Given the arguments laid out in History Wars, by Linenthal and Engelhardt, do public museums have a responsibility to be “patriotically correct”?

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History Wars is a collection of essays by editors Engelhardt and Linenthal that features articles from prominent historians discussing the nature of politics in the presentation of a particular museum exhibit. The exhibit featured the Enola Gay, which was the Superfortress used by the American military to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. The way in which the exhibit was presented led to significant criticism from war veterans, which then erupted into a media firestorm.

Historical Conflict

The source of the conflict featured in History Wars lies within the presentation of certain facts surrounding the atomic bombing. Critics argued that the actions of the Japanese military leading up to the bombing, including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, were ignored by the creators of the museum exhibit. The veterans also claimed that the exhibit glossed over the Japanese invasion of Vietnam, Korea and China as well as the treatment of people in these occupied lands.

The Responsibility to Present "Patriotically Correct" Exhibits

Co-editor Edward T. Linenthal explains that the historians who created the exhibit were focused on creating something that was not celebratory of the atomic bombing. This created a clash of ideas over what should and should not be remembered in a historical museum exhibit. Engelhardt and Linenthal also suggest that the focus of the exhibit was to present the Japanese victims of Hiroshima as "the first victims of the nuclear age" and to deliver an "essentially antiwar and antinuclear message." This presentation resulted in a conflict with those who believed the exhibit creators had a responsibility to be "patriotically correct." In this context, patriotic correctness refers to the idea that exhibits should support national interests in their presentation of historical facts and, at the very least, present the actions of the American military in a fuller context.

When analyzing whether museums have a responsibility to support patriotic ideals, it is important to consider the principles of both freedom of speech and academic responsibility. History Wars explains that some of the more inflammatory aspects of the exhibit included highly biased interpretations of events in the war, which is a more significant issue than the perceived lack of patriotism itself. For example, one passage of the original exhibit script painted America's actions as "a war of vengeance" against a nation that simply wanted "to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism."

While an unbiased exhibit might accurately point out the devastating effects of the atomic bombing, which ushered the world into the nuclear age and had many catastrophic effects on the population and environment of Japan, the terminology used in the original Enola Gay exhibit is presented as historically inaccurate by Engelhardt and Linenthal. History Wars shows that the exhibit failed to take into account the complex motivations on both the Japanese and American sides that led to the bombing of Hiroshima. The exhibit also challenged the common view that the atomic bombing was viewed by President Truman as an alternative to a full ground occupation of Japan, which would have resulted in numerous American and Japanese casualties.

Overall, History Wars attempts to present a balanced account of the arguments made by both sides of this historical debate. The general consensus of the essays presented in this work is that the exhibit was historically inaccurate due to its lack of context and that this inaccuracy was a greater issue than any lack of patriotic sentiment. It is implied that an exhibit with more historical context could have easily presented a non-celebratory yet nuanced view of the bombing of Hiroshima without creating a revisionist account of the event.

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