Gaillard T. Hunt
10705 Tenbrook Drive
Silver Spring, Maryland 20901
"Massacre at the Smithsonian" Continued.
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|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.
As that gap narrowed, an unrelated professional trend aggravated the
crunch, a trend among museums to become more articulate in their labeling.
Here again judgment must bifurcate. In moderation, this was a healthy
recognition that museums inevitably teach, and do better to teach
explicitly than implicitly, by selection and display. Air and Space joined
this trend with some new labels for the German V-2. (1) A bloody
photograph from Antwerp showed bodies lying about. "V-2s killed a total of
7000 people and terrorized millions." The captions told of the American
recruitment of Wernher von Braun and the continuation of his work at White
Sands, New Mexico. The museum boasted of its candor and the press comment
(2) But the museum had not gone overboard. The new labels were
at waist level, below the towering V-2, and took up only about twenty
short paragraphs, with about 15 pictures. A visitor could read them in
But once freed from the traditional taciturn label, curators tended not
to know when to stop, and judgment must register at least impatience. They
developed the "book on the wall," and for crowded museums catering to the
vacationing public, such as those on the Mall, this was at best futile.
Few read the brief labels, much less the long. Several exhibits
demonstrated the danger of this approach for a public museum: critics will
always learn what the museum has said to offend someone but the neutral
public will take in little. The Smithsonian was criticized for an exhibit
about the World War II internment of the Japanese Americans on the west
coast. One of the museums marked Columbus's 500th anniversary by noting
some of the negative aspects of the conquest of the new world, causing the
Wall Street Journal to suggest that the Smithsonian was "in danger
of becoming the Woodstock Nostalgia Society." (4) The show "The
West as America" emphasized the romanticizing of the American west by
artists such as Remington -- hardly a controversial point -- leading some
to denounce the museums as anti-American downers, spoilers of fond
illusions and national myths. Critics frequently cited these exhibits in
the Enola Gay controversy.
An excellent example of the book on the wall was the Air and Space
exhibit that first turned the Air Force Association against the museum,
"Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air." The entrance to this show
was dominated by Snoopy in his goggles and aviator scarf. What could that
be but an invocation of the legend of the World War I aces, daring young
men in their flying machines? Few who see the exhibit were able to read
enough of the text to learn that it was a debunking of that legend, and
offered a well-reasoned critique finding air power in World War I both
ineffectual and expensive -- especially expensive in the lives of daring
young men. A duty to offer interpretation implies a duty to be clear, but
most tourists who visited the museum were not aware that a point is being
made, much less what it was.
But the book on the wall did not stand alone. There was a book in the
bookstore, an $18.95 volume with the same name as the show and much of the
same text and images. The book in the bookstore, especially if taken home
to become a book in the hands of a reader, made the curators' points
clearly and unambiguously. The curators said that air power in World War I
was an irrelevant side show that got little attention at the time and
passed into deserved oblivion in the pacifistic reaction of the early
1920s, only to be rescued and romanticized after Lindbergh's triumph in
1927, and later exploited by the advocates of air power as they began to
plan for World War II.
We have called this a heroic mistake, the willingness to look
critically at air power from within the National Air and Space Museum. Few
people noticed it, but some did: (5) among them
were the resolute disciples of Hap Arnold's faith at the Air Force
Association. This may well be the point at which Harwit lost his job and
the Enola Gay lost its supposedly redeeming captions, but it would
take four years for nature to take its course.
The mystery is why it took so long. A glance at the charter (6) of the Air and
Space Museum shows how unlikely it is that that museum would ever dissent
from the enthusiastic boosterism of air power. The museum's advisory board
includes the Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force and the Army, the Chief of
Naval Operations, the Commandants of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard,
and the Administrators of NASA and the FAA. If any of these officials are
too busy to represent their constituencies properly, they are supposed to
name someone to sit in their place. (7) Most of the
budget is from Congressional appropriation, and many of the better
exhibits are donated by NASA and the Air Force. The museum's statutory
duty is to "memorialize the national development of aviation and space
(8) but the governing structure assures that it will celebrate
as well as memorialize.
