Washington Watch: The Activists and the Enola Gay

April 7, 2008

Every morning, a long line forms at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to see the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima fifty years ago. The exhibit opened June 28, and by the end of July, 97,525 people had gone through it. More than ninety percent of the comment cards turned in by visitors expressed favorable reaction.

This program — as all the world must know by now — is not the one the curators originally had in mind. The previous exhibit, “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II,” was canceled when it became an intolerable political and financial liability for the Smithsonian Institution,of which the Air and Space Museum is a part.

It was the Air Force Association that exposed the museum’s plan to use the Enola Gay as a prop in a politically rigged program about the atomic bomb. [See “War Stories at Air and Space,” Air Force Magazine, April 1994.] Other veterans’ groups, Congress, and the news media picked up the issue and scrutiny became intense. More than 30,000 letters poured in to the Smithsonian, and patrons and subscribers quit in droves.

The Smithsonian canceled the ill-fated exhibit last January in favor of a straightforward exhibit that would display the Enola Gay without political trappings. The fire never really went out, though, and Dr. Martin O. Harwit, director of the museum, resigned May 2, saying that nothing less would satisfy the critics.

Veterans’ organizations have praised the Enola Gay exhibition now running at the Air and Space Museum, but those who backed the original exhibit plan are now up in arms.

The Activists’ Counterattack

Revisionist scholars, peace activists, writers, and others are pressing their counterattack in books, journals, and statements to news media as well as through various public programs and platforms.

¡ Gar Alperovitz is a founding father of revisionist theory about the atomic bomb. In 1965, he said the evidence “strongly suggests” that “the bombs were used primarily to demonstrate to the Russians the enormous power America would have in its possession during subsequent negotiations.” He is a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland and the author of The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, published in July 1995.

¡ Kai Bird is a former journalist who now describes himself as a historian. He is co-chairman of the Historians’ Committee for Open Debate on Hiroshima and the author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishment (1992). He says the Smithsonian caved in to veterans and politicians and put on an exhibit that “dishonors the very principles of free speech and free inquiry.”

¡ Martin J. Sherwin is a professor of history at Dartmouth and Tufts and co-chairman of the Historians’ Committee for Open Debate on Hiroshima. He is the author of A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (1976). In February 1994, in his capacity as an advisor to the Air and Space Museum on the Enola Gay exhibit, he complained that the crew had shown “no remorse” for the mission.

¡ Barton Bernstein is a professor of history at Stanford University. The author note with one of his recently published essays identifies him as “a leading revisionist scholar.” He is less absolute than his colleagues on some issues. He now holds, for example, that use of the atomic bomb was “probably unnecessary.” (Others in the revisionist lineup say it was absolutely unnecessary.) His major theme is that US casualty estimates for an invasion of Japan in 1945 were grossly exaggerated. In fact, it was Professor Bernstein who — on the basis of his reinterpretation of a June 18, 1945, entry in the diary of Adm. William D. Leahy, the President’s Chief of Staff — persuaded Air and Space Museum Director Harwit to mark the US casualty estimate down to 63,000. That led to congressional and public outrage and eventually to Dr. Harwit’s resignation.

¡ Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell are the authors of Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, which the publisher describes as “not just historical analysis” but also “a landmark psychological study.” According to them, “after ordering the use of two atomic bombs, Truman spent the rest of his life in the throes of unrealized guilt.” He also “called forth is ‘decisiveness’ to block out remorseful reflection of any kind, in that way suppressing conscious feelings of self condemnation.” Dr. Lifton is a former Air Force psychiatrist. Mr. Mitchell formerly served as executive director of the Center on Violence and Human Survival.

¡ Stanley Goldberg is a “historian of science.” He resigned in protest from the Enola Gay exhibit advisory board because “the museum administration had exposed the curators to the direct pressure of organizations such as the Air Force Association and the American Legion.” He punctuates his argument with epithets like “thought control” and “McCarthyism.”

