with the issue of postwar international control of nuclear material. In his 6 June diary entry, for example, Stimson discusses the need to approach the Russians on the issue of international control of nuclear material. At the same time, he was pointing out the need to amass a sufficient stockpile of weapons to ensure that, if the Soviet Union refused to enter into a cooperation agreement, the United States could maintain an advantage.27 By late July and the Potsdam Conference, Stimson was changing his assessment of postwar nuclear energy control and had begun to wonder whether the Russians were sufficiently trustworthy for a cooperation agreement.28 In spite of this evidence, Fussell argues that the U.S. government “was engaged not in that sort of thing [postwar planning] but in ending the war conclusively, as well as irrationally remembering Pearl Harbor with a vengeance.”29 Fussell thus restricts the strategy of nuclear targeting to the battlefield and sees it as an effective means for ending physical conflict rapidly. He then alloys this view with the racial hatred argument expressed by Sherry and Dower, among others. His core conclusions, though, are couched in the logic of the orthodox interpretation.
Henry Stimson’s own On Active Service, John Huston’s American Air Power Comes of Age, and Curtis LeMay’s autobiographical Mission with LeMay, all assert that the core justification for incendiary bombing and the use of nuclear weapons was to lessen the total carnage wrought by the war by ending it as quickly as possible. While these authors do not deemphasize the role of long-term strategic planning and postwar geopolitics to the extent Fussell does, they nonetheless focus attention on the wartime strategic use of nuclear and incendiary bombings as tools to end the fighting quickly.
In his account of the decision to use nuclear weapons, coauthored with McGeorge Bundy, Stimson offers logic that can be extended to the role of Kyoto in the target selection process. The account is consistent with his journal entries. Stimson admits that in the summer of 1945 he was concerned with postwar atomic energy and its role in U.S.-Soviet relations. Yet he also asserts that the “principal political, social, and military objective of the United States in the summer of 1945 was the prompt and complete surrender of Japan.” Critical to this agenda, he explains, was the need to “extract a genuine surrender from the emperor and his military advisors” through the use of a “tremendous shock.” This led to two logical targets for incendiary and nuclear bombing: Tokyo and Kyoto – the ancient and modern seats of national power. But Stimson also alludes to restraints in his calculations: his perception that Japan had an “extremely sensitive national pride,” as well as his concern to avoid placing the nation in a state of “fanatical despair.” In light of these considerations, he concludes, the appropriate course was not to force Japan into a corner through indiscriminate bombing. Instead, the 21st Bombing Command “should be confined to military objectives as far as possible.”30 Precisely where the line was to be drawn with respect to the phrase “as far as possible” was left unsaid.
Stimson includes this proviso because of the glaring inconsistency presented by LeMay’s incendiary bombing under his watch, to say nothing of the nuclear bombings. The justification for these bombings, as expressed in his diary, lies in the fact that the Japanese defense industry, as Stimson was informed by General Arnold, was dispersed throughout major cities in Japan. In his 1 June 1945 entry, Stimson reiterates General Arnold’s explanation that “the Air Force was up against the difficult situation out of the fact that Japan … had not concentrated her industries and that on the contrary they were scattered out and … connected in site with the houses of their employees.” Stimson seemed comfortable with this explanation, both in his diary and in On Active Service, so long as General Arnold reaffirmed his verbal commitment that the 21st Bomber Command was “trying to keep [civilian deaths] down as far as possible.” Stimson also felt it necessary, however, to explain to Arnold that, “there was one city that they must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto.”31 This added restriction is offered without any further explanation in his diary and appears to conflict with his self-expressed paramount objective: winning the war as quickly as possible by destroying the nation’s war-making potential. The inconsistency remains that U.S. officials were aware that military supplies and production efforts were moving to Kyoto by the summer of 1945.
