History Wars Summary

History Wars is a compilation of eight articles exploring a controversial exhibit at the United States’ National Air and Space Museum in the 1990s.

  • The exhibit was to feature the Enola Gay, the plane from which the US military dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II.
  • Veterans and other conservative commentators took issue with the exhibit and what they saw as its antiwar, antinuclear slant, sparking a public controversy.
  • Ultimately, the museum removed the context they had intended to include with the exhibit, instead merely displaying the Enola Gay and footage of the explosion.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

Edited by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, History Wars is a nonfiction work consisting of eight related articles about “battles for the American past.” The interrelated articles explore a controversial museum exhibition at the United States National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in the early 1990s. Concerned with the...

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Edited by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, History Wars is a nonfiction work consisting of eight related articles about “battles for the American past.” The interrelated articles explore a controversial museum exhibition at the United States National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in the early 1990s. Concerned with the US dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, the exhibition was planned to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary and to feature the Enola Gay, the airplane from which the bomb was released.

The authors relate the conflicts that arose between the planning committee and other people who had a vested interest in the exhibition’s content and message but were not originally included on that committee. The articles present multiple ways that the differing interpretations from academic perspectives, especially those based in the New Historicism, clashed with those of military veterans and others who opposed what they saw as erroneous revisionism. History Wars follows the story from the planning through the changes in the finished exhibition, and explains how these controversies led to the resignation of NASM’s director, Martin Harwit.

In planning the exhibition, the curators and other planning team members wanted to ensure that marking the anniversary did not appear to celebrate dropping the atomic bomb. In addition, the overall context for the exhibition was intended to explain the birth of our current “nuclear age” and to show how the people of Hiroshima became the first victims. However, they underestimated the depth of feeling and pride that many Americans felt in the role that the mission played in ending the war. Among others, Paul Tibbetts, the Enola Gay’s pilot, strenuously objected to the perceived negative perception that the exhibition would promote. Further objections concerned the projected portrayal of Japan, which critics believed underreported its military aggression before World War II and the brutal military actions during the war. Ultimately, the planned exhibition was scaled way back; it presented part of the airplane with a video but not explanatory text.


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Suddenly, in the fall of 1993, a major conflict erupted between ambitious historians and American veterans who had actually participated in the events the historians sought to scrutinize. As recounted in a series of eight related articles that compose History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, the historians had been working on a controversial exhibit featuring the display of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Under the leadership of its forceful new director, Martin Harwit, the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, planned to display the restored Enola Gay as centerpiece of an exhibition scheduled for 1995, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific. As originally planned, co-editor Edward T. Linenthal explains in the introductory chapter of History Wars, the historians working with Harwit went to great length “to ensure that the exhibit not be celebratory.”

Instead, the clear focus and “didactic objective” of the exhibition was to present the Japanese of Hiroshima “as the first victims of the nuclear age.” To deliver its “essentially antiwar and antinuclear” message, however, the historians had chosen an event in history which, to many people, also carried a very different message. The clash over the exact meaning of Hiroshima, and what should be remembered and displayed about it, is what History Wars sets out to analyze.

With historians working on their script for the planned exhibition, veterans of the Air Force Association began to voice their early criticism. What was missing from the script, critics believed, was a clear indication that Japan had initiated the war with the United States after embarking on an aggressive attack of other Asian nations such as China, which had been invaded in 1937.

Once the first version of Martin Harwit’s exhibition script was completed in January of 1994, the project quickly became embroiled in controversy. At the museum, criticism had been relatively mild; only two historians on the advisory committee voiced some concerns that the script “did not do justice to Japanese brutality to subject peoples,” since it failed to acknowledge the millions of Asian people who suffered from Japanese military action in and occupation of their countries. Even at the time of the Japanese surrender in August of 1945, millions of Asians were living still under Japanese military occupation in places such as northwestern China, Korea, and Vietnam.

The two internal critics also pointed their fingers at the issue which would soon explode on the opinion pages of all major American newspapers: the planned exhibition challenged the commonly held belief that President Harry Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs avoided an invasion of Japan that would have resulted in huge casualties for the Americans and Japanese alike. Yet as Edward Linenthal documents in History Wars, this internal criticism was mild, and the dissident historians still congratulated curator Michael Neufeld for doing an “impressive” job.

Outside the museum, however, a public storm broke loose. Coordinated in part by John T. Correll, editor of the Air Force Magazine, veterans and some military historians voiced their increasingly vehement opposition to the museum’s script. Newspapers in America picked up on some of the script’s most egregious lines, which characterized America’s military actions in the Pacific as “a war of vengeance” against the Japanese, who wanted “to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.” Clearly, whoever had written these words to be on display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington succeeded only too well in creating “alternative readings of American history”—if not of world history itself.

Once veterans, journalists, and politicians spoke up and their chorus was joined by the Enola Gay’s former pilot, retired Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr., many of the historians reacted with pique. As History Wars shows, they failed to understand how much they had misjudged the American public’s tolerance for a major exhibition in the nation’s capital which tried to push to the limit a “revisionist, countercultural, and condemnatory” view of America.

With a substantial number of the American populace outraged over the script, museum director Martin Harwit still tried to save the exhibition. He invited a second team of historians to suggest revisions to the original script, which was altered so that some of the most inflammatory passages were toned down.

Such action came too late to effect a reconciliation. In spite of Martin Harwit’s good faith efforts to work with his critics, partisans on both sides turned up the heat. History Wars outlines how a group of radical scholars resigned from the advisory committee, denouncing the revisions to the script. On the other side, many implacable opponents began to lobby for the total cancellation of an exhibition which they believed was compromised beyond repair.

When I. Michael Heyman became new secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, he quickly moved to cancel the original exhibition on January 30, 1995. Instead, the museum settled on a minimalist display of the fuselage of the Enola Gay. Inside the restored body of the plane, which was shown without its wings attached, visitors saw a video of the explosion of the bomb. The exhibition provided no further explanation or context for that event. Under pressure, Martin Harwit resigned as director on May 2, 1995, saddened and embittered by his failure to reconcile his opponents.

One of the great accomplishments of History Wars is its clear display of how certain contemporary American historians have moved far beyond the mainstream understanding of American and world history. Moreover, in an era in which “oral history”—the use of eyewitness accounts and oral narratives—has become so important in writing, presenting, and interpreting history, it is ironic to read how historians clashed with the very people who have lived through the events, such as the bombing of Hiroshima, that are objects of new historical inquiry.

History Wars also demonstrates the difficulties of placing events into historical contexts and the politics involved in such decisions. When critics complained about the original exhibition’s relative inattention to the outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific Theater that culminated most spectacularly in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, some curators defended their decision by loftily declaring “that their show was not meant to be a history of the war in the Pacific, but rather to freeze a transformative moment in the twentieth century.”

What appears to be a rather curious insistence on decontextualizing history—history as a sequence of freeze-frames exposed by the historian—is revealed to be patently false. As History Wars shows, the whole exhibit was planned to place Hiroshima in a particular context. Instead of considering Hiroshima as one of the final events of a war caused by Japanese military aggression against people of other Asian nations and the United States, “the war was but prelude to the bomb, which drew back the curtain on a new age,” thus allowing the curators to convey their antinuclear message.

In his eloquent essay “History at Risk,” which forms a crucial centerpiece of History Wars, historian Richard H. Kohn differentiates himself from the revisionist historians who created the first script. Given the original motivation of these academics to create an exhibition which “was in fact unbalanced,” it was clear that their agenda proved irreconcilable with the equally forceful desire of the American Legion under William M. Detweiler. Detweiler’s veterans wanted an exhibit commemorating the dropping of the bomb. They wanted a clear focus on the heroism and professionalism of Colonel Tibbets’s crew, and argued for the mainstream idea that the bombs ended the war and thus saved many American lives.

With positions hardening on both sides, the fall of director Harwit and the cancellation of the large exhibition appear almost inevitable. Kohn and the other contributors to History Wars clearly regret this outcome and view the cancellation of the original exhibition as a missed opportunity to come to terms with the conflict underlying the fight over the proper display of the Enola Gay. It is in part to fill this gap that History Wars has been written.

In “Three Narratives of Our Humanity,” contributor John Dower does a nice job of outlining the way in which one historical event can have many interpretations and generate historical narratives that can be almost diametrically opposed. Dower demonstrates how Hiroshima can be seen as victimization, triumph, or tragedy. He reminds the reader that in the later stages of World War II, “combatants on all sides had identified civilian populations as legitimate and indeed primary targets,” and the firebombing of enemy cities was practiced by Axis and Allies alike, differing only according to each side’s waning or waxing military capacities.

Dower further rejects as impossible the idea of juxtaposing images of Japanese atrocities with those of Japanese bomb victims. Here, however, a reader may wonder if these jarring contrasts would not have come closer to reflecting a haunting inner reality about this war than an exclusive focus on either victims or successful soldiers.

Paul Boyer similarly focusses on the different meaning of Hiroshima for different people. Michael Sherry and Mike Wallace, a historian who is editor of the Radical History Review, see the cancellation as the result of political pressure from the political right. Marilyn Young and co-editor Tom Engelhardt place the controversy over the Enola Gay in the context of America’s reaction to the loss in Vietnam, and a general postwar uneasiness with Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs.

It is Richard H. Kohn who points out how misleading is any debate about the exact number of envisioned American (and Japanese) casualties, had Japan been invaded. Similarly misleading appears historical speculation about what might have been if the bombs had not been dropped. In the absence of historical facts, each side can feel free to project their own ideas onto an imagined alternative future.

In the end, History Wars shows convincingly how each side implicitly and explicitly rejects the academic position of postmodernism, or the belief that all history is quintessentially fabrication, falsehood, and merely make-believe. Instead, both revisionist historians and indignant veterans express their firm belief in the truth of their view of history. While both sides in the history wars do not see eye to eye on the issues, the warring sides agree that historical truth exists. They also agree to fight over what is the correct remembrance of past events of momentous consequences. As a history lesson on the nature of a great cultural confrontation over the true meaning of the past, History Wars is invaluable.

Sources for Further Study

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. LIII, January, 1997, p. 63.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, June 15, 1996, p. 879.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 4, 1996, p. 1.

Oregonian. August 11, 1996, p. F5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, June 10, 1996, p. 79.

Sacramento Bee. August 25, 1996, p. EN20.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 8, 1996, p. REV6.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, August 18, 1996, p. 13.

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