Airplanes in the Mist

April 7, 2008

For the past fourteen months, the Air Force Association and Air Force Magazine have been at odds with the National Air and Space Museum about plans for exhibition of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Counting the latest revision, published October 26, we have seen this situation through eight evolutions–three concept plans and five versions of the full script.

In the beginning, 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. The exhibition, timed to coincide in 1995 with the fiftieth anniversary of the Enola Gay’s famous mission, picked up the story in 1945 as the end approached. 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.

After publication of “War Stories at Air and Space” in Air Force Magazine last April, the curators were swamped by negative public opinion, protests from veterans’ groups, news media coverage, and attention from Congress. The pressure eventually led top officials of the Smithsonian Institution–of which the Air and Space Museum is a part–to take a direct hand and moderate the blatant ideological bias.

First, the good news. The latest revision corrects the worst offenses of the earlier plans. Much of the anti-American speculation has been removed. The balance of casualty photos (which originally emphasized Japanese suffering by a ratio of more than sixteen to one) now approaches parity. More than half of the emotionally loaded graphic images have been deleted from the “Ground Zero: Hiroshima and Nagasaki” section. The curators seem to be adjusting–albeit with gritted teeth–to the position that dropping the atomic bomb was a legitimate military action taken to end the war and save lives.

It does not, however, add up to an acceptable salvage job, largely because the curators, retreating word by word and line by line, have managed to preserve the gist of their biases. US actions and policies inspire them to doubt, probe, and hint. Did we use the bomb to justify the cost of developing it? Wasn’t the war almost over anyway? Did our insistence on unconditional surrender prolong the war? Was the alternative to the bomb truly an invasion of Japan, and would casualties really have been that high

The speculation is one-sided, of course. There is no compulsion to dig deeper into such issues as Japan’s dramatized quest for peace in 1945, the Emperor’s actual role in wartime policy and planning, or why Japan did not move to end the war sooner when it was evident that the cause was lost.

Imbalances persist as well. Words, pictures, and video “testimony” describe in detail the tragedy of hibakusha (“explosion affected persons”) from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the curators have no time for another group–disabled American veterans–for whom the suffering also continued after the war.

I. Michael Heyman, the new secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (and a former Marine), says the revisions will continue until the exhibition opens next May. We hope he is steadfast in his promise because the job is far from done. More than a single exhibit is at issue here. If the Enola Gay program is fixed–and that is a big if–what about the next exhibition, and the one after that? What about the people who created such a biased exhibit in the first place? What else do they have in mind for the National Air and Space Museum

We suspect they share the reported view of an official at another Smithsonian museum who looks down on visitors as clods who “don’t want to be engaged, empowered, or even educated.” It is difficult, apparently, for these fellows to accept that people come to the Air and Space Museum to see historic aircraft, professionally restored and cleanly presented. They are not interested in counterculture morality pageants put on by academic activists.

In remarks to the National Aviation Club September 21, Dr. Martin O. Harwit, director of the Air and Space Museum, talked about the annex to be built at Dulles Airport in suburban Virginia to display aircraft from the Smithsonian’s collection that are too large to show at the main museum downtown. He spoke about airplanes for four sentences. The rest of his preview was about global awareness and using space platforms “to keep tabs on the ozone hole” and for “monitoring the size of the forested areas in the Amazon.” Another Dulles exhibit will spin off Hubble space telescope data to ask, “How do stars form?” and “Where did life begin?”

That is a radical departure from the purpose of the Dulles extension and an indication of how interests and attitudes have shifted at the National Air and Space Museum. The old mission-collecting, preserving, and displaying aircraft and aerospace artifacts–has limited appeal for curators drawn by different causes. That, fundamentally, is why the Enola Gay exhibit went wrong and why the problems persist into the eighth revision. Unless the keepers and overseers take a strong hand and stop this slide, more and deeper troubles lie ahead for the nation’s most popular museum.