The Kyoto misconception

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 8th, 2014

This week we talk again of the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But if the military brass had its way in 1945, we would speak of Kyoto as well. Kyoto was spared because of a personal intervention: the US Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, did not think it should be bombed. This story has been told many times, often as an example of how thin a line there is between life and death, mercy and destruction. But there’s an angle to this story that I think has gone overlooked: how the debate about targeting Kyoto led President Truman to a crucial misunderstanding about the nature of the atomic bomb.

Toji pagoda, in Kyoto, today. Had the Little Boy bomb been dropped on Kyoto, it would have likely been destroyed, as it was less than 3,000 feet from the proposed "Ground Zero" point. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Toji pagoda, in Kyoto, today. Had the Little Boy bomb been dropped on Kyoto, it would have likely been destroyed, as it was less than 3,000 feet from the proposed “Ground Zero” point. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s start from the beginning. The first concrete discussions about what cities to target with the atomic bomb did not take place until the spring of 1945. On April 27, 1945, the first “Target Committee” meeting was held in the Pentagon. General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, was there at the beginning of the meeting, as was Brig. General Lauris Norstad of the US Army Air Forces. But the meeting was mostly presided over by Groves’ deputy, Brig. General Thomas Farrell. Among the scientists in attendance were John von Neumann and William Penney (but not Oppenheimer).

The basic decisions made at this meeting were regarding operational aspects of the bombing. The use of the atomic bomb would have to be done with visual targeting, not by use of radar. The weather had to be good — no easy thing to predict for Japan in the late summer. The targets should be “large urban areas of not less than 3 miles in diameter existing in the larger populated areas… between the Japanese cities of Tokyo and Nagasaki… [and] should have high strategic value.” A list of possible targets that met this criteria was given: Tokyo Bay, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kure, Yawata, Kokura, Shimosenka, Yamaguchi, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Sasebo. Of these, Hiroshima was noted as “the largest untouched target not on the 21st Bomber Command priority list.” Tokyo, on the other hand, was “now practically all bombed and burned out and is practically rubble with only the palace grounds left standing.” It was further noted that they had to take into account that the policy of the 20th Air Force was now “systematically bombing out” cities “with the prime purpose in mind of not leaving one stone lying on the other,” and that they would not likely reserve targets just for the Manhattan Project.1

1945-04-28 - Nordstad - Target Information

This list of targets was forwarded on the next day and someone — probably Groves — indicated that Hiroshima was target #1, Kyoto target #2, Yokohama target #3,  and that other targets of high interest included Tokyo Bay, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Sasebo.2 Why Kyoto? A target data sheet, compiled on July 2nd, gives some indication of its perceived strategic value. Kyoto, according to this summary, was a major rail connection between Osaka and Tokyo, had several major factories inside of it (producing “ordnance and aircraft parts” as well as “radio fire control and gun direction equipment”), and numerous “peace time factories [that] have been converted to war purposes.” It also had a new aircraft engine factory that could turn out an estimated 400 engines a month, which would make it the second largest such factory in Japan.3 It had a population of over a million people, of which a “sizeable proportion” of the workers commuted to war production plants. “Many people and industries are being moved here as other cities as destroyed,” another datasheet noted. Its construction was “typical Jap city” — lots of wooden residential houses, and thus very flammable.4

At the Second Meeting of the Target Committee, Kyoto increased in perceived importance. This meeting was held in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s office at Los Alamos on May 10-11, 1945, and was dominated by scientists in attendance. Along with discussing the ideal burst altitude of the bomb, calculated to destroy the largest amount of “light” buildings (e.g. housing), the scientists also discussed targets. At this point, the target list was #1 Kyoto, #2 Hiroshima, #3 Yokohama, #4 Kokura, and #5 Niigata. Aside from the aforementioned justifications (population size, industries), the committee report noted that:

From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significant of such a weapon as the gadget. … Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon.5

No surprise, perhaps, that the scientists would believe that there was strategic value in making sure that other intellectuals saw the effects of the atomic bomb.

