I have to say that after reading “Anatomy of a Controversy” and “History at Risk” (as well as accidentally reading all of “Whose History is it Anyway”) I was feeling pretty worn out from the Enola Gay controversy, a controversy dating back to before I was born. As I geared up to read Edward J. Gallagher’s The Enola Gay Controversy, I was expecting more of the same – academic historians lamenting the death of intellectual research to the will of the majority. I was pleasantly surprised though to find that rather than blatantly take one side or the other, Gallagher’s piece merely gives the reader a chronological rundown of the events involving the controversy, from the lead up, to the meat of the debate, to the post effects. Instead of feeling like I should be ashamed if I were to agree with the veterans associations, I was left with the opportunity to make my own informed decision in regards to the controversy.
Lilienthal and Kohn clearly take the side of the historian, casting those who are against historical revision as nostalgic droobs who would still believe the earth is the center of the universe if they could. While historians are seen as infallible white knights who seek to enlighten the simple America about the realities of the dropping of the Atomic bomb. These two writers gloss over the facts that the main opponents of the Enola Gay exhibit, veterans groups, had firsthand experience in the war and know it’s horrors all too well. Kohn tells us that Secretary of the Smithsonian Robert McCormick Adams aspired to change the National Air and Space Museum from a showcase glorifying American drive and ingenuity into an internationally respected research institute and museum. However Kohn neglects to mention that when Congress appropriated the funds to start the museum, that glorification is exactly what they had in mind! I prefer Gallagher’s approach to the issue far more, with the chronology reading like footnotes that form a story. At least to my knowledge, he appears to give a full overview of the controversy, and while it still seems that the anti-revisionist camp is unwilling to compromise, he at least gives a more even look at the reasons why they are so adamant in their views.
The Enola Gay controversy, while one of many through our short history as a nation, is quite unique. At no other time have we been responsible for such an incredible feat of technological prowess coupled with so awesome a display of destructive force. After WWII, while post war passions ran high, the reasons for the dropping of the bomb were glossed over in exchange for, “it had to be done to save our lives.” For me, using the argument that the bomb saved so many lives is a paradox. Whether 63,000 or 1,000,000 people would have died in an invasion shouldn’t be the issue, rather such astronomical numbers represent a huge loss of life at either end of the spectrum. Using the same rationale, the 200,000 deaths incurred by the atomic bombs is also an unbelievable loss of human life. The sad truth is that whichever outcome had come to pass, invasion or nukes, the loss of life would have been extreme. Is it so much to ask that we lament this loss of life not from a nationalist or racial view, but from a human view? It seems that for many Americans the old adage, “better him than me” is a good enough vindication in regards to the deaths of so many Japanese.
The Enola Gay controversy was also a victim of bad timing. Once all the players in a particular issue are gone, a controversy loses much of its luster. If in 1882 Gallop had polled the post-reconstructionist south on their opinion of black Americans, you can imagine the results. However nowadays racism has no place in the American public. In 1994 the WWII veteran’s population was in their seventies and their numbers were still quite robust. For many of them WWII had been the defining moment of their lives and for some elitist historian to come along and tell them that the bomb that may have saved their lives was immoral was a slap in the face so of course, they fought viciously against any exhibit that was nothing short of a memorial to their exploits. If the exhibit were to be displayed in 2045 for the 100th anniversary of WWII though, I imagine that the response will be much more subdued as the controversy will be seen form a more historical perspective. Kohn notes that, “historians are tasked with crafting the past.”
From a personal viewpoint I like the idea of the Smithsonian trying to revise the classic perspective of the bomb as having been necessary. The truth is that there were other options instead of a nuclear strike such as diplomacy, blockade, invasion, the Soviet Union’s help, or a combination of these factors. To simply say that we needed the bomb to end the war is a gross oversimplification of a complex event and is still the pervasive opinion to this day. However the NASM, in their quest to be seen as an elite museum on the cutting edge of historical analysis, may have overstepped their position as a place of glory for American aviation prowess. Such justification for nuclear destruction could easily be used again if the world found itself embroiled in another major conflict. In this case it seems the veterans won, as the airplane now resides in the Dulles airport without any pomp surrounding its display.