ABC Chimes In

There are some differences of position among the revisionists, but the central ideas of the movement are that (1) Japan was on the verge of surrender;(2) the war would have been over soon without the atomic bomb; (3) the US prolonged the war by insisting on unconditional surrender; (4) the US dropped the bomb mainly to impress the Russians; (5) the decision was driven by domestic political considerations; and (6) even if we had to invade Japan, the casualties would not have been that severe.

The revisionists — who had generally fared poorly in news media comment on the Enola Gay controversy — gained some prime-time support July 27 with a Peter Jennings special, “Hiroshima: Why the Bomb Was Dropped,” on ABC television. It was a set piece of the revisionist line.

As the Washington Post review said, Mr. Jennings was led along by “a largely stacked deck of revisionist historians” to the assessment of President Harry Truman “as an intellectual and moral dwarf, propelled by ambitious militarists and politicians to a nuclear slaughter of the innocents.”

Mr. Jennings said it was “unfortunate” that veterans’ groups had “bullied” the curators of the original Enola Gay exhibit. He declined to use the material furnished to him and his producers by the Air Force Association. According to Gar Alperovitz’s publisher, Knopf, his new book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, was the basis for the Jennings special.

Targeting AFA

With the decision past on how the Air and Space Museum will exhibit the Enola Gay, the activists, scholars, and others turned their attention to the record of how the controversy arose and unfolded. Attention soon centered on the Air Force Association, which was the first organization to tackle the museum’s original exhibit plan and which produced the widely cited content analyses of the exhibition scripts. The Air Force Association was also the source of a collection of documents that virtually all participants in the controversy, including the revisionists, draw upon.

In American Journalism Review, Tony Capaccio and Uday Mohan say that it was “an aggressive public relations campaign by the Air Force Association” that “doomed the museum’s plans for a full-fledged exhibit on the atomic bomb.”

In “Blown Away” in Washingtonian Magazine, Tom Allen and Norman Polmar say that the editor of Air Force Magazine was “Martin Harwit’s chief nemesis in the Enola Gay battle.” Dr. Harwit told them that “The Air Force Association must have had an incredibly well-oiled public relations machine.”

In Museum News, Professor Mike Wallace of John Jay College of Criminal Justice says the Air and Space Museum “never quite realized who and what it was up against” in the Air Force Association, which Professor Wallace depicts as incredibly powerful and oppressive.

Professor Martin J. Sherwin told reporters that the attack on the exhibition was “orchestrated” by Air Force Magazine and that “The Air Force Association’s agenda, in my view, was not simply to tweak an exhibit into getting the story straight. It was a blatant and ultimately successful attempt at getting Martin Harwit fired and regain [sic] control of Air and Space for Air Force-friendly,noncritical mis-exhibits.”

The Allegedly Bamboozled

The notion that AFA somehow managed to bamboozle the press, the Congress, and the American public is hardly credible. It is even less credible that, as suggested by some, we gulled the liberally inclined Washington Post. As museum officials knew — and as bamboozle theorists ought to know — the Post got some documents and analysis from AFA, but its reporters acquired more materials on their own and spent months digging into the issue.

What rankled the revisionists is that the Post said in a January 1995 editorial that early drafts of the Enola Gay script were “incredibly propagandistic and intellectually shabby” and had “a tendentiously antinuclear and anti-American tone.” The Post also said the curators had repeatedly made things worse by their “misplaced condescension and refusal to see the criticisms of bias as anything but the carping of the insufficiently sophisticated.”

In February, another Post editorial added: “It is important to be clear about what happened at the Smithsonian. It is not, as some have it, that benighted advocates of a special-interest or right-wing point of view brought political power to bear to crush and distort the historical truth. Quite the contrary. Narrow-minded representatives of a special-interest and revisionist point of view attempted to use their inside track to appropriate and hollow out a historical event that large numbers of Americans alive at that time and engaged in the war had witnessed and understood in a very different — and authentic — way.”

