Today in History: August 6

In the street, the first thing he saw was a squad of soldiers who had been burrowing into the hillside opposite, making one of the thousands of dugouts in which the Japanese apparently intended to resist invasion, hill by hill, life for life; the soldiers were coming out of the hole, where they should have been safe, and blood was running from their heads, chests, and backs. They were silent and dazed.
Under what seemed to be a local dust cloud, the day grew darker and darker.
—John Hersey, “Hiroshima,” The New Yorker, August 31, 1946

The United States Of America became the first—and to this date, the only—nation to use a nuclear weapon against an enemy nation in war on this date in 1945. The Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, flew a mission over Japan and dropped a bomb code-named “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima was selected as a target in part because Tokyo was already “rubble” after a long bombing campaign. Kyoto was also favored. Hiroshima, unlike Kyoto, had a large military district.

The bomb’s design was an inefficient one that was discarded after the war, a “gun” design in which a hollow uranium 235 “bullet” was fired into a solid core of uranium to initiate a nuclear chain reaction. (The design was not revealed until it was declassified in the 1990s.)

It is thought that the bomb’s yield was the equivalent of 12 kilotons of TNT. The two-and-a-half ton bomb fell for 44 seconds and was detonated at 2000 feet at 8:15 a.m. local time. It is estimated that 80,000 people were killed instantly, 20,000 of them members of the Japanese Imperial Army. Another 69,000 were severely injured. By the end of 1945, about 100,000 had died from the after-effects of the explosion. The city’s population had been 340,000 before the bombing.

It was not a decision that was taken lightly, and several military leaders revealed—after the war—that they had cautioned the Truman Administration against using the weapon. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the U.S. troops in Europe, met with President Truman on July 31, 1945. He wrote in his memoirs: “Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. […] During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude.”

Admiral William D. Leahy, chief of staff to Truman, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer during the war, wrote after the war: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons. The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

President Truman had authorized that the weapon be used, in two cities, period, on any date after August 1, with the date(s) for the mission to be determined by the military. He waited for the news that it had been used.

Norman Cousins, an aide to General Douglas MacArthur, who was the commander of forces in the Pacific theater, reported years after the war that General MacArthur did not know of the existence of the atomic bomb until after it was used, that he had been kept in the dark by the Truman Administration: “When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb,” Cousins wrote, “I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”

* * * *
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on this date that year. Its legislative history was rapid: introduced in March and signed into law in August. It prohibits racial discrimination in voting and it vastly expanded the voting population to one that more closely matched the actual potential voting population.

* * * *
William Kemmler became the first inmate to be executed by electric chair at Auburn Prison in New York State on this date in 1890. It was not efficient, took almost 10 minutes, and many spectators were horrified and attempted to leave the sealed room. One reporter wrote that it was, “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”

* * * *
Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born on this date in 1809. Sir Alexander Fleming was born in 1881 on this date. Lucille Ball was born on this date in 1911. Robert Mitchum was born in 1917 on this date. Andy Warhol was born on this date in 1928. Elliot Smith was born 47 years ago today.

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