History Wars

by Edward Linenthal, Tom Engelhardt

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

The essays in History Wars explore the controversy over an exhibition featuring the Enola Gay, the plane from which the first atomic bomb was dropped, that was planned for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in 1995. After going through multiple permutations, the exhibition was mounted not as planned, but in a drastically scaled-back format. The authors make it clear that the museum’s director and many of the staff and consulting historians knew the exhibit would be controversial, but they were totally unprepared for the deep divisions in American society that the topic would engender. American and Japanese people expressed strong opinions, revealing that the wounds from World War II had not healed.

The Smithsonian’s managers and curators as well as the historians on whom they relied were subjected to increasingly angry charges: they had “hijacked history”; they were “anti-American”; they were practicing “politically correct” curating; they were projecting the “countercultural values” of the Vietnam era onto America’s last good war.

The plane itself had changed locations and ownership within the United States government several times between 1945 and 1949, until it was transferred to the Smithsonian Air Museum; the word “space” was added to the museum’s name in the 1960s. After four years there, it was moved again to Andrews Air Force Base, where it sat outside.

On July 3, 1949, Col. Paul W. Tibbetts Jr., the pilot for the Hiroshima mission, flew the plane to Park Ridge, Illinois . . . where it was put under the jurisdiction of the Smithsonian’s Air Museum.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, as NASM plans for an exhibit on World War II airpower that would include the Enola Gay advanced, the museum’s director, Martin Harwit, and others involved in the planning took a cautious position:

Great pains should be taken to ensure that the exhibit not be celebratory. . . . Harwit was certainly aware of the exhibit’s potential for controversy.

As the plans proceeded, they changed to focus more on the atomic age; as this became known, many people from all walks of life began to object strenuously to the idea, considering that there was no way to avoid a celebratory tone. On the other side, veterans’ groups objected to the idea that the plane would be included in discussions about the harmful side of atomic power.

[By 1993,] it was obvious that any exhibit that included the Enola Gay faced daunting interpretive issues unless it simply displayed the aircraft with minimal commentary.

The authors also explore the changing attitudes toward the war and toward the bombing within Japan. The efforts to create an exhibit that included Japanese perspectives would be even more daunting than addressing the multiple points of view from within the United States. Japan had been heavily bombed, not only by nuclear weapons. But the aftereffects in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unique and led to a particular narrative as far as the victims were concerned.

The trauma of nuclear destruction was experienced only in Japan. . . .  [Not] only Japanese were killed by the bombs, for the victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki included thousands of Korean subjects . . . Japanese Americans . . . American prisoners of war . . . and small numbers of individuals from Southeast Asia, China, and Europe.

The controversies over the exhibit expanded into a full-blown investigation requiring congressional testimony, as Paul Boyer notes. The committee, now incorporating criticism from the American Legion and other veterans’ groups, revised the text numerous times but failed to satisfy the critics.

When the smoke cleared, the original exhibit had been scrapped; the museum director had been forced out; and Republicans in Congress (joined by a few Democrats) were gearing up for hearings that for a time threatened to turn into a McCarthyite witch-hunt for the sinister and disloyal persons responsible for the shameful exhibit.

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