War Stories at Air and Space:
At the Smithsonian, history grapples with cultural
By John T. Correll, Editor in Chief
Air Force Magazine - April, 1994, Pg. 24
THE SMITHSONIAN Institution acquired the Enola Gay
-- the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb --
forty-four years ago. After a decade of deterioration in
open weather, the aircraft was put into storage in 1960.
Now, following a lengthy period of restoration, it will
finally be displayed to the public on the fiftieth
anniversary of its famous mission. The exhibition will
run from May 1995 to January 1996 at the Smithsonian's
National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The aircraft will be an element in a larger
exhibition called "The Cross-roads: The End of World War
II, the Atomic, Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War."
The context is the development of the atomic bomb and
its use against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki in August 1945.
The Enola Gay's task was a grim one, hardly
suitable for glamorization. Nevertheless, many visitors
may be taken aback by what they see. That is
particularly true for World War II veterans who had
petitioned the museum to display the historic bomber in
an objective setting.
The restored aircraft will be there all right, the
front fifty-six feet of it, anyway. The rest of the
gallery space is allotted to a program about the atomic
bomb. The presentation is designed for shock effect. The
exhibition plan notes that parents might find some parts
unsuitable for viewing by their children.
For the "emotional center" of the exhibit, the
curators are collecting burnt watches and broken wall
clocks, photos of victims -- which will be enlarged to
life size -- as well as melted and broken religious
objects. One display is a schoolgirl's lunch box with
remains of peas and rice reduced to carbon. To ensure
that nobody misses the point, "where possible, photos of
the persons who owned or wore these artifacts would be
used to show that real people stood behind the
artifacts." Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will
recall the horror in their own words.
The Air and Space Museum says it takes no position on
the "difficult moral and political questions" involved.
For the past two years, however, museum officials have
been under fire from veterans groups who charge that the
exhibition plan is politically biased.
Concessions to Balance
The exhibition plan the museum was following as
recently as November picked up the story of the war in
1945 as the end approached. It depicted the Japanese in
a desperate defense of their home islands, saying little
about what had made such a defense necessary. US conduct
of the war was depicted as brutal, vindictive, and
The latest script, written in January, shows major
concessions to balance. It acknowledges Japan's "naked
aggression and extreme brutality" that began in the
1930s. It gives greater recognition to US casualties.
Despite some hedging, it says the atomic bomb "played a
crucial role in ending the Pacific war quickly." Further
revisions to the script are expected.
Despite the balancing material added in January, the
curators still make some curious calls. "For most
Americans," the script says, "it was a war of vengeance.
For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique
culture against Western imperialism." Women, children,
and mutilated religious objects are strongly emphasized
in the "ground zero" scenes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The museum says this is "happenstance," not a deliberate
The Air and Space Museum is also taking flak from the
other side. A prominent historian serving on an advisory
group for the exhibition, for example, complains about
the "celebratory" treatment of the Enola Gay and
that the crew showed "no remorse" for the mission.
Petition by 8,000 Veterans
The Committee for the Restoration and Display of the
Enola Gay, "a loose affiliation of World War II
B-29 veterans," has collected 8,000 signatures on a
petition asking the Smithsonian to either display the
aircraft properly or turn it over to a museum that will
"I am saddened that veterans have seen it necessary
to circulate a petition asking the museum to display the
Enola Gay in a patriotic manner that will instill
pride in the viewer," says Dr. Martin O. Harwit,
director of the museum. "Do veterans really suspect that
the National Air and Space Museum is an unpatriotic
institution or would opt for an apologetic exhibition?"
The blunt answer is yes. Many veterans are suspicious
-- and for several reasons.
* Prior to the January revisions, the museum staff
had not budged from its politicized plan for display of
the Enola Gay. The perspective was remarkably
sympathetic to the Japanese, whose losses in 1945 were
described in vivid detail while American combat
casualties were treated in matter-of-fact summations.
In a letter to Dr. Harwit last fall. Gen. Monroe W.
Hatch, Jr., USAF (Ret.), the Air Force Association's
executive director, said the museum's plan "treats Japan
and the United States as if their participation in the
war were morally equivalent. If anything, incredibly, it
gives the benefit of opinion to Japan, which was the
aggressor." What visitors would get from such an
exhibition, General Hatch said, was "not history or
fact, but a partisan interpretation."
