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"Massacre at the Smithsonian" Continued.
Segment 4.

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As we read Harwit's long account of how his exhibit slipped down the drain, we observe a variety of actors. There were those who agreed, usually reluctantly, to his idea of redeeming the Enola Gay with a critical exhibit, and then melted away when the pressure came, and there were those who candidly disagreed, and felt the Enola Gay needed no redemption, and busied themselves applying that pressure. There were some who professed to agree and actually worked against the project. But the overriding pattern is clear: on every level, in every forum, the prospects for the exhibit became worse and worse. The allegation that the Smithsonian thought Japan had been right and the allies wrong, and the "war of vengeance" quote, insured an endless supply of new objectors, and an endless erosion of support, and there was nothing the friends of the exhibit could do about it.

On December 2, 1994, while Harwit still thought the Legion was supporting him, Hubert Dagley, director of the Legion's Internal Affairs Commission, wrote to the Legion's Advisory Committee:

Now that NASM has an exhibit that pleases absolutely no one, and is suspect from both our perspective and our opponents' perspective, the museum may be seriously damaged by the administration's dogged determination to proceed with this ill-fated exhibit and irreparably damage its reputation for scholarship and reliability. It is our view that Members of Congress can be motivated to act against the exhibit on these grounds, even if some may not be moved by the revisionist history argument. . . .

Memo of Hubert Dagley, quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, page 375.

Harwit did not learn of this memo till some months later, and he comments with more understanding than one would expect: "The pressure on the American Legion leadership was mounting. They could not stay entirely aloof from their own membership, which had long been stirred up by the AFA's and even the Legion's own earlier propaganda, and they could not entirely defy the assembled strength of the other veterans' organizations." (1)

There was never any contest. We search the record in vain for anyone in authority who stuck by their original assessment that the script was "an impressive job." (2) Moreover, in November 1994 the Republicans won control of Congress. This was the "Newtonian revolution" that was to lead to legislative gridlock, government shutdowns, and impeachment, but the immediate effect was changes in all the groups in authority over the Smithsonian, both the Regents and the relevant Congressional committees. And a new secretary had already replaced Adams.

Thus the apparent compromise was doomed. In mid-January Harwit told the American Legion of a rewording of the label about estimated casualties for an invasion. The rewording did not remove Truman's "half a million or a million American casualties," nor his fear of "an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other," (3) but this was the excuse they were looking for. The Legion's National Commander William M. Detweiler promptly visited the new Secretary of the Smithsonian, I. Michael Heyman, and demanded that the whole project be scrapped and that the Enola Gay be handed over to a more sympathetic institution. Heyman refused, (4) so yet again the Smithsonian missed a chance at the only possible way out of the mess they had gotten into.

But the next day the Enola Gay was discussed at a regularly scheduled meeting of the executive committee of the Smithsonian Regents. Heyman announced the matter would be considered by all the regents at their next meeting, set for January 30, 1995. Blute and two other Congressmen escalated their criticism, as Correll had: "We think there are some very troubling questions with regard to the Smithsonian, not just with this Enola Gay exhibit but over the past ten years or so, getting into areas of revisionist history and political correctness," said Blute. He promised there would be hearings. And Blute also focussed on a specific individual -- not Correll's target, Adams, but Harwit, the director of Air and Space. He demanded Harwit's head on a platter. (5)

On January 30, the regents took jurisdiction over the controversy. The Vice President and the Chief Justice are ex-officio regents. Senators Alan Simpson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, also regents, attended the meeting on January 30. After the meeting several regents stayed to stand behind Heyman as he went before TV cameras and axed the exhibit.

Heyman portrayed himself as above the controversy. He did not condemn the exhibit script, and did not endorse the Correll charges of political correctness. The mistake, he said, had been to combine an anniversary commemoration with an analytical exhibit:

In this important anniversary year, veterans and their families were expecting, and rightly so, that the nation would honor and commemorate their valor and sacrifice. They were not looking for analysis, and, frankly, we did not give enough thought to the intense feelings such an analysis would evoke.

So Heyman declared that he was going to throw out the entire script, compromises and all, and personally put together a new exhibition, "a much simpler one, essentially a display, permitting the Enola Gay and its crew to speak for themselves." To maintain the claim that the Smithsonian was not suppressing discussion or running from controversy, Heyman promised that they would hold symposia on the various controversies about the bomb, but would hold them elsewhere, away from the plane.

