Why was Kyoto removed as the prime target for the A-Bomb?

Hiroshima and Nagasaki conjure images of lightning flashes and mushroom clouds; the terrifying power of atomic weapons and of once great cities reduced to smoking ash, twisted steel and molten corpses. Survival in the radioactive aftermath was, in many cases, a curse as Japan struggled to come to terms with the magnitude of the disaster. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the first choice targets. Instead, many planned for Kyoto to be incinerated. How did Kyoto escape obliteration?


On 6 August 1945, the United States Air Force unleashed the country’s latest and most powerful weapon on the unsuspecting city of Hiroshima. The world had now openly and terrifyingly entered the Atomic Age and the once thriving port was now a smouldering city of the dead and dying.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki By The picture was taken by Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three days later, the USAF repeated its feat with the annihilation of Nagasaki. America had comprehensively demonstrated the new and terrible power at its disposal; Japan unconditionally surrendered just six days after the destruction of Nagasaki.

The impact of the attacks was immediate and profound. Few human technological developments can match the product of the Manhattan Project for changing the rules of warfare so dramatically and so quickly. What use were tanks, armies of infantry or even air forces against such power? What defence did anyone now have against nuclear war? What guarantee was there for anyone in a world where man now had the power to destroy itself and the planet?

Those questions continue to vex world leaders discussing disarmament and a nuclear free world. How much more pressing would these discussions have been had the Americans succeeded in their original plan to bomb Kyoto instead of the secondary targets outlined above?

It is difficult to emphasise the importance of Kyoto in both Japanese national consciousness and world cultural importance. It had been the imperial capital of Japan for more than a millennia and plays a key role in maintaining traditional Japanese culture.

Kyot - Toji Pagoda - By Simone Urbinati (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is home to more than 2,000 temples – both Buddhist and Shinto and is adorned with imperial palaces, pavilions and gardens. Its royal tombs house many of the emperors of ancient Japan and its streets feature a concentration of traditional Japanese architecture that is now unique. Tourists throng to stare at traditional tea ceremonies, geishas fluttering along narrow streets or simply to admire the cherry blossom trees in beautiful bloom.

Kyoto had been identified early in the Manhattan Project as a potential target. It remained at the top of the target list well in to 1945. At the minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee held at Los Alamos on 10 – 11 May 1945, Kyoto was listed at number one – ahead of Hiroshima, Yokohama, the Kokura Arsenal and Niigata. Nagasaki was not even listed at this stage.

The Target Committee heard that: ‘This target is an urban industrial area with a population of 1,000,000. It is the former capital of Japan and many people and industries are now being moved there as other areas are being destroyed. 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 significance of such a weapon as the gadget.’ It, along with Hiroshima, was classified as an ‘AA Target’.

The Target Committee finally decided on a list of four targets, with Kyoto topping the list. Kyoto’s primacy was partially dependent on the impact an attack would have on the Japanese psyche: ‘Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon. Hiroshima has the advantage of being such a size and with possible focussing from nearby mountains that a large fraction of the city may be destroyed. The Emperor’s palace in Tokyo has a greater fame than any other target but is of least strategic value.’

Henry Stimson, 45th US Secretary of War By Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So how did Kyoto go from being the main target to being spared the horror of an atomic attack? Kyoto’s fortune (and Nagasaki’s misfortune) can be attributed to one man – Henry S. Stimson, the US Secretary of War.

On 12 June 1945, Stimson asked for a list of the cities that had been selected for bombing. He immediately opposed the selection of Kyoto as the primary candidate, noting that it: ‘had been the ancient capital of Japan and was a shrine of Japanese art and culture’. The War Secretary was not merely concerned with the cultural impact of a strike – he feared the reaction from the Japanese and world opinion.

Stimson went further in protecting Kyoto – he ordered that it should not even be subject to conventional air raids. In conversations with General Arnold, the commander of the Army Air Force, Stimson: ‘told him there was one city that they must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto’.

Stimson’s decision making was undoubtedly influenced by two key events. The first and most often commented on is that Stimson had spent a happy honeymoon in Kyoto. It is unlikely, however, that blissful memories were enough to protect the city. More practically, he had seen the negative reaction in Germany and across the world accompanying the destruction of Dresden after a particularly heavy Allied raid and the resulting firestorm.

The atomic effects of Hiroshima

Finally, Stimson was an intelligent man of the world. As well as being concerned for the cultural and religious significance of Kyoto, there was a solid realpolitik foundation to his decision: ‘he felt that bombing Kyoto would increase the likelihood that Japan would be driven into Russia’s arms after the war’. In the aftermath of the Potsdam Conference and President Truman’s cooler relations with the Soviets, the last thing the Americans wanted to do was bolster the communist cause in Asia.