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

In: Journal of American-East Asian Relations
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  • 1 Cornell University

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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.

  • 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).

  • 6

    Cary, Pet City, 2.

  • 8

    Herbert Feis, Japan Subdued: The Atomic Bomb and the End of the War in the Pacific (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 73.

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  • 10

    Cary, Pet City, 8.

  • 11

    Robert A. Pape, “Why Japan Surrendered,” International Security 18 (Autumn 1993), 157.

  • 13

    Cary, Pet City, 11.

  • 15

    Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, the Creation of Armageddon (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 262, 295, 323.

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  • 17

    Frederick M. Sallager, The Road to Total Warfare (New York: Nostrand, 1969), 220-21.

  • 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.

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  • 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.

  • 24

    Elting E. Morison, Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 633, 634.

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  • 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.

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  • 27

    Stimson Diary, 6 June 1945.

  • 28

    Ibid., 19 July 1945.

  • 29

    Fussell, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” 215.

  • 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.

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  • 36

    Pape, “Why Japan Surrendered,” 157.

  • 39

    Martin Sherwin, “Hiroshima and Modern Memory,” in Hiroshima’s Shadow, 227.

  • 41

    Alperovitz, “Historians Reassess,” 7. For a discussion on U.S. interceptions of Japanese diplomatic communications, see Sherwin, “Hiroshima and Modern Memory,” 229.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 58

    Hodgson, The Colonel, 260-61.

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