So the regents claimed not to be suppressing any viewpoint or indulging in censorship. But The Washington Post rejoiced that the Smithsonian staff had been put in its place:

It is important to be clear about what happened at the Smithsonian. . . . Narrow-minded representatives of a special-interest and revisionist point of view attempted to use their inside track to appropriate and hollow out a historical event that large numbers of Americans alive at that time and engaged in the war had witnessed and understood in a very different--and authentic--way.

The Washington Post, February 1, 1995, editorial.

Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama said the cancellation was "regrettable" in terms of Japanese feelings. (6) Peace groups were dismayed.

On March 16, 1995, The Washington Post ran an interview with Gavan Daws about his book Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific (New York: Morrow, 1994). Daws was troubled by the Japanese refusal to face up to the darker side of their history, especially their brutal treatment of prisoners in World War II. He pointed out that usually Japan had been very punctilious about international law, and had treated prisoners decently in other conflicts, so the great crimes of World War II cannot be shrugged off as due to some defect in Japanese culture. Daws recalled his service on a UN committee on the "Scientific and Cultural History of Humankind," and said, "Western scholars were the only ones who would admit that their people had ever done anything wrong. Everybody else insisted they had been a blameless victim throughout history, just like the Japanese." (7) The interviewer, Ken Ringle, who had covered the Enola Gay dispute along with Meyer, maintained strict silence on the obvious parallel.

When the exhibit finally opened on June 28, 1995, it turned out that the operative part of Heyman's announcement had not been his ostensible neutrality but his promise to let the crew speak for themselves. Heyman let them turn the show into a strident proclamation of the wildest of the pro-bomb fancies. As visitors waited in line to see the Enola Gay they were bombarded by several large screens showing a fifteen minute film of interviews with Tibbets and his crew, along with historical footage. Affirmative lies put forth by this film included a description of Hiroshima as a "military target," a suggestion that Hiroshimans had been warned by leaflets, (8) and a statement that the Nagasaki bomb was necessary because the Japanese had denied that the Hiroshima bomb was nuclear. (9) And the promise to let the crew speak for themselves was not complete. Ellsworth Carrington (10) was conspicuously absent from among his colleagues in the 509th. One of the most painful moments in the film was the prayer of Chaplain Downey invoking the name of Jesus Christ for the success of the mission, but there was no mention of Chaplain George Zabelka, who has said, "We should have felt horror then . . . yet it never occurred to us." (11)

The Enola Gay opening was picketed, castigated at a press conference on the Mall by Jo Becker from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and many others, and on at least one occasion disrupted by a demonstrator seeking arrest. The War Resisters League put up a tent with an alternative display. But Major L'Enfant knew what he was doing when he laid Washington out on a scale to exhaust protest. The Air and Space Museum itself is enormous. Its two sides are approached by several walkways and tourists arrive often in busloads. Many are school kids in a holiday mood, some are families, some are foreigners. Air and Space is physically impossible as a forum for analysis or ideas. So after a day or two the protestors drifted away and the Enola Gay remained, videotaped lies washing over it in a fifteen minute repetitious cycle.

We have dwelt on this story perhaps longer than it deserves. Congress does not control public opinion in the United States, television does. In early August, 1995, ABC filled ninety minutes of prime time with a Peter Jennings documentary on the atomic decision. The program was seen by many more Americans than would ever see the Air and Space exhibit, and by several hundred times as many as those who would read any of the scholarly works on the decision to use the bomb. Strange as it may seem after all the fracas, Jennings and his team did straight history. They reported Leo Szilard's arguments, Joseph Grew's, Ralph Bard's, and others. They presented Gar Alperovitz and Martin Sherwin as talking heads to summarize their researches. They explained the issues. So the reportorial gap so sadly neglected by The Washington Post and most of the nation's newspapers was filled in by the more popular medium. (12)

Strangely, there seem to be no recent polls showing the final state of public opinion, but it seems likely that the main loser in the Enola Gay controversy was the Smithsonian, or maybe just Martin Harwit, who was forced to resign. The sheer fancifulness of the allegation that the Smithsonian had become anti-American meant that it would have little effect on public judgment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Harwit's nemesis, Congressman Blute, was defeated in the next election, although the Enola Gay had nothing to do with that. Even without a poll, we may assume that 1995 was not the year in which a majority of Americans came to regret Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That year lies ahead.