It is difficult to say when the museum's drift toward dispaying the
Enola Gay on the Mall became a commitment. The authorization for
the Dulles extension ran into trouble from members of Congress who wanted
to hijack the extension to various other places, notably Denver, so Adams
and Harwit made a tactical decision to keep quiet about the Enola
Gay until they had the extension nailed down. It was not till August
1993 that the Dulles authorization was finally signed into law. (9) Several months
before then, however, in November 1992, a Congressional staffer on an
appropriations committee asked some questions that provoked Adams to send
for Harwit. Harwit's book does not make clear just what the Congressional
staffer wanted done with the Enola Gay, nor what Adams wanted. At
any rate, Harwit told Adams that he had found no way to display the entire
plane at or near the Air and Space Museum, so the only possible use of the
Enola Gay in 1995 would be an exhibit of part of the fuselage.
Harwit added that this would be one item in a series of World War II
aircraft. "Adams jumped at this possibility with evident relief, saying
that if we exhibited the Enola Gay as part of an ongoing series of
World War II aircraft, and only displayed its forward fuselage, it would
appear to be less of a symbol. He had been afraid that because it was such
an American icon, the Enola Gay would be especially controversial.
I understood this well, but regretted the turn of events for just this
reason. . . ."
(10) Harwit, in other words, wanted the whole icon as a gleaming
beacon for his exhibit of redeeming commentary. Adams both agreed to the
limited fuselage display and at the same time withheld final approval and
said he would have to see more detail. At that late date, Adams'
indecision did not gain him effective control, but served only to reflect
his doubts about exhibiting the Enola Gay at all.
Adams took his doubts with him on a trip to Japan, and when he returned
he told Harwit to reframe the show to make it about strategic bombing, not
just the Enola Gay and other aircraft. On June 10, 1993, Harwit
revised the proposal along these lines and renamed it "Fifty Years On."
Adams, Harwit, and the curators thereupon disappeared into a cloud of
symbols, subtlety, and hair-splitting. (11) At one point
Adams said everything turned on the order of the phrases in the title --
"The End of World War II and the Atomic Bomb" versus "The Atomic Bomb and
the End of World War II." This distinction, he said, embodied "the
underlying question of the overall stance of the exhibit that pervades all
my other difficulties." (12) This sort of
meaningless subtlety is often seen in people who are walking into disaster
but cannot bring themselves to admit it. At one point in this debate the
chair of the museum's Department of Aeronautics, Tom D. Crouch, wrote:
Harwit's response to this breath of reality was to demand from both of
his subordinates working on the exhibit, Crouch and curator Michael J.
Neufeld, that they assure him of their commitment to the exhibit or let
others take it over. He complained bitterly of their slowness in figuring
out and adopting Adams' suggestions. He did not ask for their resignations
from the museum, but neither did he assure them of other assignments
available for them if they walked away from the Enola Gay problem.
So threatening memos joined hair-splitting and subtle distinctions as
symptoms that the museum was heading full tilt toward disaster and was
incapable of seeing it.
At about the same time, throughout 1993, the Air Force Association was building up its own head of steam. Its executive director, General Monroe W. Hatch, Jr., and the editor of its magazine Air Force, John Correll, came to the museum in November, 1993, and talked with Crouch, Neufeld, and Harwit. Correll made a memo of this meeting. He speaks of various things the museum plans to omit from the exhibit and says, "this, like Harwit's reluctance on Japanese atrocities, just happens to tilt the balance toward the point we believe they are really trying to make, and to which we object. . . ." (13) It is clear that Correll and Hatch had lost all trust in the leadership at Air and Space. (14) In fact, their level of activity in the next year suggests that they were in 1993 already planning a full scale public relations and lobbying blitz against the museum.
By January, 1994, with the fiftieth anniversary bearing down on them
rapidly, the staff had produced their exhibit script. This "complete,
original, uncensored script" has been published. (15) It was
titled "The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the
Origins of the Cold War."
