Smithsonian Exhibit of the Enola Gay: The Incineration of History

Christopher Phelps

IN MAY, THE Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., planned to unveil a major exhibition entitled “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II.”

To commemorate the August, 1945 U.S. decision to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Smithsonian commissioned a ten-year, $1 million renovation of the Enola Gay — the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima — which it planned to put on display as part of a 10,000 sq. foot exhibit with a 600-page script.

But veterans’ organizations led by the American Legion have scuttled the project. Late last summer, the American Legion and right-wing congressmen started to pressure the Smithsonian to change the script. they claimed it underestimated the casualties that would have been required if an invasion of mainland Japan had been required, dwelt overly long on the horrible effects of the bombs, minimized Pearl Harbor and Japanese war crimes, and impugned U.S. war motives with talk of racism.

The mode of attack was revived McCarthyism. A statement by more than twenty Congressmen called the exhibit “un-American.” Newt Gingrich said that the Smithsonian should not be a “plaything for left-wing ideologies.” Eighty Republican and Democratic Representatives called for the ouster of Martin O. Harwit, the museum’s director.

After this storm of public condemnation and two day-length closed-door meetings with American Legion leaders, officials of the Smithsonian — the most popular museum in the world, with eight million visitors a year — back pedalled.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Harwit denied any intention of “criticizing or apologizing or displaying undue compassion for those on the ground that day” — implying that sorrow for the incineration of children and civilians is impermissible by the standards of militarist veterans’ groups.

The Smithsonian overhauled the script five times. Eliminated were all references to Japan’s near-collapse even before the bomb was used and to the bomb being dropped without warning, all but one of the photos of the dead Japanese victims, many quotes by survivors, and any mention of the debate over whether dropping the bomb was necessary.

The Smithsonian revised upward the potential casualties of a thirty-day invasion from 30-50,000 to a potential of 1,000,000 dead, an astronomical figure that no serious analyst accepts. It altered the script to say that the bomb alone ended the war and that an invasion would otherwise have been “inevitable.”

But even those concessions didn’t satisfy the ferocious conservative opposition. Much of the right’s criticism leaned upon its now-familiar formula of curtailing the freedom of scholarly expression in the name of uprooting the alleged dogma and elitism of “political correctness.”

Columnist Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post on August 19, called the exhibit “an embarrassing amalgam of revisionist hand-wringing and guilt” and decried “the degree to which elite American museums, like the universities, have fallen to the forces of political correctness and historical revisionism.”

Krauthammer proposed that the Smithsonian “forget the whole enterprise and let the Japanese commemorate the catastrophe they brought on themselves.”

On October 10, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley accused the museum of “lining up with the zealots of academe who prowl the liberal arts departments muttering about `American imperialism.’” After intoning that there was “no need for another homily on the transparent evils of political correctness,” Yardley pontificated about the need for “careful, dispassionate research and debate, not…ideology and moral smugness.”

Then the Washington Post editorial on January 20 came out against the exhibit’s “tendentiously anti-nuclear and anti-American tone.”

On October 22, 1994, the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians had approved a resolution stating, “The Organization of American Historians condemns threats by members of Congress to penalize the Smithsonian Institution because of the controversial exhibition on World War II and the dropping of the atomic bomb (and) further deplores the removal of historical documents and revisions of interpretations of history for reasons outside the professional procedures and criteria by which museum exhibitions are created.”

But on January 30, the Smithsonian capitulated. Harwit announced that the museum was tossing the script. Only a sixty-foot long section of the Enola Gay fuselage, a small plaque and, perhaps, a video interview with the flight crew will be displayed.

Grassroots Fight for the Truth

As a statement by the newly-formed Historians’ Committee for Open Debate on Hiroshima puts it, “The entire text of the main exhibit has been canceled, and what remains is an airplane.” There will be no historical analysis and no context enabling viewers of the fuselage to make sense of it, an outcome the committee condemns as “historical cleansing.”

A grassroots effort to get out the full truth is underway. The Historians’ Committee is organizing “A National Teach-In on Hiroshima” this spring — an ad-hoc effort of symposia, debates, speakers and meetings at colleges and universities across the country.

The committee will supply a) a bibliography of books, articles and videos on the decisions to develop and to drop the bomb, b) information on how to obtain both the original and final scripts from the Smithsonian exhibit, c) suggestions for speakers, and d)several detailed memos, including a “Summary of Changes in the Script” by Greg Mitchell and “Quotes from Various Documents and Memoirs on Hiroshima.”

Contact: Laura Yamhure, Executive Director, Historians’ Committee for Open Debate on Hiroshima, 1914 Biltmore St. NW, Washington, DC 20009. Phone: (202) 328-9659. E-mail:

Sources: Gar Alperovitz, “Beyond the Smithsonian Flap: Historians’ New Consensus,” Washington Post (16 October 1994): C3; Gar Alperovitz, “Historical Cleansing,” In These Times (20 February 1995): 18-20.

ATC 56, May-June 1995