Enola Gay Controversy

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At the approach of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) planned an exhibit with its centerpiece, the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. 1 The Enola Gay, the giant four engine superfortress, was named after the mother of its pilot, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, which disappeared from sight after its deadly mission.

Stored outdoors in three states before taking up residence in building 20 of the Smithsonian storage yard, it had been repaired by technicians for years and restored and was moved to the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian for an exhibit that was to be opened in May, 19952. The exhibit was to be called The Crossroads: the end of World War II, the atomic bomb, and the origins of the cold war. When what the NASM intended to present was known to the public, a heated controversy developed, resulting in books, articles in historical journals and multitude of articles in the media that chronicled the debates over the proposed exhibit.

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The debates escalated over controversy over how the war ended that involved more than military and political history, becoming a flash point in the so called “cultural wars”. 1 1. O’Reilly, C. T. , & W. A. Rooney (2005) The Enola Gay and the Smithsonian Institution, McFarland and Company, pp. 247 2. Hogan, M. J (1996) Hiroshima in history and memory, Cambridge University Press, pp. 290 The exhibit would have described the intense desire to end the war that led to the bombing, but also the way the bombing’s nightmarish effects infected the world with fear of nuclear annihilation.

Conservatives claimed the exhibit would be anti-nuclear and anti-war, throwing into question the decision to drop the bomb, and would transform the Enola Gay’s crew from heroes to terrorists. Under relentless attack, the museum backed down and its director resigned. 3 A firestorm of protest from veteran groups and others was ignited over the content of the exhibit, because it was felt that the overall tone of the exhibit put too much emphasis on the suffering of the Japanese and made the Americans looked like aggressors. Ultimately the plans for the exhibit were scaled backed to little more than a display of the fuselage of the Enola Gay. Veterans were upset by first hand accounts from the survivors of the Nagasaki bombing.

They also challenged estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 allied soldiers would have died in a land invasion, insisting that the number would have been at least ten times higher. Twenty four members of the congress protested to the Smithsonian secretary about the exhibit’s anti-American, narrow and revisionist view. According to them Enola Gay, which is to become excellent symbol to honor America, the pilot of the Nagasaki bombing termed the exhibit as a collection of distortions, half truth, and outright lies. The critics of the Enola Gay believed that the museum was influenced significantly by historians of the so-called “Revisionist” 3. Linenthal, E. T. , & T, Engelhardt(1996) History Wars: the Enola Gay and other battles for the American past, Owl books, pp. 256 4. Cohen, D (1999) The Mahattan Project, Twenty First Century Books, Connecticut 5. Abel, R. L. (1999) Speaking respect, respecting speech, University of Chicago Press, pp. 390 persuasion, who disputed the conventional interpretation of the Cold War and cast doubt on actions, statements, and motives of the United States.

In the case of the Enola Gay, the Revisionists held that the bombing of Hiroshima was unnecessary and immoral. 6 (Correl, 2004). The NASM curators completed the exhibition script in January, 1994, one year prior to the supposed display of Enola Gay. The Air Force Association launched a campaign against that script in March. The United States senate unanimously proclaimed the script revisionist and offensive to many World War II veterans in September. Curators negotiated contents with veteran groups. Historians led by Organizations of American Historian in October, formally condemned revisions for interpretation of history for reasons outside. (Thelen, 1995). In a NY Times story (Jan 20, 1995) entitled, “Group seeks to end Enola Gay Display at the Smithsonian”, the American Legion was mentioned as much vocal in expressing their displeasure of the Enola Gay exhibit, which they opined to portray the U. S. as the aggressor, even after a five times revision of the exhibit agenda.

