Caged History

The Enola Gay will forever be tied to the infamous the droppings of Atomic bombs, which vaporized two cities and killed over 200,000 people. For WWII’s 50th anniversary, Martin Harwit, the curator of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), decided to put on an exhibit examining the bombings from a more balanced standpoint then had been the norm in America. Harwit could never have expected that the backlash from it would be so intense that it would cause him to lose his job. The controversy was between those who wanted a balanced revisionist view of the conflict, and military veterans who were outraged at the exhibit’s depiction and saw only one possible depiction of the exhibit.

The controversy was a microcosm of the changing sentiments in American culture over glorifying the past and those who thought that reflections on history should be revised. The Exhibit was to humanize the Japanese people and provide an intense look at what the bombs did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki from close up photographs to survivors’ testimony. At first, the planning for the exhibit seemed to be going smoothly.  Indeed after reviewing the first script for the exhibition, Richard Hallion, the chief of the air force historical program commented, “an impressive job! A bit of tweaking along the lines discussed here should do the job” (37). However after the AFA voiced vociferous objections to the “humanization” of the Japanese, many previously pro-exhibit forces fell in line behind them. Hallion backed off from his previous position stating that he had, “raised issues of, accuracy, context, fairness, and balance” (41).  As the pressure on the Smithsonian increased, numerous revisions and cuts were made to the exhibit script until it was a shell of the original. Despite all the revisions, the AFA and the influential veterans association the American Legion refused to put their approval on the exhibit, stating that it still showed the Japanese in too good of a light. Politicians, eager for some limelight against easy prey, bit at the Smithsonian’s heels. Twenty-four Representatives wrote that, “The planners of this exhibit ignored many of the constructive criticisms provided.” Historian Wayne Dzwonchyk stated that the finished script represented a, “total capitulation” (37) by the Smithsonian. The media, in blatant cases of false journalism, mislead the public by stating, in the Washington Post’s case, that the Smithsonian had not incorporated new ideas into the script when in fact they had.

All of these tumultuous events conspired to force Harwit to resign. The Smithsonian attempted to salvage the exhibition but military elements proved unwilling to budge on their stance that America’s side should be glorified and that the prevailing view of the war from the last 50 years should not be altered. The controversy stemmed from a clash between old views and revisionists and in the end, the revisionists caved to external pressures and the Enola Gay exhibit was severely toned down. The details of the case are more relevant than ever in our modern day and age. Imagine if the media and news sources had been strong armed into interpreting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as righteous battles for our freedom instead of the muddled conflicts that we are left with after 12 years of fighting. The World War II veterans associations were able to get their way thanks to their immense clout. However, as America matures more as a country, I hope that we are able to take events from our past, even ones that are discomforting to us, and examine them retrospectively.




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