Target map of Kyoto, June 1945, with atomic bomb aiming point indicated. This image is a composite of eight separate microfilm images from two maps (Kyoto North and Kyoto South) that I stitched together in Photoshop.

Target map of Kyoto, June 1945, with atomic bomb aiming point indicated. This image is a composite of eight separate microfilm images from two maps (Kyoto North and Kyoto South) that I stitched together in Photoshop. If you want the full uncropped version (7MB), you can get it here.

The plans to bomb Kyoto were serious enough to warrant the creation of a target map, showing the city with a 1.5 mile circle drawn around a starred aiming point — the roundhouse of the railway yards. Even today this is an easy target to find, visually, using Google Maps — it is the site of the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum today. One suspects that if Kyoto had been atomic bombed this site would have the same iconic status as the Genbaku Dome/Hiroshima Peace Memorial today.6

On May 15, 1945, a directive was issued to the US Army Air Forces requesting that Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Niigata be put on a list of “Reserved Areas” not to be bombed, so that they could be preserved as atomic bombing targets. Why Yokohama and Kokura was not put on the list as well at that time is not known to me, but presumably Yokohama was known to be a planned target, as it was ruinously firebombed on May 29th. (As an aside, the mushroom cloud from atomic bombing of Yokohama would probably have been visible from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, according to NUKEMAP3D.) Kokura was added to the “reserved” list on June 27.7

On May 30th, Groves had a morning meeting with Stimson to discuss the targeting decisions. In Groves’ later recollections, Stimson told Groves that on the matter of the bomb targeting, Stimson was “the kingpin” and that nobody else would overrule him. When Groves told him of the targeted cities, Stimson (again, in Groves’ later recollection), told him bluntly: “I don’t want Kyoto bombed.” Groves recalled Stimson telling him that Kyoto was a cultural center of Japan, the former capital of the country, “and a great many reasons” more why he didn’t want it bombed.8 Stimson had been having numerous meetings about the atomic bomb and the firebombing of Tokyo over these days — and was resistant to the new mass bombing tactics. On June 1, Stimson recorded in his diary a discussion he had with the commander of the US Army Air Forces, about the fact that the US policy was now one of mass destruction:

Then I had in General Arnold and discussed with him the bombing of the B-29’s in Japan. I told him of my promise from Lovett that there would be only precision bombing in Japan and that the press yesterday had indicated a bombing of Tokyo which was very far from that. I wanted to know what the facts were. He told me that the Air Force was up against the difficult situation arising out of the fact that Japan, unlike Germany, had not concentrated her industries and that on the contrary they were scattered out and were small and closely connected in site with the houses of their employees; that thus it was practically impossible to destroy the war output of Japan without doing more damage to civilians connected with the output than in Europe. He told me, however, that they were trying to keep it down as far as possible. I told him there was one city that they must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto.

Stimson went to President Truman with his concerns a few days later, on June 6th. His diary records the following exchange:

I told him I was anxious about this feature of the war for two reasons: first, because I did not want to have the United States get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities; and second, I was a little fearful that before we could get ready the Air Force might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon would not have a fair background to show its strength. He laughed and said he understood. Owing to the shortness of time I did not get through any further matters on my agenda.

What was Truman laughing at? If Truman was a clever man, one might guess that it was the apparent contradiction between not wanting to “outdo Hitler in atrocities” but also wanting to make sure there was enough of Japan left to destroy to make an impression when the atomic bomb was ready. But Truman was not known as a clever man — he probably just thought it was amusing that we were becoming so successful at destroying Japan that we’d need to preserve a little more to destroy later.