The script had five units. "Unit 1: A Fight to the Finish," began with
the first Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and went on to the rest
of Japan's aggressions and atrocities. The emphasis was on the brutality
of the Pacific war: "Iwo Jima: A Slice of Hell . . . Okinawa: A Battle of
Unprecedented Ferocity." The R word was used in this context:
Or two R words, revenge as well as racism. This unit
concluded by noting how bitterly the Japanese were prepared to resist an
invasion, with "'100 Million Hearts Beating as One' . . . 'our flesh
against [American] steel.'"
The next part was "Unit 2: The Decision to Drop the Bomb." It began
with a quote from Truman, "That was not any decision you had to worry
about." It covered the origin and success of the Manhattan Project.
Several sidebars dealt with "Historical Controversies," and it is worth
setting out some of the conclusions offered:
And finally the crucial sidebar, "Was the Decision to Drop the Bomb
The conclusions, in short, were non-conclusions. The museum rose above
the issues and refused to take sides. Anyone acquainted with the
historiography of the atomic decision would find this unit even-handed and
open-minded to a degree excusable only in official prose. The intercepted
Japanese diplomatic telegrams of July, 1945, for instance, are crucial to
any criticism of the atomic bombings, but the script did not quote them or
show them. It referred to them only in general terms and said:
"Unit 3: Delivering the Bomb," was almost as long as the first two units together, and was a straight narrative of the technical accomplishments of Paul Tibbets and the 509th Composite Group. "Unit 4: Ground Zero," was the most dramatic part of the show, with photographs and artifacts from the devastated cities, supported by medical data on the effects of radiation. A final short "Unit 5: The Legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" discussed the arms race. This was the one section where the historians' Monday-morning quarter-backing candidly prevailed. Someone transported forward from August 1945 might have found the tone of these last two units alien to their memory of a time when America had the atomic monopoly and the atomic bomb killed "quickly and mercifully, like being hit by lightning," (16) but such is the function of history.
More important than the script's blandness was its length. Its 40,000
words, running 126 printed pages, take several hours to read in book form.
Such curatorial garrulity gives a spurious credibility to the populist
plea that artifacts should be allowed to speak for themselves. The impact
of such a lengthy show would turn less on precise words than on
presentation, as an artifact or picture will outweigh the most carefully
crafted label if the label is too long to read. The wording of the script
was not important if no one was going to read it.
At any rate, Air and Space had a proposed Enola Gay exhibit, and
they called in an advisory board of historians to critique it. At the
board's meeting in February, 1994, the criticism came from the direction
expected. Martin Sherwin, the professor who had written A World
Destroyed, one of the major works on the atomic decision, declared
that any display of the Enola Gay would be obscene. That was
the word he used. He did not think any amount of labeling, any book on the
wall, could override the physical reality of displaying the Enola
Gay near the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis.
The rest of the advisors lined up against Sherwin to argue that their
captions could give the obscenity redeeming social value. Air Force
historian Richard P. Hallion told the museum, "You've got a great script,
and nobody -- except Marty [Sherwin] -- is out to emasculate it." Later he
and his Air Force colleague Herman Wolk submitted some suggestions and
said, "Overall, this is a most impressive piece of work, comprehensive and
dramatic, obviously based upon a great deal of sound research, primary and
(17) The consensus of the advisors, except Sherwin, was that
even working under the limitations of official prose, they could include
enough information, not to mention awe, piety, and hand-wringing, to
redeem the display of the Enola Gay from the celebration of raw
power. The military historians, like many veterans and military people
outside the museum, saw the honor of displaying any part of the plane on
the Mall. They were not inclined to complain about the surrounding
exhibit, whatever it said.
On February 28, 1994, the Smithsonian administration released $250,000 to Air and Space for the exhibit. Harwit gives this as the date of the final approval, (18) and this will do as well as any. But no approval could be truly final, as there would always be a new layer of people to deal with, a new set of political players who had not signed off on the last round of compromise. In March, 1994, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration sent a pointed inquiry to Harwit saying that the Senators (19) had heard that the bombing decision was being presented out of context. The letter nevertheless was fairly civil, suggesting the errors might have crept in "inadvertently." Senator Nancy Kassebaum went so far as to ask Adams to turn the Enola Gay over to a museum that would display it "with understanding and pride," suggesting three in Kansas. Once again, the Smithsonian missed a chance to jump on this optimum solution. It was not too late to look at the gathering clouds and tell the tower that the flight was cancelled, or switched to a more sheltered field. But Harwit was committed, and stood firm, not noticing he was standing firmly on quicksand.
