Should Jimmy Doolittle have Bombed the Imperial Palace in Tokyo?

I was nine at the time of the Doolittle Raid. I remember the talk in the school yard, and among the adults, was that Doolittle should have bombed the palace and killed Hirohito. The same view was expressed by ‘man in the street’ interviews on the radio.

The Administration response was that, in order to be most effective, the raid concentrated on military targets and that loss of the Emperor would make Japan ungovernable and therefore unable to surrender. Good propaganda, but not what folks wanted to hear.

If all planes had concentrated on the Palace area they would have obliterated the principal physical, political and religious icon of the country. It would have been difficult or impossible for the Emperor’s uncle to take his place. Also, the issue of retaining the Emperor would have been removed from peace talks.

This event would have been followed by the disaster of Midway. That could have led to an early capitulation.

What is you view?


No way, no how.

The same people later attempted a palace coup when the Emperor was about the broadcast a surrender. And that was after having two atomic bombs dropped on the home islands.

They’d cry for revenge for a cowardly attack and the act would help firm the resolve of the grunts in the field.

I don’t know what you would think this. Hirohito wasn’t a totalitarian leader like Hitler or Mussolini. He wasn’t the driving force behind Japan’s wartime actions, and, in fact, as we discovered in the run-up to the actual surrender, he was more moderate and reasonable than his generals were.

Removing Hirohito from the equation wouldn’t have ended the war sooner. In fact, it might have extended it. Without his public capitulation there’s a good chance the Japanese would have decided to keep fighting even after Nagasaki.

The military was pretty much running the country at the time–the Emperor was a figurehead, though much loved and revered–sort of like Queen Elizabeth. So removing the Emperor wouldn’t have affected the outcome militarily; it would have infuriated the Japanese, but the attack on Tokyo pretty much did that anyway, and provoked them into the attack on Midway, so it’s difficult to imagine the infuriated dead-emperor Japanese as reacting or acting much differently than the actual version.

That said, a successful attack on the Emperor might have made the Japanese decide to concentrate their forces for a crushing blow against not only Midway, but Hawaii. We couldn’t have stood up to that. For that matter, in the actual battle, we couldn’t have stood up to the remainder of the Japanese fleet even after we sank four of their carriers–we were just about out of gas, bullets and bombs. If they had just sent in their heavy ships and troop transports anyway–even without air cover, we would have lost Midway. But they turned their still vastly superior force around. They didn’t even bring the carriers down from the Aleutians for Midway Part II.

So I view both the actual and the hypothetical outcome as reflective of the fact that wars are largely won and lost as a matter of will and morale. Had we killed the Emperor, that may have pissed the Japanese off enough that they brought enough force to bear to prevail in a battle that as it actually played out, we were very lucky to win.


Strategic Bombing always hardens the attitude of the defenders. But, this would not have been a hardship on the populace, it would have removed the Icon of power - the link between the people and God.

Consider the economic impact of 911 on the US. It was far out of proportion to the physical damage.

You are correct. Hirohito was different than other leaders. The Palace Coup failed and in fact was not possible because of the nature of the Emperor. Had he been destroyed by a foreign power so soon after Pearl Harbor, it might have demoralized the country.


It was the office of emperor that was important, not that particular emperor. Whichever survivor was next in line would become emperor and it would have been business as usual, of course now with the propaganda boon of being able to say how the US murdered the previous one.

And if they missed and didn’t kill the Emperor, that could be interpreted as providence from the gods.

Also, I believe that the next person in line (assuming he survived) would have been the current emperor, who was only 7 or 8 at the time of the attacks. Hirohito was still a somewhat independent political player, albeit with few actual powers, and had an agenda that was somewhat more moderate than the military junta. Killing him would have left a child on the throne, who would have been the puppet the junta wanted the emperor to be.

It would still be demoralizing, no? Imagine the role reversal where the Germans hit the White House and killed Roosevelt. We didn’t think of him as a god, but it would still be a gigantic kick in the teeth.

It would have made us rabidly determined to destroy the Germans. It would be the opposite of demoralizing; people would be screaming for revenge for Roosevelt.

What do you figure the American response would be if the Germans killed Roosevelt?

I’ll tell you what wouldn’t happen. America wouldn’t have said “Aw shucks, I don’t want to fight anymore now that Roosevelt is dead.”

OK, this is ridiculous. This was never a question, because in WW2 you did not, and realistically could not, bomb individual buildings. Today we can shioot the wings off a ganat at a 100 miles (exaggeration for humor), but in WW2 they were basically trying to hit somewhere within the legal limits of a city, and couldn’t even always do that. it would have been relentlessly improbably to even get above the palace grounds, let alone hit it or kill Hirohito if they did.

Psychological factors are unpredictable. It may well have been a significant psychological injury if it had happened. The posters suggetsing it would have been a significant morale victory may well have a point. But pro or con, it’s absolutely silly.

Very true, but we would have been much more defensive-minded than going after German targets. We would have spent much more time shoring up the homeland instead of reaching out to other targets.

I think that depends on how the God-Damned Krauts managed to kill FDR and what we did to the team that succeeded. If Skorzeny had staged a raid and been killed in the aftermath, that would have generated a very different response than if the sub-orbital Sänger Amerika Bomber had been operational for a run on Washington.

That was true of the high altitude bombing campaigns of the war, but the Doolittle raiders flew in at treetop level and were very much able to hit specific buildings. I’m sure that if they’d had a mind to, they could have done some serious damage to the Imperial Palace.

Do we know why the targets we hit were selected, or why the palace was not?

That’s what Hitler said after the Valkyrie plot failed.

Don’t know but someone should have bombed the one in Las Vegas when the former owner was having his Hitler birthday parties.

Right. The palace grounds are huge. The type of saturation bombing needed to be effective might have been available to LeMay in 1945, but not Doolittle in 1942.

MacArthur intentionally kept the emperor on the throne for the occupation. There was a long history in Japan of a powerless, but worshiped emperor. Killing Hirohito would have been a huge mistake.

The US also did not bomb Kyoto the historical capitol of Japan. To this day the Japanese are grateful for that.

After Pearl Harbor, the US government and military did a lot of smart things in the war on Japan.

I just refreshed my memory at Wikipedia.

Essentially, the raid was designed more to improve American morale after Pearl Harbor than to fulfill any strategic goals. It worked. According to the article, naval defense of the Home Islands was increased, reducing pressure on the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean; but this was not known immediately.

Besides, at the time we were supposed to be targeting military targets–not killing civilians; of course, civilian casualties always occurred. Things changed toward the end of the war, with incendiary bombing of Japanese cities…