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Kyoto is a splendid city, a tourist’s dream. During the thousand years that Kyoto was the capital of Japan, hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were built. Kyoto contains one-fifth of the national treasures of Japan and its historic monuments have been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.


In 1945, Kyoto was selected as a possible target for an atomic bomb. A special Targeting Committee picked four cities as targets, with Kyoto at the top of the list. The Targeting Committee report stated: “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.”

Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project which created the atomic bomb, brought the proposed list of targets to Henry Stimson, Franklin Roosevelt’s and then Harry Truman’s Secretary of War. Groves later told an interviewer that when he presented the list to Stimson, Stimson immediately replied, “I don’t want Kyoto bombed.”

Stimson had celebrated his honeymoon 40 years earlier in Kyoto. He did not oppose the use of atomic weapons on civilian targets in Japan, because, like many other American leaders at the time, he believed that the shock of instantaneous mass destruction would force the Japanese to surrender and thus save many American lives. But he worried about the consequences for the US of this potentially devastating bomb. Just two weeks earlier, Stimson had written to Truman, “The reputation of the United States for fair play and humanitarianism is the world’s biggest asset for peace in the coming decades. I believe the same rule of sparing the civilian population should be applied, as far as possible, to the use of any new weapon.”

In fact, Japanese civilians were not spared in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More civilians died in World War II than in any previous war, possibly more than in all previous wars combined. The Nazis killed millions of eastern Europeans, the Japanese killed Chinese, British and American bombers killed Germans and Japanese. The human tragedies of the war in Europe and Asia are unfathomable.

But Stimson’s decision did spare a millennium of Japanese culture. Bombing Kyoto would have been a further tragedy for Japan, and it might have made Japan’s eventual recovery and its renunciation of war as a national policy much more difficult.

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After the war, the newly formed United Nations initiated several projects to preserve threatened treasures of human civilization, such as the Egyptian temples, which would have been flooded by the Aswan Dam, and the unique architecture of Venice, slowly sinking into the water. A White House conference in 1965 developed the idea of a World Heritage Trust to preserve “the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry.” In 1972 the world’s nations agreed to a UNESCO treaty, which prohibits “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples”.

steve hochstadt

The list of World Heritage sites includes the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. The concept of the World Heritage list is that we all have a stake in preserving the achievements of our history. Cahokia and Kyoto are not just national creations, but international treasures, which help to define the best of the human race.

Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto houses the Museum for World Peace, established in 1992. The exhibits center around the Japanese attack on China, especially on the massacre of perhaps 200,000 civilians in and around the city of Nanjing in 1937. Like Holocaust museums and monuments in Germany, the Museum of World Peace represents a profound apology for a people’s destructive actions in war. It promulgates the lesson that war destroys the fabric of human civilization, that starting war solves no human problems, that those who seek to conquer others may lose their own humanity.

The Japanese and the Germans, nationalist aggressors in the 20th century, are now two of the world’s most peaceful nations. They have regained their places of world leadership through economic development rather than through military force. They have become good friends with their former enemies, even with the US, which helped to destroy their cities.

Steve Hochstadt

Kyoto is a Japanese treasure, and a monument to the development of human culture. In shrines and gardens hundreds of years old, an American tourist can experience the common human striving for understanding, for beauty, and for peace. Stimson was right to insist that Kyoto not be bombed.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives