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"Massacre at the Smithsonian" Continued.
Segment 3.

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Correll had found the quote that would sink the exhibit and force the resignation of the director of Air and Space. Ripped away from its original context and meaning, a ringing denunciation of Japanese aggression, the quote could be offered as a horrible example of political correctness. With those two sentences Correll transformed the exhibit that Martin Sherwin had seen as obscene militarism, a triumphant display of American might, into anti-American propaganda. And the press and the public swollowed the transformation hook, line, and sinker.

Tony Capaccio, editor of Defense Week magazine, and Uday Mohan, a graduate student in history at American University, have analyzed the press coverage of the Enola Gay controversy in "Missing the Target," in the July-August 1995 American Journalism Review. The title is apt, as never in all the coverage did any journalist find the real story, Correll's and the Air Force Association's quarrel with the modern view of the limitations of strategic bombing.

Capaccio and Mohan say the earliest press coverage after Correll's attack was fairly even-handed. The Washington Post, for instance, said, "There is something to be said for an exhibit that suggests that warplanes are not simply expensive sporting devices to be used for movie props or flyovers at presidential funerals." (1) On May 9, 1994, the Smithsonian Regents voted to support the proposed exhibit. "Hanna H. Gray, former president of the University of Chicago, felt that if the process we had followed was proper, the regents should not become involved in content." (2) Another regent, Senator Warner (one of the regents representing Congress; a Republican from Virginia and a former Secretary of the Navy) offered to insert the entire text in the Congressional Record to refute the charges that it was pro-Japanese.

But the "war of vengeance" quote had moved the dispute to the front line of the culture wars. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if the script had been published in the Congressional Record, because apparently no one from the press ever bothered to go to the museum to check the accuracy or the context of the quote. The quote was dropped from the script by May 31, 1994, but lost no importance by disappearing. One commentator, Charles Krauthammer, said he did not care if the quote was gone, because it still showed the prejudices of those who had written it. Capaccio and Mohan were able to get admissions from a couple of commentators that they might not have used the quote so aggressively if they had known its true context. Nevertheless, "It was these two sentences, endlessly repeated by the media outside of their original context, that did the most damage to the museum's credibility." (3) To have checked the quote would have ruined the story.

By May or June, 1994, several veterans' organizations were asking their members to write to Congress demanding revision of the show, and Paul Tibbets had called the show "a package of insults." The Washington Post coverage was handed over to Eugene L. Meyer, who on July 21, 1994, offered a story titled, "Dropping the Bomb; Smithsonian Exhibit Plan Detonates Controversy." Never did Meyer show any awareness of the historical controversies about whether the war could have been ended sooner without the bomb, nor the policy controversies about strategic bombing behind the criticism of Air and Space. Those controversies were not relevant to the story as Meyer saw it. Meyer reported that the exhibit "will portray the Japanese largely as suffering, even noble victims and the Americans as racist and ruthless fighters hell bent on revenge for Pearl Harbor." (4) (Meyer offered this not as fact, nor as his own opinion, but as the opinion of various veterans' groups.) Meyer's interest focused on how the forces of common sense and decency were bringing the revisionists to heel. This resulted in a Hamlet-without-the-Prince coverage. Meyer would print anything about charges and countercharges swirling around the museum and the curators, but nothing about Truman, or the Japanese peace initiatives, or Bard's dissent, or Alamogordo as a unused demonstration shot. And nothing about strategic bombing. Most news coverage followed Meyer's approach.

August 7, 1994, The Washington Post gave Harwit, as the Director of Air and Space, a chance to defend the museum on the op-ed page. But he did not directly give the lie to the fatal quote, nor to the misrepresentation it embodied of the Smithsonian and its staff. Without referring to the Japanese peace initiatives, the scientists' objections, or Bard's dissent -- indeed, without mentioning the atomic decision or the controversies about it -- Harwit took the high ground. "The postwar generations respect their fathers for the sacrifices they made, but they also realize that the nuclear bombs that saved their fathers' lives continue to threaten their own and their children's. . . We have found no way to exhibit the Enola Gay and satisfy everyone. But a comprehensive and thoughtful discussion can help us learn from history. And that is what we aim to offer our visitors."

