Why Didn’t the U.S. Bomb Kyoto?

Posted in: International Law

I recently visited Kyoto and Hiroshima, Japan. In the past, I have traveled to Pearl Harbor. On my way into Kyoto, I read about the city on my iPhone. One essay told me we had bombed Hiroshima instead of Kyoto because the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had told President Truman not to bomb Kyoto, because of its history. One story said the secretary had spent his honeymoon in Kyoto, and that is what influenced his choice. Is that what affected the bomb’s location? I was vacationing and not studying, so I spent time as I walked wondering if the honeymoon had really been the key part of the decisions about the bombing.

A tour guide I met in Kyoto said Kyoto was not bombed because it is a cloudy city. Clouds came up again when I learned that Nagasaki, not Kokura, was bombed as the second city because Kokura was too cloudy and smoky on the day the bomb was dropped.

Why was that interesting? As someone who has studied ethics for a long time, I was well aware of all the intense debates about whether we should have dropped the bombs or not. Whether it was moral, or not. Whether one, Hiroshima, was enough, while the second, Nagasaki, overdid it. But weather and honeymoon didn’t usually enter the debates.

By coincidence, Oppenheimer, the movie about the man who created the atomic bomb, just appeared in the theaters as I was on my way home from Japan. The honeymoon also appeared in that movie, as Secretary Stimson said his honeymoon had kept him from bombing Kyoto.

The two new-to-me stories reminded me of how personal experience affects people’s moral choices. And they made me think about the weather, something I hadn’t thought about years ago when I reflected on the morality of the bombing.

The Weather

Little Boy, a uranium bomb, was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Fat Man, a stronger plutonium bomb, was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 14.

A non-military person like me doesn’t think much about the weather, but everyone’s comments about the clouds made me consider it. One essay talks about How Weather Determined the Target for the Atomic Bombs. The skies over Hiroshima were clear, so the bomb was dropped. The planned target for the second bomb was Kokura, not Nagasaki. But clouds and smoke blocked Kokura as the target; “sighting would be impossible” over Kokura. Kokura’s weather made the bombers turn to Nagasaki, which also had clouds. The clouds over Nagasaki made the bomber think he would have to drop the Fat Man into the Pacific Ocean, as he was running out of fuel. “At the last second a hole opened in the clouds,” however, so Nagasaki was successfully bombed. Some people think we should take a “grain of salt” with the story about a hole in the clouds, however.

Why is this interesting to me? Because often when we discuss the ethics of bombing, we do not think of those bombers in the sky whose success or failure is determined by clouds and smoke. Imagine being up there wondering if you will be able to hit your target, and that is determined by how well the weather allows you to see. It may be a good reminder of why so many people are currently arguing so intensely about….climate change.

Is that why we didn’t bomb Kyoto, one of Japan’s leading cities? Because it was too cloudy? Or were there other reasons not to drop the bomb on it?

Personal Morality

I admit I was doing informal phone-reading when I read about Stimson’s honeymoon. Then the movie reinforced that claim. Is the honeymoon what saved Kyoto? That casual reading made me reconsider how policy choices are made and what elements enter into the moral decisions surrounding them.

Kyoto was at the top of the original bombing list. At the top. Why? It had a large population, and universities. As the war continued, Japan was sending more military equipment to Kyoto. Military officials who put Kyoto on the list thought its educated population would appreciate the significant message posed by the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb. They would send the message to Japanese officials that Japan should surrender, and getting Japan’s surrender was the goal of the United States government in the bombing.

Archaeologist Langdon Warner got some credit for the decision not to bomb Tokyo. But many stories insist it was Secretary Stimson who got Kyoto taken off the list; he went to President Truman and told him the United States could not bomb Kyoto, and got Truman to agree.

Was it because of Stimson’s honeymoon? Or his experience in Asia, where he had been governor of the Philippines? Or because Kyoto was a city of “traditional cultural significance,” significant because American officials did not want to destroy Japanese culture, just get Japan to surrender?

In a 2012 article, historian Jason M. Kelly asked Why Did Henry Stimson Spare Kyoto from the Bomb? Kelly notes that Kyoto was “left nearly untouched” and that its “role is anomalous.” He mentions Stimson’s Fall 1926 trip to Kyoto with his wife. Was the decision about Kyoto a compromise between the old morality, which condemned atomic bombing, and the new strategy demanded by the war and these bombs? Did Stimson think not bombing Kyoto would end the war more quickly, which is the orthodox view of the use of force? Or did he have a revisionist idea, that not bombing Kyoto would keep the future Japanese more likely to side with the Americans than with the Soviet Union?

Tokyo was not atomic-bombed, although it suffered heavily from earlier bombing. Did Americans realize that for the Japanese, the Emperor was a deity, and so his killing would not encourage surrender? That atomic-bombing Tokyo or Kyoto would undermine long-term American goals?

Kelly concluded, “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.” Kelly concludes it was strategy, not morality, that made Stimson’s decisions about Kyoto.

And the honeymoon? Notice Kelly calls it Stimson’s trip to Kyoto with his wife. Professor Alex Wellerstein tells us that “Stimson did go to Kyoto at least twice in the 1920s, but neither trip could be reasonably characterized as a honeymoon, and explaining his actions on Kyoto in World War II as a result of a ‘honeymoon’ is trivializing and misleading.” Historian Wellerstein, who has long written about nuclear weapons, criticizes the Oppenheimer movie for including a comment about the honeymoon. He urges us to understand the deeper personal and strategic choices behind the decisions about Kyoto.

My trip, the movie, and the commentary by scholars all remind me that ethical analysis runs deep, and must take account of many aspects of decision-making, both personal and strategic. It’s not one simple thing or another. I would like my students to remember that. And that even the weather has its significant role to play in the outcome of our choices.

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