History Wars

by Edward Linenthal, Tom Engelhardt

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

The authors who have contributed chapters to History Wars are all concerned with the central theme of controversy over American history. Concentrating mainly on disagreements among American attitudes toward the end of World War II, they address the decision to drop the atomic bomb and subsequent changes in popular, academic, and military perspectives toward the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. One particular interpretative effort sparked their decision to write about this subject and contextualize it within attitudes toward other situations that they regard as similar. This was a planned exhibition about the bombings that would focus on the first attack, when an airplane called the Enola Gay loosed its weapon onto Hiroshima. Facing strong opposition to a draft of the intended text, the National Air and Space Museum ultimately decided to scale the exhibition way back and put just part of the airplane and a single video on display.

Because it seemed crucial to the planning team to help museum visitors reflect on the five decades that had passed since the bombing, the museum had expected the exhibit to coincide with the anniversary of the war’s end. However, they wanted to ensure that the attitude was not celebratory and that the victims of the bombing were not forgotten. The museum’s director, Martin Harwit, also had to recognize that he had not anticipated that veterans and military experts would see their contribution had been shortchanged. Even more, the fissures in American society ran much deeper than he had realized. Finally, he resigned from his position.

Although the book centers on a single exhibition, it is not limited to museum history. The articles address debates over interpretation more generally, and changing attitudes toward the military during the Cold War and, in particular, in the post-Soviet breakup atmosphere of the early 1990s. As most people will have forgotten the huge controversy that surrounded this exhibition plan, the authors help the reader understand its significance at the time. Moreover, they assert that similar controversies around other popular cultural interpretations of significant United States military engagements, notably the Vietnam War, are far from anomalies. The idea of vigorous debate, they emphasize, is fundamental to democracy. While not shying away from criticizing the harmful effects of extreme polarization, they remind the reader of the dangers of suppressing alternate points of view.

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