Why Did Henry Stimson Spare Kyoto from the Bomb?: Confusion in Postwar Historiography*

In: Journal of American-East Asian Relations
Author: Jason M. Kelly1
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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.

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