Groves had not given up on targeting Kyoto, however. He repeatedly attempted to see if Stimson would budge. Kyoto was a rich target — more important than many of the others on the list. Why did Stimson insist on sparing Kyoto? The answer you find on the Internet is straightforward but a little glib: in the late 1920s, Stimson had been Governor-General to the Philippines, and had visited the city and loved it (and had perhaps been there on his honeymoon). Thus there was a personal connection. This is not present in most of the books on the bomb decision, oddly enough — the fact that Stimson opposed bombing Kyoto is mentioned, but other than noting it was a cultural capital, it is not probed much deeper. The historiography on Stimson’s decision is one about the moral underpinnings of it: Was Stimson trying to assuage guilt? Was he trying to preserve better postwar relations with the Japanese? There are competing interpretations, and not a lot of evidence to work from.9

Truman and Stimson, August 1945. Source: George Skadding, LIFE Magazine.

Truman and Stimson, August 1945. Source: George Skadding, LIFE Magazine.

Which brings us, at last, to what interests me the most here. I am not so interested in why Stimson spared Kyoto, or how scholars have interpreted that. What I am interested in is this: Stimson’s attempt to keep Kyoto off the target list for the atomic bomb went to the very top. The list of targets was not finalized until July 25th, 1945, when Stimson and Truman were both at the Potsdam Conference. There, Stimson told Truman for a final time why Kyoto had to be kept off. From Stimson’s diary entry from July 24th:

“We had a few words more about the S-1 program, and I again gave him my reasons for eliminating one of the proposed targets [Kyoto]. He again reiterated with the 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. It might thus, I pointed out, be 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.”

Stimson left the meeting thinking Truman completely understood the matter, and the final target order — with Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki (the latter added only then) — was sent out.

But what did Truman take away from this meeting? We can look at Truman’s own diary entry from July 25th:

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful. 

This passage reflects an incredible misconception. Truman appears, here, to believe that Hiroshima was “a purely military” target, and that “soldiers and sailors” would be killed, “not women and children.” But of course every city on that list was inhabited primarily by civilians. And by the calculus of war being waged, every city on that list had a military connection — they produced weapons for the military.

This is not to say that there isn’t a distinction between the targets, just that it is slighter than Truman’s diary entry suggests. Stimson was probably trying to say that the cultural value of Kyoto outweighed its value as a strategic target. Stimson was no doubt aware that Kyoto had war industries inside of it, but thought these were worth overlooking. The lack of a large military base in Kyoto made it more of a “civilian” target in his mind than Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But Truman seems to have come away from this discussion with the understanding that it was a stark contrast between a “civilian” target and a “military” one. As J. Samuel Walker has noted, if Hiroshima had been a more important military target, it likely would have already been bombed much earlier — the fact that it was still intact was in part a reflection of its lack of military presence.10

Statistics on "casualties among school children" at Hiroshima, from Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs, volume VI (July 1951).

Statistics on “casualties among school children” at Hiroshima, from Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs, volume VI (July 1951), page 25.

Am I reading too much into one diary entry? I don’t think so. Consider that after the second bomb was dropped, Truman issued a “stop” order on further atomic bombing, telling Secretary of Commerce (and former VP) Henry Wallace that “the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.'”11 Because both of those atomic bombs did kill a lot of civilians, and a lot of children in particular. In fact, as a postwar report explained, elementary schools were seen as a great data source on the mortality of the bombs because good records were kept “of the fate of the children.” So you get really gristly statistics about the percentage of schoolchildren killed at various distances from Ground Zero — something that really underscores that these “purely military” targets were a little less than “pure.” Sometimes these passages have been taken to argue that Truman really did wrestle with the moral issues, but I think they show something else: that he did not understand them until after the fact.12

As another bit of evidence along these lines, consider what Truman wrote to Senator Richard Russell on August 9th, before he received a detailed report of the damage at Hiroshima:

I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in the same manner.

For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the ‘pigheadedness’ of the leaders of a nation and, for your information, I am not going to do it until it is absolutely necessary

My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children in Japan.