John Huston, in American Airpower Comes of Age, points out that General Arnold also advocated the use of incendiary bombings in order to conclude the war as quickly as possible. Huston concurs with Sherry and Ronald Schaffer that Arnold “accepted without demurrer” the use of incendiary raids against population centers because his primary objective coincided with that of other leaders: ending the war as quickly as possible. Huston also notes that by the summer of 1945, U.S. leaders had “become anesthetized to the death and cruelty of war highlighted by the news of the horrible conditions in the recently captured German concentration camps.”32 While perhaps it is true that the senior decisionmakers planning and conducting the war had become, to an extent, inured to the violence encountered during the conflict, Huston’s justification fails to fit with Stimson’s consistently firm pressure to ensure that Kyoto remained untouched.
In his memoir, Mission with LeMay, the former commander of the 21st Bomber Command makes a similar assertion that nuclear weapons and incendiary raids hastened the end of the war. For LeMay, a simple calculus went into targeting and bombing in Japan. More bombs meant more pain and misery, which translated into less will to resist and a faster collapse. “It was that rain and reign of flame which demoralized the Japanese industry, and shattered the military heart, and whipped the populace into a state where they could – and would – accept the idea of surrender.”33 LeMay and orthodox scholars also reaffirm Stimson and Arnold’s arguments that practical considerations accounted for some incendiary raid procedures. In addition to the dispersal of Japanese defense industries, the jet stream and weather complications also prevented the 21st Bomber Command from pinpointing industrial targets precisely.34
LeMay’s simple calculus does not explain his own written explanation for the sparing of Kyoto. When he received orders from the War Department in late July that Nagasaki had been substituted for Kyoto on the list of nuclear targets, a curious exception to his logic emerges. “Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan,” he argues. “Just as in the European war: if you’d have had the choice between Heidelberg and Mannheim, you would have razed Mannheim.” This statement, appearing as an unexplained aside, demonstrates that a more complex thought process governed strategic air-targeting in Japan, even for LeMay. He points out in defense of the atomic bombings that weapons are weapons and death is death. By extension, victims are victims. LeMay never expands on this concept, and it remains unclear whether the preservation of Kyoto held a strategic purpose in his mind, whether he felt that – despite his consistent assertion to the contrary – there were moral boundaries in warfare. Kyoto poses an interesting contradiction for a man who claimed that the staff who planned the bombing “just weren’t bothered about the morality of the question. If we could shorten the war we wanted to shorten it.”35
At the core of LeMay’s strategic framework, and that of orthodox scholars, is faith in the “Douhet” strategy. The strategy posits that “infliction of high costs can shatter civilian morale, unraveling the social basis of resistance, and causing citizens to pressure the government to abandon its territorial goals.”36 Stimson referred to this tactic in more euphemistic terms when he expressed his faith in the ability of the Japanese to realize that a fight to the finish was not necessary in the summer of 1945. The Japanese ability to come to this understanding depended on the level of hardship they were willing to endure. Nothing in this logic suggests that Kyoto should have been preserved. Exactly the opposite is suggested: bombing Kyoto seems an ideal method for inflicting hardship on the Japanese people. Stimson and LeMay, as well as subsequent orthodox historians, may have expressed provisos to the Douhet logic, but none explains why Kyoto specifically became the exception to the rule.
Revisionist Kyoto and the Soviet Specter
The revisionist interpretation of nuclear strategy in World War II challenged the commonly accepted orthodox notion that the bomb was the sole or best way to win the war quickly.37 Japan, from a revisionist standpoint, was already teetering on the verge of surrender before atomic weapons were employed. Led by Alperovitz’s Atomic Diplomacy in 1965, revisionist scholars contend that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were driven by a diplomatic rather than a military rationale. Nuclear attack was, in essence, primarily an attempt by the United States to strengthen its hand vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and in negotiations over the fate of Europe rather than to bring the war with Japan to a quick conclusion.38 The framework and assumptions that accompany this line of thinking yield a different set of explanations for the sparing of Kyoto.