* Veterans are also wary because of statements about
military airpower by Dr. Harwit and other Smithsonian
officials. In 1988, for example, while planning was
under way for a program about strategic bombing, Dr.
Harwit said he would like the museum to have an exhibit
"as a counterpoint to the World War II gallery we now
have, which portrays the heroism of the airmen but
neglects to mention in any real sense the misery of the
war. I think we just can't afford to make war a heroic
event where people could prove their manliness and then
come home to woo the fair damsel."
* Of particular concern, and viewed as a possible
indication of things to come, is the last major military
exhibition the Smithsonian organized. It is a strident
attack on airpower in World War I.
The World War I Exhibition
"Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air," an
exhibition currently running at the Air and Space
Museum, emphasizes the horrors of World War I and takes
a hostile view of airpower in that conflict. The vintage
aircraft are used essentially as background props for
the political message. A Spad and a Fokker are situated
at ground level, fenced off and dimly lighted, but most
of the aircraft (five of them) are suspended overhead.
No particular attention is drawn to them.
Two themes predominate: the carnage on the ground and
the unwholesomeness of military aviation. The military
airplane is characterized as an instrument of death.
According to the curators, dangerous myths have been
foisted on the world by zealots and romantics.
The main exhibit section begins with a photo of a
dead soldier in a trench. Only his skeleton remains.
Nearby, another photo, labeled "The Verdun Ossuary,"
shows a pile of hundreds of skulls. The point,
apparently, is that aviation "failed to prevent the
slaughter that occurred on the ground." A large diorama
shows a dead soldier slumped over a barbed wire barrier.
"The price of aviation's limitations," the accompanying
plaque says. "The failure of aviation at the Somme led
to carnage on the ground."
The curators expand on their ideas in a companion
book that quotes theories about the potential of
military airpower for "scientific murder." Their major
themes are the wrongful "lionization" of pilots as
heroes and the ensuing "cult of air power" -- Billy
Mitchell is among the designated offenders -- and "a
myth about how air power, in the form of strategic
bombing, could ultimately be decisive."
World War I, the curator-authors say, has cast "the
long shadow" of strategic bombing on events ever since,
and it is still evident in the conduct of US military
operations. The book gives credence to speculation that
"70,000 civilians were killed as an aftermath of the
bombing campaign in the recent Gulf War," adding that
"wherever the truth lies, the fact remains that innocent
civilians died as a result of the bombing and that
governments on all sides, in their eagerness to
demonstrate the latest developments in military
technology, are unrepentant."
Politically Correct Curating
The new look at the Air and Space Museum is seen as
part of the cultural reinterpretation that has swept the
Smithsonian complex. It is closely identified with the
tenure of archaeologist Robert McCormick Adams, who
became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1984.
"That Mr. Adams was moved by a political agenda was
not evident until three years after his 1984 appointment
when he chose to celebrate the bicentennial of the US
Constitution by erecting 'A More Perfect Union,' an
exhibit about the internment of Japanese-Americans
during the Second World War," said Matthew Hoffman in
the Washington Times. "Instead of celebrating the
oldest still-in-effect constitution, Mr. Adams has
focused on one of the few serious lapses in its
By 1987, Mr. Adams was looking ahead to all sorts of
possibilities. "Take the Air and Space Museum," he told
Washingtonian Magazine. "What are the
responsibilities of a museum to deal with the
destruction caused by air power?" An early indication of
what he had in mind was a 1989 program on "the legacy of
Strategic Bombing" at the Air and Space Museum, which
included the "classic films" " On the Beach" and "Dr.
"In the past, the Museum has celebrated technology
and looked at it uncritically," a spokesman said. "We
want to look at it from a new perspective."
Mr. Adams, who said he was not "running an
entertainment facility," soon gained a reputation --
denied by some, earnestly believed by others -- as not
being very interested in straight exhibits. A new spirit
was afoot, and not everyone approved.
In an editorial commenting on the trend toward
reinterpreting Christopher Columbus (on the 500th
anniversary of his voyage to the New World) as a
despoiler, the Wall Street Journal said that the
"once-respected" Smithsonian was "in danger of becoming
the Woodstock Nostalgia Society" with "an exhibit that
is multiculturally correct down to its tiniest
At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art,
an exhibit titled "The West as America: Reinterpreting
Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920," drew fire in 1991 by
depicting the westward expansion of the United States as
immoral, characterized by racism and greed. One of those
signing the comment book near the exit was Daniel
Boorstin, historian and former Librarian of Congress,
who wrote, "A perverse, historically inaccurate,
destructive exhibit. No credit to the Smithsonian."