Does this look like a man who understands that he signed off an an order that was being used to obliterate Japanese elementary schools, or someone who really still believes that they are primarily destroying “military” targets exclusively?13

I think Truman came away from the discussions about Kyoto with a very incorrect understanding of what the atomic bomb targets were. I think he really, genuinely did not understand the degree to which civilians would compose the vast bulk of the casualties. How could he misunderstand this point? Because of the framing of the discussion, perhaps — Stimson really wanted him to agree with him that Kyoto was somehow a different category of target. Perhaps this is the greatest legacy of the Kyoto decision: it created what looked like a great moral distinction regarding the bomb, one which Truman thought he had taken a decisive stance on. But in the end it confused Truman as to the possible moral options (he was never presented with the question of whether a “demonstration” should be made, for example, or whether Japan should be given a direct warning first), and he chose one apparently under false pretenses.

I don’t think Stimson attempted to purposely mislead Truman, though. Rather, I think the root of Truman’s misunderstanding was that he was a very incurious man when it came to nuclear matters. He liked the idea of the bomb as a source of political power, but he didn’t really get into the details of how it was made or used, not in the way Roosevelt did, and not in the way Eisenhower would. He rarely questioned his advisors, rarely analyzed the issues with independent judgment, and he never grappled with the big ideas. There are many other examples of this from later in his Presidency as well. Despite having his name forever linked to the atomic bomb, one does not get the impression from even his own retrospective, self-justifying accounts that he really took the issues seriously, or even fully understood them. As a result of his lack of interest, and lack of attention, he never thought to ask how many civilians would die at Hiroshima — it doesn’t appear to him to have even been a consideration until after the damage was done.

  1. Notes on the Initial Meeting of the Target Committee [held on 27 April 1945]” (2 May 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5D, “Selection of Targets.” []
  2. Lauris Norstad to Director, Joint Target Group, “Target Information” (28 April 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5D, “Selection of Targets.” []
  3. Kyoto,” (2 July 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5D, “Selection of Targets.” []
  4. Files from an envelope labeled “New Dope on Cities,” (14 June 1945, but with some files dated later), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 8, Folder 25, “Documents Removed From Groves’ Locked Box.” []
  5. J.A. Derry and N.F. Ramsey to L.R. Groves, “Summary of Target Committee Meetings on 10 and 11 May 1945,” in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5D, “Selection of Targets.” []
  6. The map is found in an envelope labeled “Pictures,” dated 15 June 1945, in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 8, Folder 25, “Documents Removed From Groves’ Locked Box.” There was also a map of Niigata and aerial photos of Kokura and Kyoto in the envelope. []
  7. Reserved Areas” (27 June 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 8, Folder 25, “Documents Removed From Groves’ Locked Box.” []
  8. Quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986), on 640-641. []
  9. See Jason M. Kelly, “Why Did Henry Stimson Spare Kyoto from the Bomb?: Confusion in Postwar Historiography,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 19 (2012), 183-203, and Sean Malloy, “Four Days in May: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” The Asia Pacific Journal, Vol. 14-2-09, April 4, 2009. []
  10. J. Samuel Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 61-62. Walker is one of the few authors I’ve seen who have pointed out the discrepancy in Truman’s understanding. I also appreciate that his book title properly refers to the use of “atomic bombs” (plural) as opposed to “the atomic bomb.” []
  11. From Wallace’s diary, quoted in Walker, page 86. []
  12. Bart Bernstein wrote an article in the late 1990s which discusses, among other things, the unreliability of Truman’s after-the-fact narratives about his feelings about this, including one completely false document that claims that Truman decided on Hiroshima and Nagasaki himself! The falseness of this is obvious to anyone who knows even a bit about this history, since Nagasaki was not the primary target for the August 9th run, but the secondary. See Barton J. Bernstein, “Truman and the A-Bomb: Targeting Noncombatants, Using the Bomb, and His Defending the ‘Decision’,” The Journal of Military History 62, no. 3 (July 1998), 547-570. []
  13. Truman’s public statements and press releases, as an aside, need to be carefully scrutinized before being taken as evidence of Truman’s point of view, since he did not write many of them. []

29 Responses to “The Kyoto misconception”

  1. I found this on a Japanese website:

    April…The following regions were selected for study as potential targets: Tokyo Bay, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kure, Yahata, Kokura, Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Sasebo.
    May…A-bomb targets were narrowed to Kyoto, Hiroshima and Niigata.
    June…Kyoto was scratched from the list. Targets were Kokura, Hiroshima and Niigata.
    July(25th) Order to drop on Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, Nagasaki.
    (31st) Hiroshima was chosen as a priority target.
    August (1st) Niigata was scratched from the list.
    (3rd) Final order set the day of attack as August 6 — Hiroshima, Kokura and Nagasaki were targets.
    (6th) A-bombing on Hiroshima.
    (9th) A-bombing on Nagasaki.

