Washington Watch: The Three Doctors and the Enola Gay

April 7, 2008

One thing is for sure. If the Enola Gay goes on display at the National Air and Space Museum next May, it won’t be the historically distorted show that was originally planned. The Enola Gay is the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. After a lengthy period of restoration, the aircraft is scheduled to be part of an exhibition in 1995 on the fiftieth anniversary of its famous mission.

Unfortunately, what the curators had in mind was more political than aeronautical. In effect, the Enola Gay would have been used as a prop in an unbalanced, emotionally charged program about the horrors of the atomic bomb. The initial exhibit plan picked up the story of World War II in 1945 as the end approached. Early drafts depicted the Japanese as desperate defenders of their homeland and culture, while the Americans were cast as ruthless invaders, bent on revenge.

After an article, “War Stories at Air and Space,” in AIR FORCE Magazine reported on this plan, protests from veterans grew. Museum officials accepted a few marginal criticisms but waved off the rest as “disinformation.” In June, the curator issued a surprise announcement declaring the exhibit plan final. That position soon disintegrated under withering fire from the public and Congress. At the end of August, the curators produced a new script. It contained some definite improvements, but veterans’ groups said it was only a first step toward correcting the problem.

Press coverage and comment has been almost continuous for months. Little of it has been favorable to the Air and Space Museum or to the parent Smithsonian Institution. A Washington Post editorial observed the “curatorial inability to perceive that political opinions are embedded in the exhibit” and said the Smithsonian “needs to do more listening.” The Wall Street Journal said the museum was “in the hands of academics unable to view American history as anything other than a woeful catalog of crimes and aggressions against the helpless peoples of the earth.” Jeff Jacoby wrote in the Boston Globe that “the exhibit could be worse” had not veterans’ groups, military historians, and AIR FORCE Magazine “forced the Smithsonian to soften the angry, politicized — even anti-American — tone its curators have chosen.”

Caught by Surprise—Twice

January Script

Public Assessment

Private Assessment

“After having read the article in Air Force Magazine myself, I can certainly understand your concerns. I welcome this opportunity to set the record straight. … It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the Air Force Association … was able to find clumsy or unrefined label text among the several hundred pages which compromise the total script.”

“Though I carefully read the exhibition script a month ago, I evidently paid greater attention to accuracy than to balance. … A second reading shows that we do have a lack of balance and that much of the criticism that has been levied against us is understandable.”

—- Dr. Martin Harwit, letter to a veteran,

May 20, 1994

— Dr. Martin Harwit, internal memorandum to museum staff, April 16, 1994

May Script

Public Assessment

Private Assessment

“A new draft of the script incorporating the comments of the official advisory team, the military historians, the internal review panel, and the Air Force Association is now complete.”

“Dr. Harwit said that he had followed through over the weekend on the recommendation … to look closely at whether his curators had placed into the script the recommendations of the military historians. … Dr. Harwit emphasized that he had been ‘taken aback by how little had been done.’ There were ‘some word changes here and there,’ Harwit said, but clearly the curators had failed to follow through. As he put it, this ‘had fallen through the cracks.’ “

—- Dr. Martin Harwit to Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), July 28, 1994

— Herman S. Wolk, Center for Air Force History, August 23, 1994

A Message Gets Through

There are signs that the message is getting through. At his installation on September 19 as the new secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Michael Heyman acknowledged that the Enola Gay exhibit plan had been “deficient” and “out of balance.” Senior Smithsonian officials have now taken a direct hand in the revision process.

Introducing a “Sense of the Senate” resolution September 19, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) said that the exhibition script, even with the latest changes taken into account, was “revisionist, unbalanced, and offensive.” (The resolution was passed unanimously September 23.)

The Interior Department appropriations bill, adopted on September 21, included a provision drafted by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) that Congress “expects” the “Smithsonian’s exhibit surrounding the Enola Gay to properly and respectfully recognize the significant contribution to the early termination of World War II and the saving of both American and Japanese lives.”

A few voices expressed a different view. It cannot be much comfort to the curators, though, that among them was Colman McCarthy, the antimilitary columnist for the Washington Post, who argued for the original exhibit concept on the grounds that “in 1945, two militaristic governments were having it out” and that “the United States committed unprovoked war crimes that caused the slaughter of 200,000 Japanese.”

Summarizing the curators’ early pitch in a September 21 report, John Martin of ABC-TV said that according to the latest research, “President Truman did not need to drop the bomb. Japan was ready to quit.” Casualty estimates for an invasion of Japan were “wildly exaggerated. Instead of saving American lives, dropping the bomb may have satisfied racist hostility toward a hated enemy, ethnically different from most Americans.” No critic of the museum has summed up the revisionist line more succinctly than that.