(The new look at the Smithsonian is not without
supporters. A Washington Post editorial, for
example, applauded the "move away from the traditional
heroes, politicians, and objects in glass cases and
toward a wide, fluid, social-history approach.")
Mr. Adams has announced his intention to retire later
this year, but the Smithsonian has built up considerable
momentum in the direction that he set.
The Air and Space Director
Dr. Harwit was formerly a professor of astronomy at
Cornell University and has been director of the National
Air and Space Museum since 1987. "I do not consider
myself 'politically correct,'" he says. Changes at the
museum are intended to "present interesting and
challenging -- or thought-provoking -- aspects of the
history of this country, that will perhaps bring greater
clarity to some issues that have, for a long time, not
He was born in Prague, grew up in Istanbul, and came
to the United States (at age fifteen) in 1946. He asks
those who suspect his attitude toward US forces in World
War II to consider his personal background.
"I was lucky to get out of Czechoslovakia as a young
boy, and if it had not been for the Allies, the chances
are that I would have joined many of my family who did
not manage to leave Czechoslovakia and the concentration
camps from which they never came back," he says. "So I'm
not a person who is going to say that World War II was
fought by Americans with anything except the strongest
While serving in the US Army, 1955-57, Dr. Harwit was
assigned to work on nuclear weapon testing at Eniwetok
and Bikini. He acknowledges that the experience
"inevitably" influenced his thoughts about the Enola
Gay exhibit. "I think anybody who has ever seen a
hydrogen bomb go off at fairly close range knows that
you don't ever want to see that used on people," he
In the 1960s, Dr. Harwit established research groups
at the Naval Research Laboratory and at Cornell that
built the first rocket-borne telescopes cooled to liquid
helium temperatures. In the 1980s, he chaired NASA's
Astrophysics Management Working Group.
He says that veterans have the wrong perception about
plans to exhibit the Enola Gay. "People somehow
had the feeling that either we were going to apologize
to the Japanese, which we never had any intention of
doing, or that we were going to take service people to
task for having dropped this bomb, which again, we never
had any intention of [doing]."
Museum official have talked with the Japanese about
the plan because "we wanted to make sure we also
included the point of view of the vanquished as well as
the point of view of the victors," but Dr. Harwit says
the curators flatly rejected Japanese urging that the
exhibit advocate total abolition of nuclear armaments.
The Message in Gallery 103
The Enola Gay/ "Crossroads" presentation will
cover about 5,500 square feet of Gallery 103 on the
first floor of the Air and Space Museum. The aircraft is
in the back section. To reach the Enola Gay,
visitors must pass through two winding introductory
Suspended from the ceiling, just inside the entrance,
will be a restored Ohka piloted suicide bomb. This
section, labeled "A Fight to the Finish," presents the
Smithsonian's view of the Pacific war in the spring and
summer of 1945. It describes Japan's desperate
last-ditch stand and the rising casualty toll. There
will be a subunit on "The Firebombing of Japan."
The next unit of the exhibition, "The Decision to
Drop the Bomb," centers visually on the casing of a "Fat
Man" atomic bomb, similar to the one that fell on
Nagasaki. The development of the bomb and the decision
to use it are explored in words and pictures. The
curators hold to the view that casualty estimates for
invasion of Japan -- an alternative to using the bomb --
were inflated. US deaths, the script argues, would not
have exceeded the "tens of thousands."
The largest section of the exhibit -- the one with
the forward fuselage of the Enola Gay -- will be
just around the corner. A "Little Boy" bomb casing
(illustrating the device dropped on Hiroshima) will be
also be displayed, along with a videotape of the
Enola Gay mission. The 509th Composite Group, the
unit that dropped the two atomic bombs, is covered
extensively and with respect.
The curators intend the next section, "Ground Zero:
Hiroshima, 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, 11:02
a.m., August 9, 1945," to be the "emotional center" of
the exhibition. In case the words and images are not
enough, the exhibit plan states that visitors "will be
immediately hit by a drastic change of mood and
perspective: from well-lit and airy to gloomy and
The first item on display will be a wristwatch,
loaned by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, with its
hands frozen on the moment the bomb fell. Graphic
exhibits include Japanese dead and wounded, flash burns,
disfigurement, charred bodies in the rubble, and such
vignettes as the smoking ruins of a Shinto shrine, a
partially destroyed image of Buddha, a heat-fused
rosary, and personal items belonging to school-children
who died. Hibakusha (survivors of the bombing)
describe what they saw and experienced.
