War Stories at Air and Space

April 7, 2008

The Smithsonian Institution acquired the Enola Gay — the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb — forty-four years ago. After a decade of deterioration in open weather, the aircraft was put into storage in 1960. Now, following a lengthy period of restoration, it will finally be displayed to the public on the fiftieth anniversary of its famous mission. The exhibition will run from May 1995 to January 1996 at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The aircraft will be an element in a larger exhibition called “The Cross-roads: The End of World War II, the Atomic, Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War.” The context is the development of the atomic bomb and its use against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The Enola Gay‘s task was a grim one, hardly suitable for glamorization. Nevertheless, many visitors may be taken aback by what they see. That is particularly true for World War II veterans who had petitioned the museum to display the historic bomber in an objective setting.

The restored aircraft will be there all right, the front fifty-six feet of it, anyway. The rest of the gallery space is allotted to a program about the atomic bomb. The presentation is designed for shock effect. The exhibition plan notes that parents might find some parts unsuitable for viewing by their children.

For the “emotional center” of the exhibit, the curators are collecting burnt watches and broken wall clocks, photos of victims — which will be enlarged to life size — as well as melted and broken religious objects. One display is a schoolgirl’s lunch box with remains of peas and rice reduced to carbon. To ensure that nobody misses the point, “where possible, photos of the persons who owned or wore these artifacts would be used to show that real people stood behind the artifacts.” Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will recall the horror in their own words.

The Air and Space Museum says it takes no position on the “difficult moral and political questions” involved. For the past two years, however, museum officials have been under fire from veterans groups who charge that the exhibition plan is politically biased.

Concessions to Balance

The exhibition plan the museum was following as recently as November picked up the story of the war in 1945 as the end approached. It depicted the Japanese in a desperate defense of their home islands, saying little about what had made such a defense necessary. US conduct of the war was depicted as brutal, vindictive, and racially motivated.

The latest script, written in January, shows major concessions to balance. It acknowledges Japan’s “naked aggression and extreme brutality” that began in the 1930s. It gives greater recognition to US casualties. Despite some hedging, it says the atomic bomb “played a crucial role in ending the Pacific war quickly.” Further revisions to the script are expected.

Despite the balancing material added in January, the curators still make some curious calls. “For most Americans,” the script says, “it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.” Women, children, and mutilated religious objects are strongly emphasized in the “ground zero” scenes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The museum says this is “happenstance,” not a deliberate ideological twist.

The Air and Space Museum is also taking flak from the other side. A prominent historian serving on an advisory group for the exhibition, for example, complains about the “celebratory” treatment of the Enola Gay and that the crew showed “no remorse” for the mission.

Petition by 8,000 Veterans

The Committee for the Restoration and Display of the Enola Gay, “a loose affiliation of World War II B-29 veterans,” has collected 8,000 signatures on a petition asking the Smithsonian to either display the aircraft properly or turn it over to a museum that will do so.

“I am saddened that veterans have seen it necessary to circulate a petition asking the museum to display the Enola Gay in a patriotic manner that will instill pride in the viewer,” says Dr. Martin O. Harwit, director of the museum. “Do veterans really suspect that the National Air and Space Museum is an unpatriotic institution or would opt for an apologetic exhibition?”

The blunt answer is yes. Many veterans are suspicious — and for several reasons.

• Prior to the January revisions, the museum staff had not budged from its politicized plan for display of the Enola Gay. The perspective was remarkably sympathetic to the Japanese, whose losses in 1945 were described in vivid detail while American combat casualties were treated in matter-of-fact summations.

In a letter to Dr. Harwit last fall. Gen. Monroe W. Hatch, Jr., USAF (Ret.), the Air Force Association’s executive director, said the museum’s plan “treats Japan and the United States as if their participation in the war were morally equivalent. If anything, incredibly, it gives the benefit of opinion to Japan, which was the aggressor.” What visitors would get from such an exhibition, General Hatch said, was “not history or fact, but a partisan interpretation.”