In similar fashion, one congressman’s statement contains an answer to whether he bought a pig in a poke. In September 1994, Rep. Tom Lewis (R-Fla.) said he learned of the controversy when a constituent wrote to complain. “I obtained a copy of the exhibit’s script to judge it for myself,” Representative Lewis said. “I did not think it could be as slanted as the letter described. I was wrong.”

In Hiroshima in America, Lifton and Mitchell say that “reporters rarely took the trouble to examine one of the widely available scripts to determine if the veterans’ complaints were valid. Instead, they accepted at face value the Air Force Association’s interpretation — including such false assertions that the script did not mention Japanese brutality.”

That account contains several curiosities. The source from which the script was “widely available” was the Air Force Association, which distributed hundreds of copies, many of them to reporters, whose follow-up questions indicated that they had, indeed, read the scripts they received. The “false assertion” line does not square with the facts. As Air Force Magazine’s first report said, the exhibit script “acknowledges Japan’s ‘naked aggression and extreme brutality’ that began in the 1930.” Those references, however, were slight. Even after museum officials acknowledged among themselves that the exhibit was imbalanced and “that much of the criticism that has been levied against us is understandable,” the exhibition plan said little about the events leading up to the mission of the Enola Gay. A revised script allocated less than one page of text — out of 295 total text pages — and only eight visual images (out of hundreds) to any mention of Japanese military activity prior to 1945.

“History vs. Nostalgia”

At the press conference before the official opening of the Enola Gay exhibit, Smithsonian Secretary Dr. I. Michael Heyman said, “I have concluded that we made a basic error in attempting to couple a historical treatment of the use of atomic bombs with the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the end of the war.” He had said the same thing months earlier when he canceled the “Last Act” exhibit.

AFA has repeatedly said this “history vs. nostalgia” theory is wrong. As AFA National President R. E. Smith said at a Senate hearing in May, “The problem was not the coupling of history with commemoration. It was that the history had been given a countercultural spin. The problem was not that the exhibition was analytical. The problem was that the analysis was distorted.”

Revisionists take the imputed history vs. nostalgia split even further and say that the traditional or “commemorative” version — that use of the atomic bomb was a military action, taken to end the war and save lives — is wrong. Gar Alperovitz, for example, argues that a “new consensus” has developed among historians and that it supports the Air and Space Museum’s initial approach, which Dr. Alperovitz describes as “balanced.”

The existence of any such “new consensus,” however, is disputed by other scholars, notably Professor Robert P. Newman of the University of lowa, author of Truman and the Hiroshima Cult. Professor Newman says, “The intellectual idea to which Hiroshima cultists are devoted is that since Japan was about to surrender when the bombs were dropped, the slaughter of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not motivated by military reasons. It was instead motivated primarily by the desire to intimidate the Russians (so-called atomic diplomacy),by racism (we did not drop the bomb on Germany), by the desire of Robert Oppenheimer and company to experiment with a new toy, by the fear of Secretary of War Henry Stimson and others that Congress would investigate if their $ 2 billion expenditure was found not useful, or by the sheer unthinking momentum of a bureaucratic juggernaut (Manhattan project).” Professor Newman’s book summarizes mainstream scholarly evidence and shoots down the articles of revisionist faith, one by one, with well-documented rebuttal.

Also in disagreement with the revisionists is Robert James Maddox, professor of American history at Pennsylvania State University. He wrote “Why We Had to Drop the Atomic Bomb” in the May-June 1995 issue of American Heritage. He was one of the few nonrevisionists interviewed for the Peter Jennings special, but he says ABC misrepresented his views and ignored information he supplied. He called the show “the worst piece of garbage I’ve seen.”

The Peace Activists Enter

Peace groups first entered the exhibition fray in the fall of 1994 when the original plan was rapidly coming unstuck. At his installation on September 19, I. Michael Heyman, new secretary of the Smithsonian, acknowledged that the Enola Gay exhibit plan had been “deficient” and “out of balance.” The Senate unanimously passed a resolution September 23 calling on the National Air and Space Museum to modify its “revisionist and offensive” exhibition plan.