From the revisionist perspective, Stimson’s focus had shifted to postwar planning by the summer of 1945 – the period when prospective nuclear targets were being considered.39 According to Alperovitz, the emperor of Japan had decided to send Prince Fumimaro Konoye to Moscow to seek Soviet mediation and an end to the war on more favorable terms for the Japanese, a sure signal, Alperovitz contends, that Japan was willing to surrender.40 The United States was well aware of these moves; U.S. intelligence had long before broken Japanese diplomatic codes.41 The Soviet military’s subsequent crushing of the Japanese Kwangtung Army, Japan’s premier fighting force, indicated to the Japanese once and for all that there was no choice but to surrender.42
Alperovitz also touches on the importance of race and culture. Allied surrender terms were a nonstarter, Alperovitz claims, because “the Japanese regarded the emperor as a deity – more like Jesus or the Buddha than an ordinary human being.” Tsuyoshi Hasegawa echoes this interpretation of the emperor’s sacrosanctity in Japanese society, arguing that compulsory national education and military conscription inculcated in the Japanese the importance of emperor worship: the emperor embodied, Hasegawa contends, what it meant to be Japanese.43 Alperovitz suggests that top U.S. officials held a fairly perceptive understanding of this element of Japanese values; as a result, “most top American officials deemed offering some assurances for the continuation of the dynasty an absolute necessity.”44 It was not just former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph C. Grew lobbying for a softer stance; it was “the entire top echelon of the U.S. government.”45 The resulting Japanese intransigence, the revisionist line concludes, was an opportunity to demonstrate U.S. military and technological prowess – both to the Soviet Union and the Japanese – through the use of nuclear weapons.
Part of this construction, as Alperovitz obliquely notes, is the understanding that Japanese citizens and soldiers were loyal to the point of sacrificing their lives rather than suffer the indignity of forcing the emperor to abdicate. The argument follows that U.S. planners believed the Japanese maintained a distinctive value system that precluded them from being cowed into submission when certain issues were placed on the table; there were red lines that could not be crossed. These limits were so firm that the nation would risk self-annihilation to preserve them.
He concludes his entry with the thought that
Japan is susceptible to reason in such a crisis to a much greater extent than is indicated by our current press and other current comment. Japan is not a nation composed wholly of mad fanatics of an entirely different mentality from ours. On the contrary, she has within the past century shown herself to possess extremely intelligent people, capable of an unprecedently [sic] short time of adopting not only the complicated technique of Occidental civilization but to a substantial extent their culture and political and social ideas.46
the Japanese nation has the mental intelligence and versatile capacity in such a crisis to recognize the folly of a fight to the finish and to accept the proffer of what will amount to an unconditional surrender.47
Stimson clearly held a view of Japanese people and politics that, though forged in an earlier era of widespread racism, still was distinct from the mainstream perspective of a fatally loyal, inflexible, and savage enemy in Japan.
The revisionist proposal that U.S. decisionmakers believed Japanese were blindly or fanatically loyal also calls into question the utility of incendiary bombing anywhere in Japan. If this mindset had been as widespread in the upper levels of the U.S. administration as Alperovitz contends, there appears to be no reason – in terms of military strategy – to target urban centers for destruction beyond their ability to produce military goods. Yet the Target Committee clearly placed a great deal of weight on the psychological value of atomic warfare. Kyoto was initially selected specifically because it was an intellectual hub, with the hope that an awesome demonstration of power would force the Japanese to acquiesce. If Alperovitz and the revisionist approach are correct, then the only strategic criterion to note when selecting a nuclear target would have been that it was capable of demonstrating the destructive capabilities of the bomb to the fullest extent possible in an attempt to influence the Soviet Union.