* * *

[For further reading in the underlying controversy about the use of the atomic bomb:

Alperovitz, Gar. Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam: The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965; expanded edition, New York: Penguin, 1985; 2d edition, Boulder: Pluto Press, 1994.

Alperovitz, Gar, with Sanho Tree et al. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Brooks, Lester. Behind Japan's Surrender: The Secret Struggle that Ended an Empire. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Schaffer, Ronald. Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II. New York: Oxford, 1985.

Sherry, Michael S. Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. New Haven: Yale, 1987.

Sherwin, Martin. A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and the Origins of the Arms Race. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.

Sigal, Leon V. Fighting to a Finish: The Politics of War Termination in the United States and Japan, 1945. Ithaca: Cornell, 1988.

See also a page prepared by the Historians Committee for Open Debate on Hiroshima, and a syllabus by Prof. Edward J. Gallagher, Lehigh University.]


1. Harwit, Exhibit Denied, pages 334-335.

2. The words of Air Force historian Richard Hallion, quoted in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, 222-224, and later renounced by Hallion. The other service historians may have been exceptions to the trend. Apparently they came to support the exhibit after expressing initial reservations. Id., 306

3. The old and new labels are set out in Harwit, Exhibit Denied, pages 381-382. For Barton Bernstein's recollection, see Judgment, 237. The invasion was months away and the issue was never the bomb v. an invasion. The issue was always how to avoid an invasion. To this day the question is why Alamogordo and diplomacy were not given a chance, and whether using the bomb might not have made an invasion more likely, not less likely.

4. "Smithsonian Stands Firm on A-Bomb Exhibit," The Washington Post, January 19, 1995, C1-6.

5. "Air and Space Director Under Fire," The Washington Post, January 20, 1995, D1.

6. The Washington Post, February 1, 1995, A14.

7. The Washington Post, March 16, 1995, pages D1-2. This accusation is not peculiar to Daws. Ian Buruma, a Dutchman who is at home in both Germany and Japan, has written in depth about the German tendency to make a public show of their guilt about the Nazi era and the contrasting Japanese tendency to let veterans and nationalists shout down any public suggestion that not everything done in furtherance of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was very nice. Buruma makes a persuasive case, although The Washington Post's own T.R. Ried has reported that the Japanese are beginning to face up to their past somewhat, as with the opening of a second museum in Hiroshima which admits Japanese war guilt.

8. Thirty million leaflets were dropped on Japan in July 1945. Kenneth P. Werrell, Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers Over Japan During World War II (Washington: Smithsonian, 1996), 202. The government had allowed very limited evacuations and civil defense was inadequate, so there was really very little people could do with these warnings. No leaflet before the Hiroshima bombing ever revealed the atomic threat or used the deterrent value of the Alamogordo test.

9. The Japanese sent several teams to figure out what had happened to Hiroshima. The first, headed by chief of army intelligence General Seizo Arisue, got a report back to Tokyo on August 8, 1945. Lester Brooks, Behind Japan's Surrender (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 166. The other, with physicist Dr. Yoshio Nishina, did not get to Hiroshima till 4 PM August 8 (ibid., 168) and did not get back to Tokyo till August 11, two days after the Nagasaki bombing. The navy sent Professor Asada of Osaka University, but his team did not start for Hiroshima until the evening of August 9. None of the scientists had any trouble detecting the radioactivity or understanding the heat effects that confirmed the American claim that the bomb was atomic. Leon Sigal, Fighting to a Finish (Ithaca: Cornell, 1988), 236; Brooks, Behind Japan's Surrender, 165-172. The three days between Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not sufficient for anything that could be called a reaction or a response.

10. Carrington was a veteran of the 509th who expressed second thoughts in the August 1985 Progressive.

11. Studs Terkel, "The Good War": an Oral History of World War Two (New York: Pantheon, 1984), quoted in Judgment, xlviii.

12. The documentary is available for teachers and others from ABC for about $35.00.