• Veterans are also wary because of statements about military airpower by Dr. Harwit and other Smithsonian officials. In 1988, for example, while planning was under way for a program about strategic bombing, Dr. Harwit said he would like the museum to have an exhibit “as a counterpoint to the World War II gallery we now have, which portrays the heroism of the airmen but neglects to mention in any real sense the misery of the war. I think we just can’t afford to make war a heroic event where people could prove their manliness and then come home to woo the fair damsel.”

• Of particular concern, and viewed as a possible indication of things to come, is the last major military exhibition the Smithsonian organized. It is a strident attack on airpower in World War I.

The World War I Exhibition

“Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air,” an exhibition currently running at the Air and Space Museum, emphasizes the horrors of World War I and takes a hostile view of airpower in that conflict. The vintage aircraft are used essentially as background props for the political message. A Spad and a Fokker are situated at ground level, fenced off and dimly lighted, but most of the aircraft (five of them) are suspended overhead. No particular attention is drawn to them.

Two themes predominate: the carnage on the ground and the unwholesomeness of military aviation. The military airplane is characterized as an instrument of death. According to the curators, dangerous myths have been foisted on the world by zealots and romantics.

The main exhibit section begins with a photo of a dead soldier in a trench. Only his skeleton remains. Nearby, another photo, labeled “The Verdun Ossuary,” shows a pile of hundreds of skulls. The point, apparently, is that aviation “failed to prevent the slaughter that occurred on the ground.” A large diorama shows a dead soldier slumped over a barbed wire barrier. “The price of aviation’s limitations,” the accompanying plaque says. “The failure of aviation at the Somme led to carnage on the ground.”

The curators expand on their ideas in a companion book that quotes theories about the potential of military airpower for “scientific murder.” Their major themes are the wrongful “lionization” of pilots as heroes and the ensuing “cult of air power” — Billy Mitchell is among the designated offenders — and “a myth about how air power, in the form of strategic bombing, could ultimately be decisive.”

World War I, the curator-authors say, has cast “the long shadow” of strategic bombing on events ever since, and it is still evident in the conduct of US military operations. The book gives credence to speculation that “70,000 civilians were killed as an aftermath of the bombing campaign in the recent Gulf War,” adding that “wherever the truth lies, the fact remains that innocent civilians died as a result of the bombing and that governments on all sides, in their eagerness to demonstrate the latest developments in military technology, are unrepentant.”

Politically Correct Curating

The new look at the Air and Space Museum is seen as part of the cultural reinterpretation that has swept the Smithsonian complex. It is closely identified with the tenure of archaeologist Robert McCormick Adams, who became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1984.

“That Mr. Adams was moved by a political agenda was not evident until three years after his 1984 appointment when he chose to celebrate the bicentennial of the US Constitution by erecting ‘A More Perfect Union,’ an exhibit about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War,” said Matthew Hoffman in the Washington Times. “Instead of celebrating the oldest still-in-effect constitution, Mr. Adams has focused on one of the few serious lapses in its enforcement.”

By 1987, Mr. Adams was looking ahead to all sorts of possibilities. “Take the Air and Space Museum,” he told Washingtonian Magazine. “What are the responsibilities of a museum to deal with the destruction caused by air power?” An early indication of what he had in mind was a 1989 program on “the legacy of Strategic Bombing” at the Air and Space Museum, which included the “classic films” ” On the Beach” and “Dr. Strangelove.”

“In the past, the Museum has celebrated technology and looked at it uncritically,” a spokesman said. “We want to look at it from a new perspective.”

Mr. Adams, who said he was not “running an entertainment facility,” soon gained a reputation — denied by some, earnestly believed by others — as not being very interested in straight exhibits. A new spirit was afoot, and not everyone approved.

In an editorial commenting on the trend toward reinterpreting Christopher Columbus (on the 500th anniversary of his voyage to the New World) as a despoiler, the Wall Street Journal said that the “once-respected” Smithsonian was “in danger of becoming the Woodstock Nostalgia Society” with “an exhibit that is multiculturally correct down to its tiniest sensitivity.”

At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, an exhibit titled “The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920,” drew fire in 1991 by depicting the westward expansion of the United States as immoral, characterized by racism and greed. One of those signing the comment book near the exit was Daniel Boorstin, historian and former Librarian of Congress, who wrote, “A perverse, historically inaccurate, destructive exhibit. No credit to the Smithsonian.”