The Smithsonian also drew support from an editorial in the New York Times, which was under the mistaken impression that the curators were making changes voluntarily and that criticism had “short-circuited” the “process” needlessly. In fact, the curators had shrugged off appeals for change until the pressure became too much to ignore.

An Open or Shut Case

Dr. Martin Harwit, May 1994

Dr. Michael Neufeld, June 1994

“Please understand that we are talking about a first draft some fifteen months before the opening of an exhibition. This would normally give us a year to cull out any inaccuracies, perceived imbalance, or phrases that could be misinterpreted or misconstrued in unintended ways.”

“If the exhibit is to be opened in late May 1995, as planned, we must now move on to the production and construction phase. This script therefore must be considered a finished product, minor wording changes aside.”

— Letter to a veteran, May 20, 1994

— Letter to Advisory Board members and military historians, June 21, 1994

The Three Doctors

Museum officials seem to regard the previous planning documents for this exhibit — three concept plans and the first two drafts of the script — as bygones and no longer relevant. Many in the veterans’ community take a different view. In a report circulated in September, the Air Force Association said, “What we hear from our members is that it is no longer enough to clean up this exhibition script. It is also imperative that the Smithsonian leadership and the Board of Regents carefully review the procedures and personnel assignments that produced such a biased, unbalanced, anti-American script in the first place.”

Three individuals stand at the center of the controversy:

¡ Dr. Martin O. Harwit, director of the National Air and Space Museum since 1987. He was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, grew up in Istanbul, and came to the United States (at age fifteen) in 1946. During his US Army service, 1955-57, he was assigned to nuclear weapons tests at Eniwetok and Bikini. He was a professor of astronomy at Cornell University. In the 1980s, he chaired NASA’s Astrophysics Management Working Group.

¡ Dr. Tom D. Crouch, chairman of the Aeronautics Department since 1989. He has been at the Smithsonian since 1974. He is the author of nine books, including The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (1989) and many shorter works. He was the curator of “A More Perfect Union,” a controversial exhibit at the Museum of American History that commemorated the 200th anniversary of the US Constitution with a program on Japanese-American internment. (Dr. Crouch’s commitment to that issue has not flagged. He was scheduled to deliver in October a Smithsonian-sponsored lecture, “When the Constitution Failed: The Japanese-American Internment Episode,” at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.)

¡ Dr. Michael J. Neufeld, official curator of “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II” (although Dr. Crouch seems to share in the function). Dr. Neufeld came to the National Air and Space Museum as a post-doctoral fellow in 1988, doing research on Wernher von Braun and the German rocket program. He joined the Aeronautics Department as a curator in 1990. His background is in European economic history. Dr. Neufeld is a Canadian citizen with permanent resident status in the United States.

Several times this year (see boxes, pp. 8-10), Dr. Harwit and his curators have seemed to operate on different wavelengths. Changes Dr. Harwit had directed were, in fact, not made. Actions about which he had confidently given assurance had, in fact, “fallen through the cracks.” In a letter to the Washington, D.C., Times September 4, Dr. Harwit was “disappointed” to read that newspaper’s report suggesting “that serious differences divide the museum’s director and staff.” Nothing was going on, he said, except the normal “process of discussion and debate.”

“Ground Zero” Visual Images

January

May

August

75

64

51

Total photos

49

37

27

Human suffering photos

25

23

15

Photos featuring women, children, religious objects

26

24

18

Total artifacts

13

12

8

Artifacts related to women, children, religion

The Changes in August

Compared to the two previous scripts (in January and May) and three even earlier concept plans, the August 31 script revision showed a serious effort to deal with the problems of balance and context. The original script had forty-nine photos of Japanese casualties but only three photos of American casualties. The new balance is twenty-six photos of Japanese casualties to fourteen for the Americans. That doesn’t make it even, but the ratio has improved.

For the first time, we see a few pictures of Japanese troops looking armed and dangerous. Except for the kamikaze (who were depicted heroically), the previous scripts had not shown Japanese forces in aggressive or warlike roles. The August revision also toned down the romantic image of the kamikaze seen earlier.

Some offensive language is gone this time around. The new script, for example, no longer says that the B-29 aircrews who flew the atomic bomb missions against Japan were “only following orders.” Dr. Harwit told AIR FORCE Magazine in August that it never occurred to the curators that this line might suggest an insulting parallel to the classic war crimes defense at Nuremberg.

