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This comment on the killing of the Smithsonian's 1995 exhibit about the Enola Gay explores how decisions in the public arena are too often made. Too often a slogan can turn a debate and a misquote can bring down a career or decide an election. This comment is based largely on the memoir An Exhibit Denied, by Martin Harwit, the director of the National Air and Space Museum who lost his job over the Enola Gay. (New York: Copernicus, Springer-Verlag, 1996).

Five decades of critical scholarship, the long-term trends in public opinion, the Freeze movement of the 1980s, and above all the end of the Cold War, suggested that the atomic bombings' fiftieth anniversary in 1995 would see a frank reassessment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The public might at last come to accept the atomic bombings as debatable events. There was no reason why the failure to respond to the Japanese diplomatic initiatives and the concealment of the Alamogordo demonstration might not at least emerge as troublesome issues. But that was not to be. The Enola Gay intervened. In 1995, for the second time in American history, that plane made its mark on popular thinking. This time the Air Force Association used it to cause a public outcry and to deceive the press into a crusade against the Smithsonian Institution that eventually led Congress and the Smithsonian Regents to intervene and suppress discussion, fire a museum director, and force the display of the plane itself on the national Mall in obscene triumphalism. Let us take a close look at that tragedy and farce.


The war between the Smithsonian and the Air Force had its roots back in 1949.

After World War II ended, Paul Tibbets flew the Enola Gay to Roswell, New Mexico. (1) In 1946, he and the plane were ordered back to the Pacific to take part in the Bikini tests. When another crew ruined one of the tests and missed the target by one-third of a mile, Tibbets and the Enola Gay seemed the safest team to take the report back to Washington. From there the plane went to Davis-Monthan Army Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona, where it stayed for three years. Then in 1949 the Air Force gave it away.

The British had created an independent air force after World War I, Billy Mitchell and others had pleaded for this in America between the wars, and after World War II the victorious air generals were determined get their own service, independent of the Army and the Navy. Hap Arnold and his colleagues, as a small part of this campaign, brought forth the two institutions that were to collide five decades later over the Enola Gay. One was the Air Force Association. This is a league that eventually grew to 200,000 members and a magazine, all dedicated to the principle that world peace requires America to have an ever-bigger and ever-better air force. The other was a National Air Museum.

The Smithsonian Institution had a curator of aviation, Paul Garber, and the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, and other aeronautical treasures. It was the Smithsonian's own Dr. Langley who had first flown an unmanned, and uncontrollable, drone over (and generally into) the Potomac (2). Arnold and the other air force boosters wanted the caché of the Smithsonian name and location for their air museum, so in 1946 Congress authorized it as a new part of the Smithsonian. But the museum existed only on paper. It would be thirty years before the actual building opened on the Mall. Meanwhile, most of Arnold's lovingly collected fleet of World War II planes, Allied and enemy, would have to stay in storage.

In 1949, Paul Tibbets flew the Enola Gay to an air show at Chicago and formally handed the plane over to the Smithsonian. Accepting it was the Smithsonian's first mistake. Mechanically, the Enola Gay is one of thousands of similar planes, just a B-29 with some slight modifications to its bomb bay. Its claim to be in the Smithsonian is the urbicide of Hiroshima. In 1949 there was little understanding of how burdensome this claim would become.

The Smithsonian officials did know in 1949 that they had no place to keep the Enola Gay. The agreement was that the Air Force would keep it as custodian for the National Air Museum. The plane sat at Chicago till 1953, then at Pyote, Texas, and after 1954 at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. It was there that things went wrong. The plane was parked in the open at an out-of-the way spot, thieves broke in and animals consumed. In 1960 things went wronger. In an attempt to arrest the deterioration, Paul Garber dismantled the plane and carried it to his storage sheds in Silver Hill, Maryland.

This was the Smithsonian's second mistake. Whatever one thinks about how it should be displayed, the Enola Gay is a piece of history, an important "artifact," in museum parlance. The Smithsonian should have discovered the damage promptly and insisted that something be done. Had Congress and the Air Force refused, the Smithsonian should have made a clear record. Institutional avarice may have won out over the need to protect the plane, and perhaps the Smithsonian did not complain louder for fear of losing the plane to some other agency. Preservation and restoration often involve disputed strategies, but cutting up a B-29 was sure to bring criticism. This mistake was the source of bitter distrust of the Smithsonian that came to weigh heavily against it later.