(The new look at the Smithsonian is not without supporters. A Washington Post editorial, for example, applauded the “move away from the traditional heroes, politicians, and objects in glass cases and toward a wide, fluid, social-history approach.”)

Mr. Adams has announced his intention to retire later this year, but the Smithsonian has built up considerable momentum in the direction that he set.

The Air and Space Director

Dr. Harwit was formerly a professor of astronomy at Cornell University and has been director of the National Air and Space Museum since 1987. “I do not consider myself ‘politically correct,'” he says. Changes at the museum are intended to “present interesting and challenging — or thought-provoking — aspects of the history of this country, that will perhaps bring greater clarity to some issues that have, for a long time, not been discussed.”

He was born in Prague, grew up in Istanbul, and came to the United States (at age fifteen) in 1946. He asks those who suspect his attitude toward US forces in World War II to consider his personal background.

“I was lucky to get out of Czechoslovakia as a young boy, and if it had not been for the Allies, the chances are that I would have joined many of my family who did not manage to leave Czechoslovakia and the concentration camps from which they never came back,” he says. “So I’m not a person who is going to say that World War II was fought by Americans with anything except the strongest foundation.”

While serving in the US Army, 1955-57, Dr. Harwit was assigned to work on nuclear weapon testing at Eniwetok and Bikini. He acknowledges that the experience “inevitably” influenced his thoughts about the Enola Gay exhibit. “I think anybody who has ever seen a hydrogen bomb go off at fairly close range knows that you don’t ever want to see that used on people,” he says.

In the 1960s, Dr. Harwit established research groups at the Naval Research Laboratory and at Cornell that built the first rocket-borne telescopes cooled to liquid helium temperatures. In the 1980s, he chaired NASA’s Astrophysics Management Working Group.

He says that veterans have the wrong perception about plans to exhibit the Enola Gay. “People somehow had the feeling that either we were going to apologize to the Japanese, which we never had any intention of doing, or that we were going to take service people to task for having dropped this bomb, which again, we never had any intention of [doing].”

Museum official have talked with the Japanese about the plan because “we wanted to make sure we also included the point of view of the vanquished as well as the point of view of the victors,” but Dr. Harwit says the curators flatly rejected Japanese urging that the exhibit advocate total abolition of nuclear armaments.

The Message in Gallery 103

The Enola Gay/ “Crossroads” presentation will cover about 5,500 square feet of Gallery 103 on the first floor of the Air and Space Museum. The aircraft is in the back section. To reach the Enola Gay, visitors must pass through two winding introductory sections.

Suspended from the ceiling, just inside the entrance, will be a restored Ohka piloted suicide bomb. This section, labeled “A Fight to the Finish,” presents the Smithsonian’s view of the Pacific war in the spring and summer of 1945. It describes Japan’s desperate last-ditch stand and the rising casualty toll. There will be a subunit on “The Firebombing of Japan.”

The next unit of the exhibition, “The Decision to Drop the Bomb,” centers visually on the casing of a “Fat Man” atomic bomb, similar to the one that fell on Nagasaki. The development of the bomb and the decision to use it are explored in words and pictures. The curators hold to the view that casualty estimates for invasion of Japan — an alternative to using the bomb — were inflated. US deaths, the script argues, would not have exceeded the “tens of thousands.”

The largest section of the exhibit — the one with the forward fuselage of the Enola Gay — will be just around the corner. A “Little Boy” bomb casing (illustrating the device dropped on Hiroshima) will be also be displayed, along with a videotape of the Enola Gay mission. The 509th Composite Group, the unit that dropped the two atomic bombs, is covered extensively and with respect.

The curators intend the next section, “Ground Zero: Hiroshima, 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, 11:02 a.m., August 9, 1945,” to be the “emotional center” of the exhibition. In case the words and images are not enough, the exhibit plan states that visitors “will be immediately hit by a drastic change of mood and perspective: from well-lit and airy to gloomy and oppressive.”

The first item on display will be a wristwatch, loaned by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, with its hands frozen on the moment the bomb fell. Graphic exhibits include Japanese dead and wounded, flash burns, disfigurement, charred bodies in the rubble, and such vignettes as the smoking ruins of a Shinto shrine, a partially destroyed image of Buddha, a heat-fused rosary, and personal items belonging to school-children who died. Hibakusha (survivors of the bombing) describe what they saw and experienced.