Then the Air Force Association let loose. John Correll opened fire with
a press release and an article entitled "War Stories at Air and Space," in
the April, 1994, issue of his magazine, Air Force, and the rest of
the AFA staff mobilized their membership and the public for a full-scale
campaign on Congress. (20) Correll
leapt over the Enola Gay, the atomic decision, and the entirety of
World War II, and was candid about the grievances he had been nursing. He
charged that Secretary Adams had sent all the Smithsonian museums off on a
"political agenda," of "politically correct curating." He complained of
the exhibit on the Japanese internments on the west coast, the Columbus
exhibit, and "The West as America," which he said had depicted the winning
of the west as "immoral." Correll noted that Adams was retiring, but said,
"the Smithsonian has built up considerable momentum in the direction that
Correll charged that Adams' politics has especially contaminated Air
and Space. He cited "Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air,"
calling it "a strident attack on airpower in World War I," in which the
curators "equated military airpower with 'scientific murder.'" He quoted
Arthur H. Sanfelici, editor of Aviation Magazine, as charging that
"a new order is perverting the museum's original purpose from restoring
and displaying aviation and space artifacts to presenting gratuitous
social commentary on the uses to which they have been put." (22)
As for the Enola Gay exhibit, Correll said he did not like it,
but his specific criticisms were fairly focussed. He had no complaints
about the first unit. It would be dominated by an Okha piloted
suicide bomb and would describe "Japan's desperate last-ditch stand and
the rising casualty toll." The unit on the decision to use the bomb would
have a Fat Man plutonium bomb as its centerpiece. (23) The unit on
the mission itself would center around the Enola Gay, and Correll
admitted that, "The 509th Composite Group, the unit that dropped the two
atomic bombs, is covered extensively and with respect." His problem was
with the Ground Zero unit. This would include a smashed wristwatch, a
partially destroyed Buddha, a heat-fused rosary, and a child's lunchbox.
"Graphic exhibits include Japanese dead and wounded, flash burns,
disfigurement, charred bodies in the rubble . . ." This would be the
"emotional center" of the exhibit, and "Visitors will take strong
impressions with them as they leave." Correll saw such pictures of the
atomic bombs' effects as serving the political agenda he attributed to
If Correll's article was the opening gun, the fusillade thereafter was
a marvel of modern PR firepower: the AFA staff gave twenty-eight radio
interviews and thirty TV appearances, and executive director Monroe Hatch
was interviewed on CNN. (24) From the
start the AFA was determined to go over the Smithsonian's head straight to
Congress, so the resulting stream of letters was directed to Senators and
Representatives. It would not seem likely that the press and general
public, which had seemed more amused than outraged at the "political
correctness" of the earlier shows, would respond to Correll's alarm. The
public could see that the Smithsonian museums looked very much like they
had always looked, and the press could have gone to Air and Space and read
the proposed Enola Gay script. But Correll was talking to veterans,
not just of World War II but also of the cultural and geneational wars.
More importantly, he had one of the most effective weapons one can have in
a PR campaign, a embarrassing quote. Correll claimed that the Smithsonian
script said, "For most Americans it was a war of vengeance. For most
Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western
This was not in fact a literal quote, since the thirteen words "this
war was fundamentally different from the one waged against Germany and
Italy -- " were omitted without ellipses, but that did not change the
meaning. What changed the meaning was tearing the two sentences out of
their grammatical and referential context. The context read:
(Continued in Segment
1. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 60.
