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, D.C., 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 newspaper: 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 Gays former pilot, retired Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., many of the historians reacted with pique. AsHistory 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.
(The entire section is 1821 words.)