However, as most scholars agree, and Stimson clearly indicates in his diary, the secretary of war was firm in his refusal to allow Kyoto to remain on the list of nuclear targets. This decision is puzzling when one recalls that Kyoto offered probably the best nuclear target in the country because it was virtually untouched – a fact not lost on the Target Committee. As Otis Cary observes, Kyoto had been bombed only seven times throughout the entire war, each time by stray B-29 bombers emptying their cargo after completing runs.48 A convincing explanation for this inconsistency fails to emerge from existing revisionist historiography.
These imprecise and often contradictory explanations do not provide a comprehensive view of Kyoto’s role in the final years of the war. Nor do they identify convincingly the impetus for Stimson’s consistent moves to preserve the city from destruction. Within the substantial literature devoted to all facets of strategic air war and nuclear bombing in Japan, only one work is devoted exclusively to the subject of Kyoto. Yet Otis Cary’s single study fails to provide an interpretation of Stimson’s motives for preserving the city that is consistent with the body of strategy literature that has grown up around it. Rather than pursue this anomaly, historians seem to have taken the role of Kyoto at face value. Some scholars have attributed the city’s preservation to personal, undocumented reasoning by Stimson. Others have simply noted that the city was a cultural and religious nucleus and neglected to explore the possible strategic calculations behind preserving it even though the United States Air Force was annihilating the rest of urban Japan.
To understand better why Stimson was so adamant about the preservation of Kyoto requires examining the scattered references to the city in his diary and placing them into broader context to gain a sense of how the city related to the strategic objectives and challenges facing the secretary of war at the time. The first clear indication in Stimson’s private diary that he considered Kyoto off limits as a target appears just after his decision on 28 May 1945 to remove himself as much as practicable from his routine War Department duties in order to allow sufficient time to focus on the bomb.49 Two days later, on 30 May, Stimson devoted the entire day to the new weapon, with the morning spent in the company of his special assistants Harvey Bundy and George Harrison, General Leslie Groves, and General George Marshall thinking through the specifics of how to employ the new weapon against Japan.50 The following day, Stimson chaired a day-long session of the Interim Committee, which dealt with a range of nuclear-related issues and devoted a portion of the proceedings specifically to consideration of the relationship between use of the bomb in Japan and the will of the Japanese to continue to fight.51 It was on the heels of these broad strategic and tactical discussions that, on the following day, Stimson clarified to General Arnold that “there was one city that [the 21st Bomber Command] must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto.”52 While Stimson does not disclose the rationale behind his insistence at the time, the proximity of the orders to these discussions suggests that his stand was informed by thorough going debate and careful consideration rather than dictated solely by emotion or impulse.
again reiterated with utmost emphasis his own concurring belief on that subject, and he was particularly emphatic in agreeing with my suggestion that if elimination was not done, the bitterness which would be caused by such a wanton act might make it impossible during the long post-war period to reconcile the Japanese to us in that area rather than to the Russians.53
Retaining Kyoto on the target list, Stimson argued, could serve as “the means of preventing what our policy demanded, namely a sympathetic Japan to the United States in case there should be any aggression by Russia in Manchuria.”54 At the very least, Stimson’s discussion of Kyoto in this entry demonstrates that his consideration of Kyoto as a nuclear target was bound up in the logic of hardnosed geopolitical calculations. For Stimson, shoring up U.S.-Japan ties following the end of the war, or at least preventing a flowering of the postwar Soviet-Japanese relationship, was a central concern. The preservation of Kyoto from nuclear attack thus offered an opportunity to avoid further aggravation between the United States and Japan and to begin to lay the groundwork for the resumption of productive bilateral ties before hostilities had actually ceased.
In recounting his discussion with the president about Kyoto on 24 July, Stimson alludes also to the existence of additional factors that may have prompted him to push for the sparing of the city. He records having reviewed with Truman “reasons” for eliminating Kyoto from the target list, and observes that President Truman “was particularly emphatic in agreeing” with the suggestion that postwar bitterness was a consideration when deciding to exclude Kyoto from the nuclear target list, leaving the door open to conjecture that Stimson had also offered additional justifications for the city’s sparing that, while perhaps less compelling, merited mention to the president nonetheless.