2. E.g., Houston Post, December 4, 1990, quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 60.
3. One interesting graphic was a map showing the scatter of V-2 landings in the London-Cambridge-Norwich area. Another label recommended for further reading Gregory P. Kennedy, Vengeance Weapon 2: The V-2 Guided Missile (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983) and David H. DeVorkin, Science with a Vengeance: How the Military Created the US Space Sciences After World War II (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992). A nearby example of the older style of labeling was the V-1 buzz bomb, with a label, if you could find it, of only a few words, which did not mention its importance as one of the early jets, nor its superiority to the V-2 in terms of bang for the buck.
4. The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 1992, editorial, A10; Cf. June 24, 1994, A10; January 31, 1995, editorial, A18.
5. Press comment was favorable. See Hank Burchard, "Plane Truths During WWI," The Washington Post, November 22, 1991, and Michael Kilian, "Grounded in Reality," Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1991, cited in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 243, n. 9. Arthur Sanfelici registered a negative review, "Is NASM Thumbing Its Nose at Congress While No One's Watching?" in Aviation, but that was not until July 1993.
6. 20 U.S. Code, sec. 77a.
7. Harwit discusses the workings of this board in Exhibit Denied, 109-110. This board warned him against "revisionism" as early as December, 1991. Id., 110.
8. 20 U.S. Code, sec. 77a. Harwit frequently expresses a strict constructionist theory that to "memorialize" does not require the museum to "celebrate," and he combines this with a liberal interpretation of "the national development of aviation and space flight" so that it includes historical and social context as well as pure technology. He disagrees with those who cited him to 20 U.S. Code, sec. 80a, which says "The Smithsonian Institution shall commemorate and display the contributions made by the military forces of the Nation. . . The valor and sacrificial service of the men and women of the Armed Forces shall be portrayed as an inspiration to the present and future generations of America. . . ." Harwit says that this applies only to the authorized, but never built, National Armed Forces Museum. He may be right on all these interpretations, but we will see how far that got him.
9. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 117.
10. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 120.
11. See Chapter 15, "Funding and Approval," in Harwit, Exhibit Denied.
12. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 187.
13. Harwit quotes this memo with these ellipses. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 208.
14. Nor were they alone: "All of us have one point of view with regard to you, Mr. Adams, and NASM. It is: Through wanton neglect, you allowed the Enola Gay to deteriorate and be vandalized. . . . It is an absolute disgrace to our nation. . . . It is evident that you intend to portray strategic bombing in a negative way and that you intend to use the Enola Gay as your tool to tell your story. . . ." October 13, 1993, letter of William A. Rooney, quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 144-145.
15. Judgment at the Smithsonian, edited by Philip Nobile, afterword by Barton J. Bernstein (New York: Marlowe, 1995). The American Legion demanded that "no materials related to the exhibition that is now canceled will be disseminated," id., xliii, and a note opposite Nobile's title page says, "No one at the Smithsonian Institution was involved in the preparation of this book." Nobile does not give an exact date for his script, but Harwit says it is "The first script, which the museum had not copyrighted. . . ". Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 217. This version of the script is also in the fourth volume of a four volume set issued by the Air Force Association; that set includes also The Enola Gay Debate and Enola Gay Coverage (Arlington, Virginia: 1995).
16. The Atlanta Constitution made this comparison sometime in August 1945.
17. Judgment, 229-230; in facsimile with handwritten notes, Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 222-224.
18. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 178, n. 3.
19. Bob Dole and Jesse Helms were among the signers. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 245-246.
20. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 239.
21. Correll's emphasis on Adams was strange. The Smithsonian museums all have their own charters, their own boards and their own directors, and in practice have little contact with the Secretary and the Smithsonian Regents. Their staffs' habit of calling the central Smithsonian administration "the Castle" symbolizes their remoteness from the Secretary and his ornate offices. And Adams was retiring in the fall of 1994. Possibly Correll and the AFA thought they could handle Harwit and the Air and Space staff if they could make Adams' departure look like a change of direction.
22. Arthur H. Sanfelici, "Is NASM Thumbing Its Nose at Congress While No One's Watching?" Aviation, July 1993.
23. Correll said it would be only the casing. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 96-101, 113, 127, 213 makes it clear the Department of Energy does not trust the Smithsonian with a full atomic bomb even without the fissionable material.
24. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 250.