Most of the rank-and-file Americans quoted in the
exhibition script are soldiers, talking about details of
their fighting. Except for the kamikaze pilots
(who are seen as valiant defenders of the homeland),
most of the individual Japanese speakers are persons who
suffered injury themselves or who were witnesses to
carnage. They talk about pain and suffering.
Visitors will take strong impressions with them as
To Collect, Preserve, and Display
The function of the National Air and Space Museum is
prescribed by law, established in 1946 and amended only
once, in 1966, to add "space" to the name and the
The statute reads in its entirety: "The national air
and space museum shall memorialize the national
development of aviation and space flight; collect,
preserve, and display aeronautical and space flight
equipment of historical interest and significance; serve
as a repository for scientific equipment and data
pertaining to the development of aviation and space
flight; and provide educational material for the
historical study of aviation and space flight."
Opinions differ on how the program at the Air and
Space Museum squares with that law. In the view of its
critics, the museum shows a limited interest in its
basic job, allocating a low share of budget and staff to
the restoration and preservation of aircraft. Arthur H.
Sanfelici, editor of Aviation Magazine, has been
particularly outspoken. He charges that "a new order is
perverting the museum's original purpose from restoring
and displaying aviation and space artifacts to
presenting gratuitous social commentary on the uses to
which they have been put."
Dr. Harwit disputes the accusation that the level of
effort for aircraft restoration is down significantly on
his watch. He says also that there are specific problems
with funding. Those who supply the money, including
Congress and private donors, want to contribute to "that
part which is the most visible," the exhibits and the
films, rather than to preservation and restoration.
Fifteen Museums and a Zoo
The Smithsonian Institution consists of fifteen
museums and the National Zoo. It began with a bequest in
1826 from an Englishman, James Smithson, who left his
fortune to the US to found an institution named for him.
Congress created the Smithsonian in 1846. It has
operated ever since with concurrent public support and
private endowment. It is governed by an independent
board of regents but nonetheless listens carefully to
what Congress says because that's where most of the
money comes from.
About eighty-five percent of the operating budget
(salaries and expenses) is from the federal government.
The rest is from donations, gift shop sales, cafeterias
and restaurants, the Institution's two glossy magazines
-- Smithsonian and Air & Space --
recordings, and books published by the Smithsonian
Most of the Smithsonian museums are clustered along
the mall that stretches west from the US Capitol toward
the Washington Monument. The Smithsonian attracts some
thirteen million visitors a year, two-thirds of them
drawn by the enormously popular Air and Space Museum.
Total attendance at Air and Space in 1992 was 8.6
million. Record attendance for a single day -- 118,437
-- was set April 14, 1984. The best-known holdings of
the Air and Space Museum include:
- The Wright brothers' 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer. (In
1910, the Smithsonian turned down the Wright brothers'
offer to donate the 1903 Flyer, then provoked a
quarrel with Orville Wright that lasted for decades.
The Smithsonian did not acquire the Wright Flyer and
exhibit it to the public until 1948.)
- Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.
- Chuck Yeager's X-1 Glamorous Glennis.
- The Apollo 11 command module Columbia,
which took astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins
to the moon and back.
The museum's Langley Theater shows special films on a
five-story IMAX screen. The first ones were a vicarious
aviation experience, "To Fly," and a space epic, "The
Dream Is Alive." It's a sign of the times, perhaps, that
the show bill now includes "The Blue Planet" (which uses
imagery from space to push a hard-line ecology message)
as well as "Tropical Rain Forest" and "Beavers."
Legislation passed in 1993 established an Air and
Space Museum annex at Dulles Airport in suburban
Virginia. When it opens, sometime around the turn of the
century, it will provide space to exhibit a number of
noteworthy aircraft from the Smithsonian's collection,
many of which are too large to show in the main museum
on the mall.
At the Dulles annex, the public will be able to see
the space shuttle Enterprise, a B-17 Flying
Fortress, a Lockheed Super Constellation, a Concorde,
and the world's fastest airplane, the SR-71.
Also on display at Dulles -- fully assembled and
presumably without the political trappings -- will be
the most famous B-29 of all time, the Enola Gay.
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