Henry Stimson
Image: Library of Congress

As we all know, Nintendo's history stretches back quite some time - over 125 years, in fact. The Kyoto-based firm started out manufacturing playing cards and moved into other forms of entertainment - including toys and eventually video games - much later on.

However, Nintendo might not have reached such an advanced age were it not for the efforts of US Secretary of War Henry Stimson who, in 1945, convinced a committee of American military generals, army officers and scientists that Kyoto should be disregarded as a military target for the new atomic bomb.

The bomb itself was seen by some as the only way to bring World War II to a close; as the war in the east rolled on it became increasingly clear that the Japanese were not going to give up easily, and that many more American lives would be expended trying to secure a surrender. The atomic bomb was seen as a means of ending the conflict quickly, showing the Japanese that further fighting was simply impossible. Weeks before the bomb named "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima, Kyoto was top of the list of targets and Nagasaki - which would be bombed shortly after Hiroshima - wasn't even mentioned.

The reason Kyoto was rated so highly as a target was its status as Japan's ancient capital and its intellectual center; it was believed that the people of the city would be more receptive to what the bomb signified than the inhabitants of other cities.

However, in June 1945 Stimson had Kyoto removed from the target list, arguing that it was a place of "cultural importance" and not a viable military target. The military didn't agree and it wasn't until July that Stimson finally got his way by petitioning president Truman. Stimson and the president seemed to concur on the matter; Stimson wrote in his diary that:

...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.

Of course, in sparing Kyoto Stimson condemned the residents of other Japanese cities to a terrible death - and it is not to say that Hiroshima and Nagasaki lacked cultural importance, either. It has been claimed by some historians that Stimson's decision was fuelled not just by a desire to prevent the Japanese allying with Communists against the US, but also by a deep personal affection for the city of Kyoto; he is known to have visited the area several times in the 1920s when he was the governor of the Philippines, and some believe that he and his wife even spent their honeymoon there.

Hiroshima was devastated by the atomic bomb - Nintendo's home of Kyoto nearly faced the same fate

Whatever the reason for Stimson's decision to save Kyoto from complete destruction, one thing is clear - had he allowed the American military to get their way then the video game landscape of the modern era would be almost unrecognizable. Not only would the bomb have likely destroyed Nintendo's original headquarters, it would have had potentially untold consequences on the lives of many in the city, including parents and ancestors for leading figures such as Shigeru Miyamoto.

By saving Kyoto, Stimson unknowingly saved Nintendo, Donkey Kong, Zelda, Super Mario and every other property the company has created over the past few decades - and in turn those actions helped save the video game industry itself. Nintendo is credited as restoring public faith in "TV games" after the video game crash of 1983, and with it the sector certainly would have taken longer to recover, and perhaps may have developed in an entirely different direction had the Famicom / NES not arrived on the market.

Of course every historical choice has consequences that ripple through the ages - who knows how many artists, scientists and writers were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all of whom could have given so much to humanity had they survived - but there can be little doubt that Stimson's actions ensured that Nintendo endured, and was recently able to clock up 125 years of history. For that reason alone, he unwittingly made himself a key figure in the story of the famous firm.

Thanks to the 17-bit newsletter for bringing this piece to our attention!

[source filfre.net, via bbc.co.uk]