The announced centerpiece of the August script revision was a new, 4,000-square-foot exhibit section to be called “The War in the Pacific: An American Perspective.” It existed only as a promise in a press release, but it began raising questions right away. If the American perspective had to be added as an afterthought, what perspective did the rest of the program have? Smithsonian officials, recognizing that this public relations ploy had backfired, say the “American Perspective” subtitle has been abolished.

The new section, when it is developed, along with other changes, when they are made, is supposed to put the last months of the war in context, showing why a desperate defense of the Japanese home islands was necessary in 1945 and how the difficult part of the war started for Japan when its victims began hitting back.

What’s My Line? The Purpose of the Exhibit

Dr. Martin Harwit, August 1994

Dr. Tom Crouch, August 1994

“The focus of the exhibition will be the last months of the war in the Pacific and the role of the Enola Gay in bringing a fierce conflict to a sudden, merciful end for the millions of young American servicemen who were poised to sacrifice their lives for their country.”

“It is very important for Americans to understand the destruction caused by the atomic bombs. The purpose of the exhibit is to talk about what we did in Nagasaki and Hiroshima and more importantly, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and military expansion thereafter.”

—- Air & Space Magazine,

August-September 1994

— August 5, 1994, telecast,

Tokyo Broadcasting System

Problems Remaining

The previous script presented a series of “Historical Controversies” casting suspicion on the actions and motives of the United States. In August, the museum director promised that this speculation would be removed. The “Historical Controversies” labels are indeed gone, but much of the problem material is still present under different guises.

One obvious holdover asks, “Would the bomb have been dropped on the Germans?” The curators simply dropped the “Controversy” tag line and removed a bit of the text. The rest of it is unchanged. Another one, “Did the demand for unconditional surrender prolong the war?” has acquired deeper cover. It is gone as an explicit item in the “Historical Controversy” series, but the question remains, scattered in bits and pieces. At one point, the script says that “the failure of the American note of August 10 to clearly guarantee the Emperor’s position provoked another dangerous deadlock in the Japanese ruling elite.” The implication is that the US was to blame for Japan’s reluctance to surrender, even after the atomic bomb had been dropped.

The exhibit is still organized in the same sequential sections leading visitors up to the “emotional center” at “Ground Zero: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” There they will be confronted by a massive audiovisual assault. The curators skip no opportunity to tug at the heart strings. A kitten in the aftermath of Nagasaki cannot simply be dead. It must “glare” with “eternally locked eyes.”

The number of “Ground Zero” visual images has been reduced (see chart, p. 9), but the quantity remaining still seems excessive for the declared purpose of showing the effects of an atomic weapon. The overall emphasis on Japanese suffering has not changed that much in the new script. The May version had eighty-four text pages and ninety-seven photos on the theme of Japanese suffering. The August revision has eighty-two pages and eighty-four photos.

In a letter to Military Coalition organizations in September, the Air Force Association said “the curators are so attentive to the Hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombs) that a museum visitor might think these Japanese survivors are the only ones for whom the suffering continued after the war.” To correct any such misunderstanding, the Association suggested that for every Hibakusha featured in the program a disabled American veteran be comparably featured.

According to press reports, officials of the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima may refuse to lend their artifacts for the exhibition now that it is being changed in a way that “does not reflect the feelings of the people of Hiroshima.”

To Honor the Veterans

Dr. Tom Crouch, July 1993

Dr. Tom Crouch, August 1994

“Do you want to do an exhibition intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? Frankly, I don’t think we can do both.”

“I can assure you that the exhibition, which is scheduled to open in the spring of 1995, will most certainly honor the brave Americans who fought and suffered for their nation during World War II. Moreover, it will identify Japan as the aggressor nation in the Pacific war and outline the nature of the atrocities committed by the Japanese.”

—- Memorandum to Dr. Martin Harwit,

July 21, 1993

— Reply to a public inquiry,

August 8, 1994

Dr. Harwit’s “Dilemma”

Dr. Harwit met with mixed reviews when he explained his position in an op-ed column titled “The Enola Gay: A Nation’s, and a Museum’s, Dilemma” in the Washington Post, August 7. He wrote that “we lack a national consensus on what to say.” One view “appeals to our national self-image. The other point of view, slower in coming to the fore, is more analytical, critical in its acceptance of facts and concerned with historical context. It is complex and, in the eyes of some, discomfiting.”

