Enola Gay II

April 7, 2008

The National Air and Space Museum recently unveiled its plan to exhibit, fully assembled, the Enola Gay—the B-29 which, in August 1945, dropped an atomic weapon on Japan. The announcement sparked a nasty outburst of antinuclear demagoguery. Protestors assailed the museum for “whitewashing” history, and more.

The focus was the Dec. 15 opening of NASM’s Udvar–Hazy Center near Washington, D.C. This gleaming facility will house some 300 large aviation artifacts, of which the Enola Gay is one. While the opening of the museum should be—and is—cause for celebration, the critics had other plans.

Some 177 scholars, clergy, and activists fired off a petition. Leading the charge was Peter Kuznick, a professor at American University, backed by Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, and Oliver Stone, to name a few. They were unhappy that the bomber would be unadorned by antinuclear homilies and presented, to quote NASM head John R. Dailey, “as a magnificent technological achievement.”

“You wouldn’t display a slave ship solely as a model of technological advancement,” retorted David Nasaw (City University of New York). Critics demanded a role in planning a new exhibit, one whose “context” would “stimulate” a “national discussion” about “US nuclear history and current policy.”

It was never likely that Dailey, a retired Marine Corps general, would capitulate. On Nov. 7, NASM turned down the petition, saying that the planned exhibit would not “glorify or vilify” the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

It would be unwise to assume the struggle ends here, however. The protesters are likely to regroup, return, and re-engage. They’ve done it before.

If you think you’ve already seen this movie, you’re right. NASM was shaken by the same controversy in 1994-95. At its center was the plan of Dr. Martin O. Harwit, NASM’s director, and his curators to display a section of the Enola Gay fuselage in an exhibit titled, “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II.” At that time, the antinuclear activists were mostly inside the NASM tent spitting out. Today, they are outside, spitting in. What has not changed is their goal, which is to use the Enola Gay as a prop in a politically loaded antinuclear horror show.

Full disclosure: Air Force Magazine is not neutral. Former Editor in Chief John T. Correll was the key figure in exposing the earlier problem at NASM. The controversy became a major public issue with publication, in our April 1994 issue, of his article, “War Stories at Air and Space.”

At that time, Americans believed the use of atomic weapons in 1945 was a legitimate military action against a dangerous foe to save US lives. They were shocked at hearing details of “The Last Act.” It was filled with anti-American speculation. Victim photos emphasized Japanese suffering. President Harry Truman, who ordered the bombings, was very much in the dock.

The article sparked a huge public struggle, well described in Correll’s December 1994 editorial, “Airplanes in the Mist.”

“In the beginning,” he wrote, “the museum was all set to use the Enola Gay as a prop in a politically rigged program that made the Japanese in World War II look like victims instead of aggressors. … It portrayed the Japanese as desperate defenders of homeland and culture, the Americans as ruthless invaders, driven by racism and revenge. Use of the atomic bomb was depicted as a questionable act, if not an immoral one.”

Harwit and company soon were swamped by negative public opinion and Congressional anger. Under pressure, Harwit shifted course a bit, but, as Correll noted, the exhibit creators “managed to preserve the gist of their biases.”

Next, 48 “historians and scholars” (Kuznick was one) counterattacked, demanding that Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman stop the “historical cleansing,” reject complaints by veterans, and restore Harwit’s original, biased morality pageant.

However, nothing could save that exhibit, which the Washington Post described as “incredibly propagandistic and intellectually shabby.” Heyman eventually pulled the plug and ordered a new exhibit, devoid of antinuclear trappings.

This new exhibit opened in June 1995 and ran for three years to widespread acclaim. Harwit resigned and new management took over at the museum.

What does this record tell us about a possible Enola Gay II

First, this dispute isn’t about history. It’s about today’s defense posture. The protesters’ petition states, “We fear that such a celebratory exhibit … helps build support for the Bush Administration’s dangerous new nuclear policies.” It reflects the desire of some for drastic cuts in, or even the total abolition of, nuclear arms.

Second, it is about a negative vision of America. Kuznick has worried publicly that the exhibit “only helps to legitimize the past use of nuclear weapons” against Japan, as if its legitimacy were seriously in question. To critics, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unjustified, Japan would have surrendered anyway, and Washington acted only to establish postwar dominance, impress the Soviet Union, or … something. In short, we have blood on our hands.

The truth was stated by Correll in his May 1995 editorial. “Imperial Japan,” he wrote, “started the war, waged it savagely, and refused to surrender until the bombs fell.”

To declare this fundamental truth is to court the wrath of the protesters, as veterans’ groups and this magazine can testify. Yet it must be done—repeatedly, apparently.

The situation brings to mind the words of “Give ’Em Hell Harry” Truman himself, when asked why he was harsh with his critics. “I never give ’em hell,” said Truman. “I just tell the truth, and they think it’s hell.”