    • This is more or less what the documents show, but there are a few more subtle aspects to it than this list indicates. I’ve tried to hint at some of those things above (e.g. the fact that Kokura was not, in fact, fully “scratched from the list” until July — there were attempts to “unscratch” it).

      • In 1946, there was a rumor that Japan’s nuclear weapons program began at Nagoya. Was that rumor known to U.S. authorities prior to Hiroshima, and did it play any role in the inclusion and subsequent removal of Nagoya from the target list.

        • Everything I have seen suggests the Manhattan Project people did not think the Japanese had any kind of weapons program. I’ve never seen anything to indicate that such things played a role in the targeting decisions. I don’t think Nagoya was ever really on the “target list” — it was on a list of possible cities that met a criteria, but never attracted any real attention.

  2. Nice post, Alex. All this just serves to confirm my view – which I think you share – that Truman was shockingly uninformed and uncurious about things nuclear for most (all?) of his tenure as president. I find this to be an interesting fact to convey to undergrads given HST’s public image now ( as a “decider.”

    • Will Thomas says:

      As I think we’ve learned, “deciders” don’t really need to be curious to be decisive. Actually, one notion that’s been building in my mind is that where decisive people are often regarded as being uncurious because they are overcertain, I’ve come to suppose that they’re actually maybe more often incurious because they have become comfortable with making decisions under uncertainty. I feel this is the case with Don Rumsfeld (who, as we know, has very definite views about the nature of uncertainty) and probably also Paul Wolfowitz, whose father, Jacob, was actually a pioneer of statistical decision theory.

      Back on point, this post seems to reinforce for me what we know about the extraordinary autonomy of the Air Forces in setting bombing policy. The point where Stimson is completely pushed over on the question of precision bombing is remarkable. For Alex’s thesis about Truman’s belief in civilian vs. military targets to stick, we would almost have to believe he would have the same lack of appreciation concerning the civilian deaths resulting from firebombing. Given the Air Forces’ autonomy, I’d be willing to believe it, but I’d also be open to seeing evidence that Truman was aware of the civilian casualties of firebombing. In which case I would find it hard to believe that Truman would somehow think that atomic bombing was selective in a way that firebombing wasn’t.

      • Hi Will —

        A number of Truman’s contemporaries commented on the fact that he made rapid “decisions” whenever he felt out of his depth, and that this was a means by which to appear in control of the situation (even if he was mostly being pretty unthoughtful). On atomic matters he did this frequently.

        I have not seen anything regarding Truman’s response to firebombing. I suspect that if Stimson was out of the loop on this, Truman was doubly or triply so on this point.

      • Matt Penfold says:

        Your point about the extraordinary autonomy of the Air Forces is an interesting one, and one that applies not just to the Pacific theatre, or the USAAF. Bomber Command of the RAF under Harris also seemed to be willing instructions from senior officers and politicians unless given a direct and unambiguous order.

  3. Gene Dannen says:

    Alex, I came to the same conclusion many years ago, and as you know there is more evidence supporting that view on my Atomic Bomb: Decision website.

    Specifically, in a radio speech to the nation on August 9, 1945, Truman called Hiroshima “a military base.” He said that “we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” If Japan did not surrender, he warned, “thousands of civilian lives” could be lost in future attacks.

    People (and historians) want to believe the “rational actor” theory of history, that a President must be making rational decisions. They recoil from the idea that Truman authorized the atomic bombings out of a grotesque misunderstanding about the nature of the targets.