“In other words,” said syndicated columnist Charley Reese, “there is the dumb patriotic view and the smart, sophisticated anti-American view.” What it boils down to, Mr. Reese declared, is that “the US government has made mistakes, but dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not one of them. Hiring Martin Harwit was.”

Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) said that Dr. Harwit’s conclusions in the Post column were “garbage” and that “the museum has manufactured its own dilemma by elevating a vocal but tiny minority of politically correct opinion to the level of the beliefs of an entire American generation in order to claim lack of national consensus.”

In a meeting in August at which two Air Force Association representatives were present, Dr. Harwit said that the exhibition would clearly affirm that the United States used the atomic bomb in 1945 in hope of ending the war and saving lives. Indeed, much of the speculation to the contrary has been removed from the August 31 version of the script.

That is a major change, and seemingly at odds with the opinion of the exhibition’s curator. “One of the most important conclusions we can draw from this research is that, although it is certainly still possible to argue for the correctness of Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb without warning, the traditional justification used in this country is no longer tenable,” Dr. Neufeld wrote April 25 in a memo to Dr. Harwit and others at the museum. “That justification, which is endlessly repeated with almost religious fervor, asserts that Truman was faced with only two options: a) drop the bomb without warning, or b) invade Japan at the cost of a quarter of a million, half a million, a million or many millions of American and/or Japanese lives, depending on what version is being told. This account is untenable. . . .”

Down the Slippery Slope

The Air Force Association and AIR FORCE Magazine are comparative newcomers to this controversy. Our involvement began after we featured the Enola Gay in our August 1993 cover story, “In Aviation’s Attic.” W. Burr Bennett of Northbrook, III., one of the World War II veterans who had been grappling with the problem for years, wrote to alert us to strange doings at the National Air and Space Museum. Mr. Bennett and his colleagues had collected 8,000 signatures on a petition asking the museum to either display the Enola Gay properly or give it to another museum that would do so.

Inquiries and discussions over the next several months revealed that the museum was in fact preparing to exhibit the Enola Gay in a politically rigged horror show that was severely lacking in balance and historical context. Extensive contact — in letters, telephone calls, and one long meeting — made it clear to us that the curators were not to be dissuaded.

“For most Americans,” said the script they published in January, “it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.” That line has since been expunged, not because the curators have changed their minds but because of the furor that arose when AIR FORCE Magazine reported it in April.

Publicly, Dr. Harwit and the curators assailed AIR FORCE Magazine’s revelation of their plans as “irresponsible” and “inaccurate.” In a paper circulating privately within the museum, however, Dr. Harwit conceded that “we do have a lack of balance.” With criticism mounting, he appointed a “tiger team” review panel to suggest changes.

The tiger team’s findings were kept under wraps until August, when the museum finally provided a copy to AIR FORCE Magazine in voluntary response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Some of the comments regarding balance were at least as pointed as what AIR FORCE Magazine had said. “If I didn’t know better, from a lifetime of experience, I would leave the exhibit with the strong feeling that Americans are bloodthirsty, racist killers who after beer parties and softball go out and kill as many women and children as possible,” one panel member wrote.

A revised exhibit script was completed May 31. AIR FORCE Magazine was not able to obtain a copy, however, until June 23. Our analysis (published as a special report June 28 and subsequently as a magazine article) said the revision still lacked balance and context and was “still a partisan interpretation that many Americans — and most veterans — will find objectionable.”

From there, the issue caught on, playing not only on network television, in national news magazines, and in metropolitan newspapers but also in local and regional news media all over the United States. More veterans’ groups joined the fray. Individual congressmen and senators had been prodding the Smithsonian for months, but the issue escalated sharply on August 10.

Rep. Peter Blute (R-Mass.), acting on behalf of a bipartisan group of twenty-four congressmen, said the proposed Enola Gay exhibit was “anti-American” and “biased.” The same day, Rep. Tom Lewis (R-Fla.) and five colleagues said the museum should stick to telling history, not try to rewrite it, and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) said the exhibit was “a blatant betrayal of American history.”

In September, delegates to the Air Force Association National Convention said that serious “structural, contextual, and ideological issues” still had to be addressed to make the Enola Gay exhibition plan acceptable and that “the National Air and Space Museum must be held to the highest standards.”

In early October, the Air and Space Museum announced yet another script revision — the seventh formal planning document in this troubled series — produced after bilateral negotiations between the museum and the American Legion. A review copy was promised to AIR FORCE Magazine by Smithsonian officials, who said they were open to further revisions.

As of October 3, W. Burr Bennett, who first alerted AIR FORCE Magazine to the problem, had collected 14,441 signatures on his petition, and the fight goes on.