In early January 1945, when World War II had just entered the most pitiless phase for Japan, Yukio Mishima wrote to a friend at an officer-candidate school that the war “wouldn’t have occurred if America as a great nation had not been irreverent to Japanese culture.”

I remembered this recently while looking into why Kyoto was spared from the atomic bomb.

What prompted Mishima to say something like that? It was Masamitsu Oshima’s “The Autumn of the Shugakuin.” In the essay, the U.S.-trained ichthyologist described how an American boy, picking up a maple leaf in the garden of the Imperial Villa, north of Kyoto, was “enlightened on the true import of Japan’s sublime beauty.”

This could have been comically incongruous. The war had started a little more than three years earlier as a direct result of Japan’s assault on Hawaii, and it had gone on too far by then. Yet Mishima’s observation may have had a smidgen of truth. Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war under President Franklin Roosevelt and then President Harry Truman, saved Kyoto from the atomic hellfire because of that.

So wrote Otis Cary who, in tracking down who Kyoto’s savior really was, found that Stimson had visited Kyoto at least twice. And it was probably during the first time, in 1926, that he was touched by Kyoto. He stayed in the ancient city for five days, from Oct. 30 to Nov. 4, as Cary confirmed by checking registrations at the Miyako Hotel, where “nearly all foreigners stayed before the war.”

“The glories of Kyoto in the fall, her gardens, temples and surrounding hills,” Cary wrote in “The Sparing of Kyoto: Mr. Stimson’s ‘Pet City’ ” (Japan Quarterly, Oct.-Dec. 1975), “evidently impressed Stimson, and the decisions he made two decades later prove that the memory of this visit remained vivid.”

Cary taught at Doshisha University in Kyoto for nearly five decades.

So Kyoto was saved. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t. And “the use of the barbarous weapon” — as Adm. William D. Leahy, the president’s chief of staff, characterized it — provoked strong, despairing reactions. Typical was this: “If Dec. 7, 1941, is ‘a day that will live in infamy,’ what will impartial history say of Aug. 6, 1945?” So wrote the Quaker journalist-educator Felix Morley in “The Return to Nothingness” (“Human Events,” Aug. 29, 1945).

Such reactions unsettled Stimson, who had called himself “the kingpin” on the use of atomic bombs. In half a year he issued a public statement, “The Bomb and the Opportunity” (Harper’s, March 1946), though by then he was out of office. He began by recognizing that “the advent of the atomic bomb has created a profound impression in all quarters of the globe,” only to suggest that the unleashed atomic energy also presented “great, but as yet unexploited, promise for the well-being of civilization.”

This diplomatic stance satisfied no one. That led Stimson to prepare a detailed explanation a year later, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” (Harper’s, February 1947). There, he noted, rather apologetically: “I struck off the list of suggested targets (for the atomic bombs) the city of Kyoto. Although it was a target of considerable military importance, it had been the ancient capital of Japan and was a shrine of Japanese art and culture.”

But his description of the steps to the dropping of the atomic bombs shows what a miracle Kyoto’s exclusion was. Read it together with Otis Cary’s other article on how Kyoto was spared, “Atomic Bomb Targeting — Myths and Realities” (Japan Quarterly, Oct.-Dec. 1979), and you realize how methodical, inexorable, pitiless a war could be.

Thus, by the time the Target Committee for atomic bombs was formed and first met on April 28, 1945, Tokyo, one of the possibilities for the weapon, yet to be tested but expected to be unprecedented, was “now practically all bombed and burned and (was) practically rubble with only the palace ground left standing.”

By June 15, with the fourth bombing of Osaka done, the 20th Air Force had completed bombing all the “designated intensive industrial zones,” and was prepared to move on to bomb 180 cities for further destruction.

By July 2, when Stimson presented a memorandum to President Truman, “Proposed Program for Japan,” Japan was so beaten that the U.S. continuing further bombing and bombardment was tantamount to flogging a dead horse. Stimson listed “the following enormously favorable factors on our side”:

“Japan has no allies. (Germany had surrendered in early May.)

“Her navy is nearly destroyed and she is vulnerable to a surface and underwater blockade which can deprive her of sufficient food and supplies for her population.

“She is terribly vulnerable to our concentrated air attack upon her crowded cities, industrial and food resources.

“She has against her not only the Anglo-American forces but the rising forces of China and the ominous threat of Russia.

“We have inexhaustible and untouched industrial resources to bring to bear against her diminishing potential.

“We have great moral superiority through being the victim of her first sneak attack.”

Therefore, “the problem” was to “translate these advantages into prompt and economic achievement of our objectives.”

On July 16, the first test of the atomic bomb was successfully carried out.

Thus the Potsdam Declaration signed on July 26 with the sentence that continues to amaze me every time I read it: “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

This, in turn, reminds me of statement by Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in January 1991, when the United States was about to end a totally lopsided war against Iraq: “Our strategy in going after this army is very simple. First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.”

Hiroaki Sato, a regular contributor to The Japan Times, is a poet, essayist and prolific translator based in New York.

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