    • Howard Morland says:

      I discovered that statement at the Truman library and quoted it in my 1981 book, The Secret That Exploded. I had never seen it before and have rarely seen it since. There seems to be an agreement among historians and commentators that this particular example of Truman’s incompetence (that he didn’t know what he was bombing) is off limits. To me, it points out the folly of creating a doomsday machine, the nuclear arsenal, and giving one person the final authority to use it. Aside from the fact that no human being is wise enough to wield that power, I doubt that any president in the nuclear age has really understood our targeting strategy.

      • I think a lot of people enter into the discussion of the “decision to use the bomb” assuming Truman was very calculating and very on top of things, and this leads them to gravitate towards certain types of evidence and ignore other types. My feeling is that Truman was not very calculating one way or the other — he was out of his depth. In general I find that many historians often ignore evidence that doesn’t fit neatly into one narrative or another; it is these anomalies — these things that make me wonder, “wait, what is going on here?” — that I am drawn to, personally! One of the things I like about having a blog is getting the opportunity to poke at these weird things out of the somewhat binding context of an academic journal or a book, where you are generally not encouraged to say, “this is strange and I don’t know what it means!” (E.g. this sort of thing, which academic historians have basically ignored, I think, because it is so weird.)

  4. B. Dodd says:

    I have found your blog on the Kyoto misconception very interesting. When I was in Japan in the 1970s I saw a monument in Horyuji-ji (if I remember correctly) to Dr Langdon Warner who was an American whose expertise is was in Far Eastern Art. He spent some time in Japan and died in 1955. The memorial was erected to Warner because he is said to have been influencial in stopping the A-bombing of Nara and Kyoto. Do you think there is any truth at all in this?

  5. This is an excellent and often overlooked point:

    “As J. Samuel Walker has noted, if Hiroshima had been a more important military target, it likely would have already been bombed much earlier — the fact that it was still intact was in part a reflection of its lack of military presence.”

  6. M Tucker says:

    We will never know for sure if Truman would have taken a different course if he had a clear understanding of civilian casualties. It is not clear if he even knew how many civilian casualties had already resulted from the conventional bombing and fire-bombing of Japanese cities. Targeting cities will always result in civilian casualties and it seems to me that Truman demonstrated a particularly naive sentiment when he said on August 9:

    “For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the ‘pigheadedness’ of the leaders of a nation and, for your information, I am not going to do it until it is absolutely necessary…”

    “…I am not going to do it until it is absolutely necessary…” Didn’t he think that was already happening? Didn’t he think schools and hospitals had been bombed repeatedly in Tokyo? Didn’t he think fire-bombing cities subjected children and women to horrible death or maiming?

    These were essentially experimental weapons. What if a demonstration bomb failed? What to do then?

    My opinion is Truman should have done more to alert the Japanese public and leadership that a terror weapon more horrible than had ever before been created was going to be dropped. My feeling is the military and civilian leadership would have ignored it or thought it was a hoax and there is no way to know if Hirohito would have been informed. The general public never had a say in anything the government did. They were essentially sheep.

    After spending somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 billion dollars Truman was going to use the bomb. I think he believed it was necessary to end the war and I am unaware of any post war comments he has made that indicated that he wished he had done something different.

    • I agree that it seems unlikely that Truman would have deviated strongly from the path he took even if he had a better sense of it. I do wonder what he would have thought about a first usage that would have had a much smaller amount of casualties — e.g. detonating it in the middle of Tokyo Bay, or something like that. One would not need to announce the specifics demonstration before doing it. Not an impossible outcome, though Truman is so opaque about what he actually thought about things, and so misleading in his retrospective memories, that it is hard to know how he thought.

      Still, I think there is evidence that he was surprised by many things that happened, which is interesting in and of itself.

    • Didn’t B-29’s drop leaflets before Hiroshima? One bomb can destroy a city? What a joke. Sadly, it wasn’t a joke.