Stimson never spelled out these considerations, but he did reflect on broader strategic challenges at the time that would have had direct application to the Kyoto question. Work by Murray Sayle and Mark Selden on the subject of strategic air war in Japan provides insight here. Sayle, in discussing the flaws of the Douhet approach to air war, explains that following the incendiary raids in Japan, “low spirits generally turned to anger, not against the Japanese government … but against the cruel enemy and his devilish bombers.”55 Similarly, Selden asserts that U.S. strategists and decisionmakers grappled with the “fear that indiscriminate killing of civilians could strengthen enemy resolve, a phenomenon that had apparently occurred in both England and Germany.”56 In a 2 July 1945 memorandum for the president, Stimson himself commented on the delicate balance required to induce surrender while preventing a rejuvenation of Japanese solidarity and morale. While there existed in Tokyo sufficient “mental intelligence” to recognize the futility of a fight to the finish, Stimson also believed that U.S. efforts to destroy the Japanese military and population by gunfire “or other means” could “produce a fusion of race solidarity and antipathy which had no analogy in the case of Germany.”57 If, as is argued by some scholars, Stimson and most key administration officials were pushing to no avail against Byrnes and Truman to modify the unconditional surrender stance, the preservation of a cultural and religious center like Kyoto could demonstrate to Japan a potentially counter-balancing, self-imposed limitation to the destruction and violence meted out by the United States. The preservation of Kyoto would thus not only clamp down on the levels of postwar resentment, paving the way for rapid U.S.-Japan reconciliation in the face of an expanding Soviet Union, but may also have offered an inducement to surrender in spite of Allied insistence on an unconditional surrender without specific assurances that the emperor would remain in place.
That Henry Stimson, the seventy-seven-year-old veteran public servant and international statesman, would fail to consider these strategic calculations, and instead decide to preserve Kyoto because of a brief stopover in the city with his wife in the 1920s, is highly doubtful. Stimson was, as Hodgson puts it, a “temperamentally robust” old soldier, unapologetic about the use of force for a good cause.58 Equally dubious is the reasoning that Stimson preserved the city solely to satisfy his personal moral anguish or because he held an appreciation for Kyoto’s art and history. While moral considerations may have made the decision easier, it was strategy, military and postwar, that shaped Stimson’s appreciation of Kyoto and his decision to preserve it from the bombing runs of the 21st Bomber Command and nuclear annihilation. By removing the strategist from the statesman, and the statesman from his perceptions of the enemy, historians have too often overlooked an important component of Stimson’s efforts to force an end to the war in the Pacific and construct an advantageous postwar strategic footing for the United States in East Asia.
* I would like to thank Professors Campbell Craig, Sadao Asada, and Osamu Ishii for helpful feedback on this essay as it evolved from a directed reading project at Yale University.
1 Clinton Green, “GI’s Are Popular with Kyoto Girls,” New York Times, 9 Nov. 1945, 4.
2 Naoko Shibusawa, America's Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
3 Cary attributes this observation to personal communications with Stimson’s assistant secretary of war, John J. McCloy. See Otis Cary, Mr. Stimson’s “Pet City” – The Sparing of Kyoto, 1945. (Kyoto: Amherst House, Doshisha University, 1975), 8; hereafter cited as Pet City.
4 Cary’s article also appeared in a 1975 issue of Japan Quarterly. See Otis Cary, “The Sparing of Kyoto—Mr. Stimson’s ‘Pet City,’” Japan Quarterly (1975).
5 My thanks to Sadao Asada, a colleague of Otis Cary’s for many years, for details of Mr. Cary’s life in Japan and his association with Doshisha University.
6 Cary, Pet City, 2.
7 Ibid., 5.
8 Herbert Feis, Japan Subdued: The Atomic Bomb and the End of the War in the Pacific (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 73.