Contrast the handling of the Nagasaki plane, Bockscar. The Air Force kept that plane, and put it in the museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near the Wright Brothers' home town of Dayton, Ohio, where it has been on display since 1961. (3) This has caused little controversy. The plane is displayed with due honor, and the most rabid pacifist will allow that the Air Force may display an historic artifact demonstrating its continuing mission, however unpleasant. The Air Force is not the Smithsonian.

In 1966 Congress changed the non-existent museum's name to the National Air and Space Museum and soon thereafter Senator Barry Goldwater, an enthusiastic member of the Air Force Association, got the appropriation for a building. Senator Goldwater did not see the Enola Gay as a crucial part of the project. "What we are interested in here are the truly historic aircraft. I wouldn't consider the one that dropped the bomb on Japan as belonging to that category." (4) The Air and Space building opened in time for the national bicentennial in 1976, with the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis and many other gems of aviation history, but no Enola Gay.

Not everyone took Senator Goldwater's technocratical and detached view. It is impossible to follow the quarrels of the mext two decades without realizing the randomness of all the possible attitudes toward the Enola Gay. How one feels about the bombing does not control how one feels about the plane. When Air and Space first opened, some critics complained that the museum was unthinkingly celebratory, a booster for the romance of technology. At least one of the critics cited the absence of the Enola Gay as evidence of this Panglossianism. (5) From time to time, peace groups have proposed exhibiting the Enola Gay with an explicitly pacifistic message. (6) Such is the ambiguity and malleability of this sort of icon. Most of the public assumed that the Enola Gay was kept off the Mall by a deliberate political and diplomatic decision, (7) and probably the vast majority agreed with this delicacy, even among those who believed the bombing justified.

According to Martin Harwit, some veterans of the 509th Composite Group visited the Enola Gay at Silver Hill in 1980 and were shocked and angry at the condition of the plane. In the 1980s numerous groups and individuals began to lobby -- in some cases crusade would be a more accurate word -- for the plane's restoration and display. None of these enthusiasts seems to have expected the specific triumph of seeing the Enola Gay on the Mall. Most of them had the "aim of wresting ownership of the aircraft from the Smithsonian," as Harwit puts it. (8) One leading possibility was Offutt AFB near Omaha, Nebraska, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command. Here we have the Smithsonian's third mistake. The Institution should have pushed such a plan through and rid itself of a thirty ton albatross that it could not display. But the Smithsonian deemed SAC's assurances for perpetual upkeep inadequate and the deal went nowhere. To some extent this decision was inspired by defensiveness against the charge that the Smithsonian had neglected the plane, to some extent by instinctive bureaucratic defense of turf, and to some extent by the common misconception that a museum's duty as a trustee precludes it from ever parting with anything. Another important factor was a proposed extension museum at Dulles Airport. The plan emerged to display the Enola Gay there eventually, whenever the plane was restored, and the museum did not want to give away that inducement till money for the Dulles facility was safely appropriated and in the bank.

In 1984 Robert M. Adams took over as Smithsonian Secretary. If he was unaware of the reservoir of ill-will he inherited about the Enola Gay, his ignorance must soon have been dispelled. Harwit quotes an exchange that took place in 1986-7 between Adams and William A. Rooney, a World War II veteran who had served in B-29s. Rooney had inquired about the Enola Gay through Senator Goldwater's office, and Adams replied by promising that the plane would be displayed whenever it was restored and space could be found. Adams added that "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" required that any exhibit of the Enola Gay take note of "the demonstrated horror and yawning future risk of the Age that the Enola Gay helped to inaugurate." After thinking it over for several months Rooney replied:

. . . Does your "Decent respect for the opinions of mankind," give respect to the millions of Americans who fought in WW II? . . . [B]y burying the Enola Gay, do you feel you have assisted the peace lovers of the world in achieving their ultimate triumph? . . . In summary, Mr. Adams, I see this situation as a contest between a Washington Satrap with all the infrastructure and Washington social, political and government connections on his side. On the other side is one old American citizen with a conviction.

Quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, page 19.

We have here one of the strange and distinctive features of the atomic dispute: a linking of respect for the soldier with respect for Truman's decision - a dramatic inversion of the traditional theme of glorifying the soldier, the boy in the trenches or hitting the beach under fire, by and through disparagement of the stupidity of the brass hats and the politicians.

