A Vision So Noble

NASM confronts Enola Gay ... again!

Enola Gay at NASM's Udvar-Hazy annex
Enola Gay on display at NASM's Udvar-Hazy annex

In 1994, preparing for the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the National Air and Space Museum prepared an exhibit that portrayed the United States as engaged in a war of vengeance, against a Japan trying to defend its culture against western imperialism. Surprise: the vets protested, and the Congress responded. The script was jettisoned; NASM's director was fired; and books were written, decrying the vast right-wing conspiracy to silence history. Click here for more about that flap.

Then it started all over again. Big as it is, the museum on the Mall in Washington could display only bits and pieces of Enola Gay, the B-29 that carried the "Little Boy" uranium bomb to Hiroshima. That would be remedied by the addition of a gigantic annex near Dulles Airport in Virginia. Called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the huge hangar-like building would display not only the complete Enola Gay, but 200 other aircraft and 135 spacecraft that were formerly kept in storage. (The donor's name is pronounced OOD-var HAH-zee. He ponied up $66 million to get the job done.)

Once burned, twice shy! Having learned from its 1994 experience not to offend the veterans (especially those on the right), NASM this time went too far in the other direction and offended the historians (especially those on the left). According to the New York Times, the new exhbit presented Enola Gay without any historical context whatsoever, saying that the B-29 was "the largest and most technologically advanced airplane for its time," without noting that this particular aircraft was the one that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. (The accusation was untrue, as it turned out.)

"You wouldn't display a slave ship solely as a model of technological advancement," complained David Nasaw, a cultural historian at CUNY Graduate Center. "It would be offensive not to put it in context." He was one of 100 who signed a petition to change the exhibit before it (and the Udvar-Hazy Center) opened to the public on December 15, 2003.

Peter J. Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, initiated the petition along with members of the antiwar group Peace Action. "It is essential that the plane be displayed," Mr. Kuznick said, "but it must include discussions about the decision to drop the bomb." He said he and other signers hoped "to sit down with Smithsonian officials to see the seriousness of this, and revise the exhibit."

Paul Tibbets and Enola GayPaul Tibbets (shown at left in August 1945) commanded the 509th Bomb Group, made up of specially modified B-29s and based on Tinian for the express purpose of carrying nuclear weapons to Japan. (There were at least three of these bombs available in August 1945, with more being built at a rapid pace.) He named his plane for his mother, and when he landed back on Tinian after his successful mission to Hiroshima, he admitted to some embarrassment over that fact. (So sublimely nutty has been the controversy over the Hiroshima bomb that some revisionist historians have claimed to see gay-bashing into the name.)

Of course there was more to the 2004 flap than an argument about the 58-year-old decision to drop the atomic bomb. It was really about the war against, and the occupation of, Iraq. Said the New York Times reporter: "The intellectuals and activists who are lining up to oppose this 'celebratory treatment,' say it is particularly dangerous at a time when the United States is displaying its military might."

"We've just broken ground in our history with a pre-emptive war," complained Jean-Christophe Agnew, a cultural historian at Yale University. He pointed out that there had much more public discussion between 1945 and 1947 about the wisdom of the bombing, "there was a lot more openness, and a lot more doubt." (Well, of course!) Also among the signers were Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame; the Hiroshima revisionists Gar Alperovitz and Kai Bird; such usual suspects as Oliver Stone, Barry Commoner, E.L. Doctorow, and Kurt Vonnegut; ... and the mayor of Hiroshima! (Well, of course!)

As the public opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center approached, NASM held its ground. A dignified and seemingly conclusive response to its critics was posted at the NASM website, though it was later taken down. For my take on the new museum, see Airplane heaven on this website.

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Incident at Muc Wa

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