9 Cary also disputes Feis’s contention that Kyoto was spared due to a chance dinner conversation the secretary of war had with “a young man in uniform, son of an old friend,” who was a student of Oriental history. This young man supposedly explained to Stimson, who “had not known the distinction of Kyoto as the former capital of Japan,” that Kyoto was a lovely city full of cultural treasures. According to Feis, Stimson was so moved that “[t]hereupon he decided that this one Japanese city should be preserved from the Holocaust.” See Feis, Japan Subdued, 73. Godfrey Hodgson recounts a similar tale and identifies Stimson’s dinner guest as his cousin Henry Loomis, citing an unpublished manuscript entitled “How Kyoto Was Saved” by Melville B. Millar. See Godfrey Hodgson, The Colonel: The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson, 1867-1950 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990), 323-24. Loomis indeed recalled having attempted to persuade Stimson to preserve Kyoto, though no clear evidence has emerged to indicate that Loomis played a significant role in shaping Stimson’s views on the matter. See Nick Marino, “Loomis: Many Accomplishments, Largely Untold,” Florida Times-Union, 1 Sept. 2002 <Jacksonville.com/tu-online> (acc. 25 May 2012).
10 Cary, Pet City, 8.
11 Robert A. Pape, “Why Japan Surrendered,” International Security 18 (Autumn 1993), 157.
12 “Summary of Target Committee Meetings on May 10 and 11, 1945,” 4, file 5D (Selection of Targets), roll 1, M1108, Top Secret Correspondence of the MED, NA. As cited in Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (New York: Knopf, 1995), 531.
13 Cary, Pet City, 11.
14 Gar Alperovitz, “Historians Reassess: Did We Need to Drop the Bomb?” in Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, eds., Hiroshima’s Shadow (Stony Creek, CT: Pamphleteer’s, 1998), 17.
15 Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, the Creation of Armageddon (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 262, 295, 323.
16 John Dower offers a complementary, though more nuanced, analysis of the role played by perceptions of race and culture during World War II. Unlike Sherry, Dower distinguishes between the views held by top decisionmakers and those of the general populace. As Dower explains, “Governments on all sides presented the conflict as a holy war for national survival and glory, a mission to defend and propagate the finest values of their state and culture…. At the same time, to most officials the war meant, above all, power politics at the fiercest.” John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat, Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: Norton, 1999), 3.While this distinction is important, Dower also notes that the dehumanization of the “Other” that was so pervasive during the war contributed immeasurably to the psychological distancing that facilitated decisions to target civilian populations for conventional and nuclear attacks. See Dower, War without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 11.
17 Frederick M. Sallager, The Road to Total Warfare (New York: Nostrand, 1969), 220-21.
18 Diary of Henry Lewis Stimson, 18 June 1945, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; hereafter cited as Stimson Diary.
19 Sean Malloy, Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb against Japan (Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 2008), 25.
20 Hodgson, The Colonel, 172.
21 David F. Schmitz, Henry L. Stimson: The First Wise Man (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001), 29-30.
22 Barton J. Bernstein, “The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered,” Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 1995, 146-47.
23 Ibid., 148, 147.
24 Elting E. Morison, Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 633, 634.
25 Ibid., 636. See also Stimson Diary, “Memorandum of Conference with the President,” 8 Aug. 1945.
26 Paul Fussell, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” New Republic, 22 and 29 Aug. (1981), 26-29, reprinted in Hiroshima’s Shadow, 215, and in Paul Fussell, Thank God for the Atom Bomb, and Other Essays (New York: Summit, 1988). Alperovitz also concludes that the focus of U.S. leaders when dropping both atomic bombs was to end the war as quickly as possible, but with an eye toward preventing the Red Army from gaining a better foothold in East Asia rather than saving the lives of U.S. soldiers.
27 Stimson Diary, 6 June 1945.
28 Ibid., 19 July 1945.
29 Fussell, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” 215.
30 Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service in Peace and War (New York: Harper, 1948), 612, 617, 624.