It is hard to say when this feeling first became evident, but it must have been already in the air in 1980 when Paul Tibbets visited Silver Hill, fifteen years after Gar Alperovitz' first book (9) met such intense hostility. It is also hard to say what Adams or anyone else at the Smithsonian could have done about it. In the end this passion, this crusade for generational recognition, for gratitude from a changed world, took over the Enola Gay story. A collision was inevitable. The opinion of mankind -- that the Enola Gay was at best an instrument of tragedy that no decent nation could display in celebration -- was not about to change, and the need of William Rooney and others to make their successors understand what they had gone through was not about to change either.

In 1987, Martin Harwit became director of Air and Space. He lost no time in adding his own mistakes to those the Smithsonian had already made. His first mistake can be defended as foolish but heroic: he decided that Air and Space should undertake more critical commentary, such as an exhibit to reflect some of the modern doubts about strategic bombing. The other mistake in the end proved to be simply foolish: he thought such an exhibit might be attached to the Enola Gay, and he thought that by so doing he might cancel out the political and symbolic burden of the aircraft itself. To think that words and pictures could cancel out the historical reality of what the Enola Gay had done was academic hubris of the worst sort.

There were several mechanisms to protect the museum against this kind of blunder, and many of them ran up red flags. Harwit himself convened a Research Advisory Committee in October, 1987, and Adams came to one of its meetings. One of the advisors was Admiral Noel Gayler, who had been commander in chief of Pacific forces and later Director of the National Security Agency. Admiral Gayler told Adams and Harwit:

Strategies of air warfare are certainly a most important historical subject, but this is quite a different one. This has to do with -- and I am looking for a word stronger than "propriety" -- . . . the validity . . . of exhibiting the Enola Gay in this institution. As I see it, she has a noble distinction as an aircraft, like any one of 50 others. The mission over Japan was not in any tactical or operational sense distinctive.

The Japanese were essentially defeated. We were flying airplanes all over the empire, at will. I was the operations officer of the task force at that time -- with Japan and defined ports for us to strike. And except for accidents, we didn't lose any airplanes.

So there was nothing aeronautical about it. The thing that made the mission distinctive was . . . that we used the nuclear weapon for the first time against human beings. . . . [I]f we put that thing on exhibit, we cannot fail to give the impression that we somehow are glorifying that mission or taking pride in it.

We can't reverse history; we can't change it, but we don't have to make it the forefront in the most important museum in the capital of our country. . . . I think that if we do that, [it] will tarnish the reputation of the Museum.

Quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 31.


Dr. David Challinor, the Smithsonian's assistant secretary for science, said:

I agree with the Admiral. Since I've had this job -- I was even quoted in Newsweek about 15 years ago -- [I've been] saying, "the Enola Gay will never be on exhibit while I'm here." Well, I have another two months to go, so I guess I am still safe; . . .

Quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 33.

Instead of taking the advice of the advisors, Adams answered that he thought the exhibit would need to be done with "extraordinary sensitivity," and Harwit answered that he thought he had time to "have a dialogue or a multisided exchange" that would reach the right balance and build a consensus to support his project.

So the museum commenced to drift into the gap where the irresistible force of the veterans' desire for affirmation was going to smash against the immovable object of the post-war world's reluctance to celebrate the incineration of masses of civilians. Our judgment must painfully bifurcate. However much we may admire the Smithsonian's intention to take an honest look at strategic bombing and air power in general, no one should have thought it would escape challenge. And no one should have thought that a display of the Enola Gay could avoid seeming to celebrate the most brutal of hecatombs.

[Continued in Segment 2.]


1. Paul W. Tibbets, Flight of the Enola Gay (Reynoldsburg, Ohio: Buckeye Aviation, 1989).

2. "Langley's Aerodrome #5, 1896," now hangs high above the Wright Flyer in the NASM's main gallery. Its existence delayed acquisition of the Wright Flyer for many years of wrangling over credit and precedence. Everyone now agrees that the Wrights' invention of controlled flight was much more important than Langley's success in getting a machine merely to fly. See Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989).

3. It can be seen on the Wright-Patterson website,

4. Quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 21. Senator Goldwater was beloved by many for his candor and practicality, and this may be an example of those virtues. He was legendary for a machine that was said to run Old Glory up the pole at his ranch every dawn without human intervention -- not exactly the patriotic ritual your drill sergeant or Scout master taught you.

5. Michal McMahon, "The Romance of Technological Progress: A Critical Review of the National Air and Space Museum," 22 Technology and Culture (1981), 281-296, quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 54.

6. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 29, 53, 153.

7. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 33.

8. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 43.

9. Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965).