Because he knew the script and the history and dealt every day with people well-versed in both, Harwit may not have realized how deeply he and his staff had been branded in the public mind as Japanese apologists. Perhaps he did realize it but thought the better tactic would be to demonstrate his balanced views and to avoid a shouting match with Correll and the other veterans. Whatever the reason, the museum's defense was too little too late. (5) A week after Harwit's op ed piece, the Post printed a half-page of letters attacking the Smithsonian and came out against the museum editorially. (6)

The editorial said the Smithsonian saw Japan as "a victim country" and had accused the U.S. of racism. The editorial used Meyer's device of laying the charges to "veterans' and other groups" -- not "we say" but "they said." Thus insulated from responsibility and fact, the editorial escalated the culture wars. The Smithsonian lacked democratic humility, the editorial said. "What the tenor of the debate suggests instead is a curatorial inability to perceive that political opinions are embedded in the exhibit, or to identify them as such -- opinions -- rather than universal, objective assumptions that all thinking people must necessarily share. This confusion is increasingly common in academia and owes much to the fashionable and wrong notion that objectivity is unattainable anyway and that all presentations of complex issues must be politically tendentious." (7)

The Washington Post was not alone. Editorial comment elsewhere followed the same escalating line of condemnation. (8) The "war of vengeance" quote was "picked up and hammered home in stories and editorials in newspapers ranging from The Washington Times to The Tulsa World, Rocky Mountain News and Portland's Oregonian. [It] was uttered on the radio by Rush Limbaugh and National Public Radio newscasters, and . . . turned into a graphic by for the 'MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.'" (9) The Wall Street Journal of August 29, 1994, contrived a misquote even wilder than the "war of vengeance." That paper quoted the Smithsonian as calling the kamikaze pilots "youths, their bodies overflowing with life," when the script had clearly identified these words as those of a surviving kamikaze. (10)

The Smithsonian had lost the newspaper debate before it started, and where the journalists led, the politicians followed. The August 1994 anniversary, the forty-ninth anniversary of the bombings, brought the deluge. On August 10, Harwit and his staff appeared for grilling before several Representatives, two of whom issued scathing press releases afterwards. (11) Representative Peter Blute, Republican from Massachusetts, issued a letter the same day in which he and 23 other members of Congress called the exhibit "anti-American." In September 1994 the Senate passed, without a roll call, a resolution sponsored by Senator Kassebaum saying that any exhibit of the Enola Gay should "reflect appropriate sensitivity toward the men and women who faithfully and selflessly served the United States during World War II and should avoid impugning the memory of those who gave their lives for freedom." (12)

The AFA chief of media relations, Jack Giese, was understandably exultant about his professional accomplishment:

As AFA got information . . . it was pumped immediately to Congress. . . .

One of the strengths we have here -- it seemed silly to some people -- we had a printer on the third floor. We could have this material done at the speed of light. That is a resource government agencies don't have. . . .

August was the heat month. . . . An unbelievable feeding frenzy. . . . We broke down our messages into a single page. "It was an act of vengeance. We were portrayed as the bad guys." -- That was one of our sound bites.

Interview with Jack Giese, quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 319-320.

It worked with Congress for the same reason it worked with the press. The "war of vengeance" misquote put the Smithsonian on the wrong side of a culture war. No one checked the quote or verified its relevance because no one wanted to spoil the fun of a good fight. Attacking anti-American revisionists, whether they existed or not, was as satisfying to some members of Congress as reporting on them was to the press.