31 Stimson Diary, 1 June 1945.
32 Major General John W. Huston, American Airpower Comes of Age: General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s World War II Diaries (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2002), 314, 315.
33 General Curtis E. LeMay and MacKinlay Kantor, Mission with LeMay: My Story (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 368.
34 Ibid., 342-43.
35 Ibid., 380, 381.
36 Pape, “Why Japan Surrendered,” 157.
37 For a fuller discussion of revisionist and orthodox perspectives, and the search for common ground between the two with respect to nuclear history, see J. Samuel Walker, “Recent Literature on Truman’s Atomic Bomb Decision: A Search for Middle Ground,” Diplomatic History 29 (April 2005), 312.
38 See, for example, Gar Alperovitz, Robert L. Messer, and Barton J. Bernstein, “Marshall, Truman, and the Decision to Drop the Bomb,” International Security 16 (Winter 1991-92), 212. Kai Bird, Lawrence Lifschultz, and Martin Sherwin all follow a similar line of reasoning.
39 Martin Sherwin, “Hiroshima and Modern Memory,” in Hiroshima’s Shadow, 227.
40 A critical caveat in the efforts to secure Soviet mediation was Japan’s unwillingness to accept the Allied terms of unconditional surrender. See Robert J. C. Butow, Japan’s Decision to Surrender (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1954), 127. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues convincingly that indications of willingness to terminate the war do not necessarily demonstrate that Japan was prepared to accept surrender at the time of the Konoye mission. A crucial prerequisite was consensus among Japanese leaders on the specific terms for surrender. See Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 126-27.
41 Alperovitz, “Historians Reassess,” 7. For a discussion on U.S. interceptions of Japanese diplomatic communications, see Sherwin, “Hiroshima and Modern Memory,” 229.
42 Alperovitz, “Historians Reassess,” 6-7.
43 Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy, 4.
44 Alperovitz, “Historians Reassess,” 7. Despite his assertion that U.S. leaders held a deeper understanding of Japanese values than commonly thought, Alperovitz concludes elsewhere that the sparing of Kyoto is simply “clear evidence of humanitarian concern.” Alperovitz, Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, 531.
45 Alperovitz, “Historians Reassess,” 7.
46 Stimson Diary, 2 July 1945.
48 Cary, Pet City, 3.
49 Stimson Diary, 28 May 1945.
50 Ibid., 30 May 1945.
51 Notes of the Interim Committee Meeting, 31 May 1945, “The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb” Collection, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MS.
52 Stimson Diary, 1 June 1945.
53 Ibid., 24 July 1945.
55 Murray Sayle, “Did the Bomb End the War?” in Hiroshima’s Shadow, 30.
56 Mark Selden, “The Logic of Mass Destruction,” ibid., 53.
57 Stimson Diary, “Memorandum for the President: Proposed Program for Japan,” 2 July 1945.
58 Hodgson, The Colonel, 260-61.
Paul Fussell“Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” New Republic22 and 29 Aug. (1981) 26-29 reprinted in Hiroshima’s Shadow 215 and in Paul Fussell Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (New York: Summit 1988). Alperovitz also concludes that the focus of U.S. leaders when dropping both atomic bombs was to end the war as quickly as possible but with an eye toward preventing the Red Army from gaining a better foothold in East Asia rather than saving the lives of U.S. soldiers.
Stimson Diary 6 June 1945.
Ibid. 19 July 1945.
Stimson Diary 1 June 1945.
Alperovitz“Historians Reassess” 7. Despite his assertion that U.S. leaders held a deeper understanding of Japanese values than commonly thought Alperovitz concludes elsewhere that the sparing of Kyoto is simply “clear evidence of humanitarian concern.” Alperovitz Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb 531.
Stimson Diary 2 July 1945.
Stimson Diary 28 May 1945.
Ibid. 30 May 1945.
Stimson Diary 1 June 1945.
Ibid. 24 July 1945.