      — Bill Streifer

  7. Bradley Laing says:

    —I was thinking the other day about the “Operation Crossroads” test of 1946, and the USS Prinz Eugen (IX-300), a test ship that was too radioactive to be saved by the US Navy.

    —Was there anything, other than a city, left in the entire Japanese Imperial Empire, worth dropping a nuclear weapon on, by June of 1945?

    • The ships at Crossroads were exposed to fission products via the “rain out” of the cloud that was formed by the bomb going off underwater. So it isn’t analogous to an airburst, or even a normal surface burst — a partially submerged atomic bomb creates a lot of highly radioactive water and is much more contaminating for this reason. This was more or less the conclusion drawn from the Baker test. Note that this is a result of the bomb going off under or right on top of the water — an airburst is still an airburst.

      As for things other than a city, it depends what you are trying to do with the bomb. If the goal is to make a spectacle, there are lots of ways to do that. If your goal is to somehow use a maximum amount of its energy towards destruction, then there is never going to be a target better than that than a city.

  8. Sean says:

    Hi Alex,great article, really good. The question much of this discussion raises for me is the evaluation of the options presented to The President. Did his advisors evaluate the consequences of dropping the bomb on the various listed targets, including the number of potential civil deaths, and, was their estimate accurate?

    • I have never seen anything where they estimated casualties. When they spoke of the bomb’s effects, they did discuss blast, fire, and radiation, but they kept things at a very technical level. I have never seen anything where they estimated orders of magnitude of killed or injured, much less civilian vs. military. To be fair, they really had very little to go on — at best, they had estimates from conventional bombing that they could try to use as an analogy. But correlating that information with bomb estimates is not easy to do, and this is one of the reasons they wanted to study Hiroshima and Nagasaki so closely after the fact.

      • Gene Dannen says:

        Alex, I remember a memo from Oppenheimer to Groves where he made a casualty estimate that was much too low. He was assuming that the inhabitants of the targeted Japanese city had taken shelter before detonation. I don’t have time to look up that memo, but I’m sure you know it now that I’ve jogged your memory. Congratulations on another excellent blog posting by the way.

  9. Krepon says:


    In terms of military-related targets, my recollection is that Kyoto didn’t come close to Hiroshima. But Kyoto had one thing — actually many of them — that Hiroshima didn’t have. Which leads me to a theory about why Stimson was so reluctant to use the Bomb against Kyoto. It’s thoroughly unsubstantiated and highly conjectural.

    Anyone who has visited the Zen gardens around Kyoto knows that they are sublimely beautiful. I find it hard to believe that Stimson and his wife would have visited the city seeing at least some of them. Any visitor’s itinerary in and around Kyoto would include these world-historic sights.

    This is why I think Stimson was insistent about sparing Kyoto. Stimson knew from visiting the city that the trumped up rationale for bombing it was bogus. It was the cultural heritage of the city — code, at least in my mind, for the exquisite Zen gardens there — that stiffened Stimson’s resolve.

    I’ve been asked to speak at Hiroshima twice. Before doing so, I made it a point to visit those Zen gardens.


  10. […] The Nuclear Secrecy Blog: The Kyoto misconception […]

  11. […] Fascinating and thought-provoking long read: The Kyoto Misconception. […]

  12. Stan Norris says:


    There is an article which has a few more details. Otis Cary, “The Sparing of Kyoto: Mr. Stimson’s ‘Pet City,'” Japan Quarterly (Oct-Dec 1975) 337-47.

    Stimson visited Kyoto twice once for one night in 1929, but more importantly for five nights in 1926. The article concludes that the decision to exclude Kyoto was Stimson’s and was not influenced by Langdon Warner (the teacher of Oriental art at Harvard’s Fogg Museum) or a young cousin of Stimson’s , Henry Loomis, who at a dinner at Woodley in Feb or March 1945 discussed the glories of Kyoto.

  13. […] It was a major issue in the atomic bombing discussions as well since very early on. At the first Target Committee meeting in April 1945, weather was a major point of […]