N. M. Detweiler, who was the National commander of the American Legion, in a letter to President Clinton, made scathing criticism of the Smithsonian National Air and Space 6. Correl, J. T. 2004) The Smithsonian and the Enola Gay, A retrospective on the controversy 10 years later, retrieved from the URl: http://www. afa. org/new_root/EnolaGay/theReport. asp on 27th March, 2007. 7. Thelen, D. (1995), History after the Enola Gay controversy, Journal of American History, 82 (3) :1029-1035 Museum officials who according to him gave their full consent to include “highly debatable information which calls into question the morality and motives of President Truman’s decision to end World War II quickly and decisively by using the atomic bomb. 8 The public battle of the Enola Gay began with letter from W. B. Bennet to Air Force magazine on August 6, 1996. It was preceded by skirmishes that began in the mid 1980s between Smithsonian and a small group of B-29 veterans who wanted to see the Enola Gay restored and appropriately displayed. The Smithsonian’s then secretary could not have imagined what he and the Smithsonian was getting into in 1984 when he replied to a veteran about what Smithsonian intended to do about the Enola Gay.

The veterans who served in B-29 unit believe that Enola Gay was historically significant and it deserves a better fate than deteriorating into obscurity. 1 One of the most deeply divisive museum controversies of recent years, the saga of the planning and ultimate cancellation of the Smithsonian Institution exhibition featuring the Enola Gay (the B-29 Super- fortress bomber which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) poses many fundamental questions for museums and their role in society at the close of the 20th century.

Martin Harwit, an astro- physicist and longtime professor of astronomy at Cornell University, was appointed Director of the National Air restoration of the Enola Gay had been begun, and in full knowledge that 1995 would bring the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and the end of the Second World War. The 8. Group seeks to end Enola Gay display at the Smithsonian, NY Times, January 20, 1995, http://query. nytimes. com/gst/fullpage. html? es=990CE4DE1439F933A15752C0A963958260, accessed on 30th April, 07 desire of Robert M. Adams (Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1984-94) to avoid controversy for fear of antagonizing Congress, led to the cancellation of the exhibit of the Enola Gay in 1995. The bulk of the volume chronicles in detail the increasingly unpleasant quarrels between the various military and civilian factions in which the central functions of the Museum progressively became a political gamble. Characterized as “revisionists,” the curators at the Smithsonian became involved in a political clash with those veterans and members of Congress who saw the Smithsonian as part of a commemorative genre that should celebrate the end of World War II. 10 The distortion perceived by opponents of the exhibit thwarted their historical memories of victories and expectations for a heroic and commemorative story line about the victorious American forces in the Second World War.

Americans were used to experiencing the Smithsonian as a celebrity institution. Proponents of the exhibition were deliberately challenging the norm and they in turn felt thwarted by public resistance to education. They perceived a distortion of history in the persistence of public misinformation. The original Enola Gay exhibits with its images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing victims and artifacts from “ground zero” would have transgressed the bound of acceptable American memory by emphasizing sufferings caused.

Exhibit opponents feared that the Enola Gay exhibit could provoke feeling of guilt and 9. Harwit, M (1996) An exhibit denied: Lobbying the history of “Enola Gay” Springer- Verlag, New York, pp. 478 10. Hasian, B. H. M. A. (1998) The generic roots of the Enola Gay controversy, Communication, Politics, and International Relations and Communication, 15 (4) : 497-513 shame among American visitors, including veterans for suffering caused not only by the bombing of Hiroshima but by the nuclear age and cold war in general. 11 (Carbonell, 2004, p. 329).

The Enola Gay exhibit was to have included a text which gave the full historical record of the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as a well documented account of the political consequences of the bombing and the consequences for the victims of the bombing. Most opponents of the exhibit did not deny the accuracy of the historical interpretation. Rather they complained that including careful documentation of the suffering of the victims implied criticism of the decision, and that the effects of the exhibit would be to inhibit the development of national sentiment (Couture, 1998, p. 71). In an article entitled “A big museum opens to jeers as well as cheers” (16th Dec, 2003) Mathew Wald and John Marino described the Enola Gay exhibit as a farce and that the bomber was wrongly depicted as “most sophisticated propeller driven bomber of World War II”, and although the dropping of bomb at Hiroshima by B-29 was mentioned, the actual dimension of the role played by Enola Gay in the bombing of Hiroshima and consequent destruction to both life and property were not highlighted at all. 2 11. Carbonell, B. M. (2004) Museum Studies: An anthology of contexts, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 640 12. A big museum opens to jeers as well as cheers, Mathew L Wald & John Marino in The New York Times, 16th Dec, 2003, http://query. nytimes. com/gst/fullpage. html? sec=travel&res=9407E6DD113CF935A25751C1A9659C8B63 accessed on 30th April, 07 In a letters to Editor on “The Enola Gay on View” (The NY Times, 22nd Dec, 2003), Elizabeth Napp refused to view the Enola Gay as a technological marvel.