Most of the rank-and-file Americans quoted in the exhibition script are soldiers, talking about details of their fighting. Except for the kamikaze pilots (who are seen as valiant defenders of the homeland), most of the individual Japanese speakers are persons who suffered injury themselves or who were witnesses to carnage. They talk about pain and suffering.

Visitors will take strong impressions with them as they leave.

To Collect, Preserve, and Display

The function of the National Air and Space Museum is prescribed by law, established in 1946 and amended only once, in 1966, to add “space” to the name and the charter.

The statute reads in its entirety: “The national air and space museum shall memorialize the national development of aviation and space flight; collect, preserve, and display aeronautical and space flight equipment of historical interest and significance; serve as a repository for scientific equipment and data pertaining to the development of aviation and space flight; and provide educational material for the historical study of aviation and space flight.”

Opinions differ on how the program at the Air and Space Museum squares with that law. In the view of its critics, the museum shows a limited interest in its basic job, allocating a low share of budget and staff to the restoration and preservation of aircraft. Arthur H. Sanfelici, editor of Aviation Magazine, has been particularly outspoken. He charges that “a new order is perverting the museum’s original purpose from restoring and displaying aviation and space artifacts to presenting gratuitous social commentary on the uses to which they have been put.”

Dr. Harwit disputes the accusation that the level of effort for aircraft restoration is down significantly on his watch. He says also that there are specific problems with funding. Those who supply the money, including Congress and private donors, want to contribute to “that part which is the most visible,” the exhibits and the films, rather than to preservation and restoration.

Fifteen Museums and a Zoo

The Smithsonian Institution consists of fifteen museums and the National Zoo. It began with a bequest in 1826 from an Englishman, James Smithson, who left his fortune to the US to found an institution named for him. Congress created the Smithsonian in 1846. It has operated ever since with concurrent public support and private endowment. It is governed by an independent board of regents but nonetheless listens carefully to what Congress says because that’s where most of the money comes from.

About eighty-five percent of the operating budget (salaries and expenses) is from the federal government. The rest is from donations, gift shop sales, cafeterias and restaurants, the Institution’s two glossy magazines — Smithsonian and Air & Space — recordings, and books published by the Smithsonian Press.

Most of the Smithsonian museums are clustered along the mall that stretches west from the US Capitol toward the Washington Monument. The Smithsonian attracts some thirteen million visitors a year, two-thirds of them drawn by the enormously popular Air and Space Museum.

Total attendance at Air and Space in 1992 was 8.6 million. Record attendance for a single day — 118,437 — was set April 14, 1984. The best-known holdings of the Air and Space Museum include:

• The Wright brothers’ 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer. (In 1910, the Smithsonian turned down the Wright brothers’ offer to donate the 1903 Flyer, then provoked a quarrel with Orville Wright that lasted for decades. The Smithsonian did not acquire the Wright Flyer and exhibit it to the public until 1948.)

• Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

• Chuck Yeager’s X-1 Glamorous Glennis.

• The Apollo 11 command module Columbia, which took astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the moon and back.

The museum’s Langley Theater shows special films on a five-story IMAX screen. The first ones were a vicarious aviation experience, “To Fly,” and a space epic, “The Dream Is Alive.” It’s a sign of the times, perhaps, that the show bill now includes “The Blue Planet” (which uses imagery from space to push a hard-line ecology message) as well as “Tropical Rain Forest” and “Beavers.”

Legislation passed in 1993 established an Air and Space Museum annex at Dulles Airport in suburban Virginia. When it opens, sometime around the turn of the century, it will provide space to exhibit a number of noteworthy aircraft from the Smithsonian’s collection, many of which are too large to show in the main museum on the mall.

At the Dulles annex, the public will be able to see the space shuttle Enterprise, a B-17 Flying Fortress, a Lockheed Super Constellation, a Concorde, and the world’s fastest airplane, the SR-71.

Also on display at Dulles — fully assembled and presumably without the political trappings — will be the most famous B-29 of all time, the Enola Gay.