According to Philip Nobile in Judgement at the Smithsonian, a book sympathetic to the curators, Dr. Tom D. Crouch, chairman of the museum’s Aeronautics Department and a principal in the Enola Gay controversy, sought support from Father John Dear, a “peace Jesuit” who had hammered an F-15 fighter in a disarmament demonstration at a base in North Carolina. “You have no idea of the forces opposing this exhibit, not in your wildest dreams — jobs are at stake, the Smithsonian is at stake,” Dr. Crouch said.

Father Dear says that “Crouch urged me to organize the media and get to Harwit, who he felt was being manipulated.” Father Dear and “some colleagues from the peace community” met with Dr. Harwit September 20. He quotes Dr. Harwit as sayling, “Where have you been? You’re too late.” In October, representatives of seventeen peace organizations — with Father Dear acting as spokesman — called on the Smithsonian to renew the focus of the exhibition on the suffering caused by the bombs.

On November 16, 1994, a group of forty-eight “historians and scholars” delivered a letter of protest to Smithsonian Secretary Heyman demanding that the imbalances and biases be restored. The scholars charged that by giving in to change demanded by “special interest groups,” the Smithsonian had subjected the exhibition to “historical cleansing.”

Among those signing was Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT. In subsequent discourse, Professor Chomsky dismissed the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines in December 1941 as no more than “bombing military bases in two US colonies that had been stolen from their inhabitants.” These and other offenses by Japan “rank so low in the scale of those that we have regularly committed, before and since, that no honest person could take them very seriously as a justification for invasion [of Japan in 1945].”

According to press accounts, a group of “peace and antinuclear activists” had a “cordial but ultimately disappointing two-hour meeting” with Air and Space Museum officials December 15, After January, when the Smithsonian canceled the “Last Act,” the activists moved to a different strategy.

The Open Debate

By March 1995, the group of forty-eight “historians and scholars” who delivered their protest letter to the Smithsonian in November had reconstituted itself as the “Historians’ Committee for Open Debate on Hiroshima” with Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird as co-chairmen.

The members called upon “our colleagues at colleges and universities across the country to participate in a ‘National Teach-In on Hiroshima,’ both to protest the Smithsonian’s surrender to political censorship and to educate Americans on the full range of scholarly debate regarding the atomic bombings on Japan fifty years ago.” Among the most ambitious programs was staged at American University in Washington, D.C., which displayed, in cooperation with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, some of the artifacts originally planned for the Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum.

The American University program, “Constructing a Peaceful World: Beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” concentrated on events after the bomb was dropped and looked ahead to the nuclear arms race. The exhibit, which ran for most of July, was held in conjunction with a course that included a two-week study tour of Japan. The Japanese contributed more than half of the $ 15,000 tour scholarship fund. The exhibit had twentyseven artifacts from the Hiroshima Museum. Among them was a school child’s lunch box with charred remains of rice, barley, soybeans, and strips of radish. Between July 8 and July 20, just over 1,000 persons had been through the exhibit.

The academic director of the program was Dr. Peter Kuznick, an associate professor of history and one of the forty-eight signatories to the “historians and scholars” petition last year. Professor Kuznick told the Washington Post that the program dealt only with the aftermath of the bomb because “space precluded” the inclusion of material about Japanese aggression and atrocities and the reasons why the United States used the bomb. In fact, when AFA Communications Director Steve Aubin and I saw the program on July 21, there was an abundance of unused space in the exhibit area.

Myths About What We Said

Judging from their published comments, few of the scholars throwing brickbats at AFA and Air Force Magazine bothered to read what we actually said. A number of myths are therefore taking root as assumptions pass from one scholar to the next in the course of their research.