The act carried out by this bomber was responsible for the annihilation of humans who were mostly civilians, and were innocent bystanders of war. The protester’s viewed this bombing as highly immoral and failure to highlight the immoral acts committed by this bomber was thought to be equally immoral. 13 The Enola Gay exhibition has resulted in further divisions between the scholarly community and various segments of the public. Scholars are portrayed as wild eyed revisionists while public critics are seen as promoters of patriotically correct history and culture. 4 The controversy surrounding the Smithsonian exhibition on the Enola Gay and the dropping of the atom bomb fifty years earlier illustrates how powerful the political influences on museum exhibitions may be. It was essentially a combination of front end and formative evaluation (or rather lack of it) that brought out the criticisms of the Enola Gay exhibition. No summative evaluation of the original exhibition was possible since most of it was never installed.

The controversy depicted how deeply a nation commemorates its past. 15 13. The Enola Gay on View, Elizabeth Napp, Letters to Editor, The New York Times, Dec 22, 2003, http://query. nytimes. com/gst/fullpage. html? res=9C06EFDE103FF931A15751C1A9659C8B63 accessed on 30th April, 07 14. Veninga, J. F. (1999) The humanities and the civil imagination: collected addresses and essays, 178-1998, University of North Texas Press. 15. Hein, G. E. (1998) Learning in the Museum, Routledge, Taylor and Francis group, pp. 203

What the Enola Gay controversy exposed were the scars of memory which historical interpretation and education have not helped to heal. It exposed the gap between public or collective memory, shaped by personal experience and exposed to interpretation over a period of some fifty years, and changing historical scholarship. It exposed scholar’s and museum professionals’ disregard for public perceptions of the nature of history, and historical scholarship despite, despite what historians correctly perceived as unfair characterization of their work in the media.

That certain member of the press and the American government choose to denounce the Enola Gay Exhibit based on flawed information and inaccurate reporting, receiving considerable support in doing so, only demonstrates the mistrust with which academics are regarded in this “cultural wars”. 11 Museums in spite of their professionally oriented and higher level academic staff, owe much more direct obligation to the general public. The Enola Gay display was not merely a case study in a specialist’s monograph, or even a work intended for sophisticated lay audience.

Enola Gay was to be exhibited in a national museum, which is one of the most popular museums in the world, the National Air and Space Museum that draws eight to ten million visitors each year. Since Enola Gay affairs inhabits multiple frame of time and space, and is colored by contemporary American political climate, it analysis requires multi-faceted approach, embracing cultural and structural perspectives. It needs to be compared explicitly and implicitly with other displays and commemorations of similar types. 6 16. Zolberg, V. L. (1998) Contested remembrance: The Hiroshima Exhibit controversy, Theory and Society, 27 (4) : 565-590 The debate over the Enola gay exhibition brought to the surface an even more fundamental issue. What is or ought to be the relationship between what happened in the past and how we interpret and present history in the present. Congressmen Tom Lewis (Republican) underscored the difference when he proclaimed that it was NASM’s job to tell history, not rewrite it.

In an argument that cut across ideological and partisan differences, many members of the congress were troubled by what a unanimous senate called “revisionist” history. 7 While there is no dispute that the sins committed by American policies need reporting and analysis, the analysis must be based on facts and no speculation about motives such as the revisionist assertions that racism led to using Atom bomb against Japan. 1

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