Thursday, August 7, 2008

6 August 1945: The US Uses Atomic Bomb Against Hiroshima

One of the most revealing contrasts between professional historical scholarship and popular historical knowledge and sensibilities came to light when the Smithsonian Institution proposed a new display, incorporating the restored forward fuselage and other elements of the "Enola Gay," the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995.

Scholars had long debated such questions as the abstract moral implications of using a new weapon of mass destruction against a civilian population (for some reason, the far more destructive continuous fire-bombing of German as well as Japanese cities occasioned less interest), the military necessity of the bomb (the objective ability and willingness of Japan to continue the war and the subjective role of US intelligence assessments), and the role of subsidiary or ulterior motives (including tense US-Soviet relations). These debates were an established part of the professional historical literature but had found less resonance with a public that, even if it acknowledged them, was in some cases alienated by the attempt to address them in a museum setting on the occasion of a major historical anniversary.

Among other things, the Smithsonian controversy thus highlighted the tension between the dual functions of museums as sites of both history and memory--supposedly impartial (and thus potentially critical) interpretation versus formation of national identity and civic consciousness. As a National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Curator framed the dilemma:
Do you want to do an exhibit to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? Frankly, I don't think we can do both.
The private Air Force Association, soon followed by other organizations and individuals, denounced the proposal as skewed and unpatriotic. After considerable back-and-forth, the exhibit was canceled and then reinstated, though the revised version then met with criticism from other quarters, such as historians who found it not critical enough. The Director of the NASM resigned under pressure. The new exhibit was closed in 1998, and in 2003, again controversially, the plane was moved to the new NASM on the grounds of Dulles Airport.

The debate about the necessity of using the atomic bomb continues, most recently with Robert Maddox's polemic against what he calls Hiroshima revisionists.

Today, of course, the issue of nuclear proliferation remains unresolved, as the nature of the Iranian program in particular generates speculation and talk or fear of atomic war.

Resources on the Enola Gay exhibition and controversy:

Enola Gay: The Plane (including statement by pilot Paul Tibbets)
Former Exhibition Information, National Air and Space Museum
Enola Gay Controversy, History on Trial series (from Lehigh University)
Enola Gay Archive (from the Air Force Association)

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