¡ The sudden ambush. It is said, for example, that we jumped prematurely on a raw, first draft of the Enola Gay exhibition plan and that the curators would have fixed it themselves if we had let them alone. The fact is that the script we exposed was the fourth formal planning document, not the first. It flowed directly from three concept papers that went before and picked up the worst features of those earlier plans. AFA representatives had tried for months to reason with museum officials, but they showed no inclination to change. As the documentary record shows, they continued to resist change after publication of the AFA reports.

¡ “Historical cleansing.” It seems important for some revisionists to believe that AFA and military veterans insist on an expurgated version of history. None of them has yet explained how it is that my first report on the atomic bomb controversy, “The Decision That Launched the Enola Gay, ” in Air Force Magazine for April 1994, discussed at length the very issues we are accused of “cleansing away” — ambiguity about the casualty estimates and the belief by Army Air Forces Gens. H. H. Arnold and Curtis E. LeMay that the war could be won by conventional bombing (albeit with horrendous casualties). Many of the “historical cleansing” theorists acknowledge having in their possession a longer, fully annotated version of that report which documents even earlier Air Force Magazine coverage of this information.

¡ “Taken out of context.” This is the same complaint that Dr. Harwit made in a letter to the Washington Times in March 1994. He said that AFA’s assessment of balance in the exhibit was inaccurate because “the exhibition describes the ‘naked brutality’ of Japanese forces in concrete terms, calling attention to the rape of Nanking, the treatment of POWs, the use of Chinese and Koreans as slave laborers, and the conduct of biological and chemical experiments on human victims.”

It was that letter that led AFA on April 4, 1994, to deliver a copy of the 559-page script to the newspaper with an invitation to “judge for yourself.” All of the vaunted context cited by Dr. Harwit was contained on just three of the 302 text pages in the initial script, compared to seventy-nine text pages on Japanese casualties and suffering. The Air Force Association thereafter provided copies of the script to other reporters and interested organizations — and would have copied and circulated subsequent Enola Gay script revisions had not the Air and Space Museum copyrighted these products to keep us from doing so. For AFA and Air Force Magazine, the critical issues were balance and context, and the heart of our “conspiracy” was to make the full record open to all who wanted to examine it.

War Crimes

Among the most strident in his denunciation of AFA and in his defense of the curators of the original exhibit is Philip Nobile, who bills his book, Judgment at the Smithsonian, as containing “the uncensored script of the Smithsonian’s 50th anniversary exhibit of the Enola Gay. “

The press release promoting this book depicts Mr. Nobile as having blown the lid off a cover-up after he “obtained a rare copy of the 300-page document.” A close reading of the “acknowledgements” section of the book reveals that Mr. Nobile obtained his “rare copy” from the Air Force Association, which made hundreds of copies available to reporters, members of Congress, and veterans’ organizations.

Furthermore, the document that Mr. Nobile received from AFA was not 300 pages but 559. Mr. Nobile reprints the intended wall label text but leaves out the visual elements. Mr. Nobile was aware, certainly, that much of AFA’s criticism focused on the imbalance in the visual content. As my colleague Mr. Aubin points out, ignoring the graphic parts of an exhibition that is primarily visual is like watching television without looking at the picture. Mr. Nobile’s publisher says that he addresses the moral issues as “a trained theologian with a pontifical degree.” He hits a low point in the book with a “mock war crimes trial of Harry Truman.” According to the press release, “Nobile’s fictional cross-examination of Truman leaves little doubt about the defendant’s guilt.”

It seems unlikely that many of the revisionist historians and scholars would endorse this approach, but Barton Bernstein contributed a 129-page “afterword” to the Nobile book, which conveys an impression of sorts simply by being there. Colman McCarthy, a columnist for the Washington Post, included Nobile’s Judgment at the Smithsonian on a short list of “books of reliable scholarship and balanced analysis” to counteract the spin he attributed to “the easily peeved military lobby.”

Fifty years after the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fires of controversy burn on.