Meanwhile, Air and Space had been busy with a vigorous program of back-pedalling. In an April 16, 1994, memo, Harwit had ordered the script writers to take bold strides toward compromise. They added images and descriptions of Japanese atrocities, toned down the "Ground Zero" Unit, and found mushier and more bureaucratic words to express their non-judgment on the "Historical Controversies." This led to a draft called "Script Two," dated May 31, 1994. (13)

Constance Newman, Smithsonian Undersecretary, had contacts in many veterans' groups from her previous work in the Office of Personnel Management. In the spring of 1994 she offered to call on them for help against the Air Force Association's campaign. (14) The museum approached the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and later the Military Coalition and the Retired Officers' Association. Harwit says, "My aim . . . was to secure the backing of a large and sensible veterans' organization, so that the AFA's strident stance would not be the sole perspective mirrored in the media." (15) The American Legion seemed willing to cooperate, so museum officials sat down for line-by-line, picture-by-picture bargaining sessions. (16) Everything possible was done in search of "balance." For instance, one caption was rewritten: (17)

Old: For Aircrews, capture meant imprisonment in horrible conditions and occasionally even execution. This Australian flier was beheaded in August 1945 after the Japanese surrender.

New: For aircrews, capture meant imprisonment in horrible conditions and even execution. Like this Australian intelligence officer, Allied fliers were often beheaded.

Subtle the mind that could see that the Japanese massacre of prisoners after the war ought to come out, to make the script less "pro-Japanese." This was the same sort of hair-splitting the museum had done internally to avoid admitting basic disagreements as to whether the plan would work at all. But most of the changes were at least in the direction expected. The Japanese "defenders" of Okinawa, for instance, became Japanese "troops" on Okinawa. (18) Subtle indeed.

Finally in late 1994 Harwit believed he had a script the American Legion had agreed to, and he had high hopes that the Legion's more than three million members could balance out the AFA's two hundred thousand. This script has not been published, so we do not know what it looked like nor how much it compromised. (19) To those who agreed with Martin Sherwin that any display of the Enola Gay would be obscene, the question was moot. Many peace organizations accepted the political alignment as it had developed and started defending the original script, and tried to roll back some of the concessions. (20) In November nine scholars met with Smithsonian officials and then held a press conference denouncing the "historical cleansing" the exhibit had gone through. (21) Kai Bird, Gar Alperovitz, and other historians formed a Committee for Open Discussion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Father John Dear of Pax Christi, Robert K. Musil of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and others met with the museum and complained that the exhibit had been robbed of whatever moral respectability it may have had. "More Turbulence for Enola Gay; Peace Activists Disappointed after Smithsonian Meeting," reported Meyer. (22)

(Continued in Segment 4.)
 

Footnotes



1. Quoted by Capaccio and Mohan, id., 22.

2. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 283.

3. Capaccio and Mohan, id., 20.

4. The Washington Post, July 21, 1994, C2.

5. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 318, says that those who have criticized the museum for not fighting back vigorously enough should realize that it may not legally lobby Congress, and did not have resources to match those of the AFA in any event.

6. On September 3, 1994, Meyer did a sympathetic profile of Tibbets and the rest of the Enola Gay crew, and on September 26 The Washington Post ran a page and one-half takeout piece by Ken Ringle that continued the attack on the Smithsonian, still with no discussion of the underlying historical controversy.

7. The Washington Post, August 14, 1994. Harwit quotes this editorial in Exhibit Denied and says, "These last two sentences seemed contradictory, but the more important point was the reluctance to discuss the historical facts. . . " Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 313.

8. What was hindsight and "half-baked judgments on history" for The Tulsa World became "intellectual arrogance" for The Orlando Sentinel and "an America-bashing enterprise" for the The Indianapolis Star. Capaccio and Mohan, 22.

9. Capaccio and Mohan, 23.

10. Capaccio and Mohan, 24-25. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 316. The words do not appear in Nobile's version of the script.

11. Tom Lewis (R.-Fla.) and Sam Johnson (R.-Tex.). Johnson engaged in an exchange with Harwit in which Johnson boasted that he would not hesitate to use a nuclear bomb on a city. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 255.

12. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 259.

13. See Nobile, Judgment, xxxiv.

14. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 285.

15. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 296.

16. Described in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, s 238-231.

17. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 338.

18. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, s 328-329.

19. Harwit says it is available only by a Freedom of Information Act application to the Smithsonian General Counsel. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 217.

20. "Exhibit Now Has Anti-War Groups Up in Arms," The Washington Post, October 21, 1994.

21. The Washington Post, November 18, 1994.

22. The Washington Post, December 16, 1994.