When curators at the Smithsonian planned a critical commemoration of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the fiftieth anniversary of the end of WWII, the clash between professional historians, public interest groups, veterans, and politicians launched an era of high stakes contention in the United States over the meanings of America’s pasts for its present. What harbingers of the future of public history in the US resided in the mid-1990s fight over the meaning of the Enola Gay?
When the Smithsonian decided to exhibit the “Enola Gay,” the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the director and curators of the National Air & Space Museum (NASM) hardly anticipated the firestorm of controversy that would result. While the “Enola Gay fiasco,” as some at the museum came to call it, was not the first skirmish in America’s ongoing culture wars, it was an ominous warning of the battles to come. As a NASM curator involved in the early planning of the exhibit, who was also present at the debacle, the following is a first-person account of the origins, evolution, and fate of the “Enola Gay” exhibit, titled “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II.”
In 1987, the hiring of Martin Harwit, a Cornell astrophysicist, to be the new director of NASM marked a significant departure for the Smithsonian Institution. Previous NASM directors had been chosen from the ranks of aviators and astronauts. The selection of Harwit signaled that the Smithsonian—whose Congressional charter is to promote “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”—intended to put a new emphasis upon scientific discovery on the one hand, and displaying and interpreting the artifacts that represent the nation’s past. To that end, Martin also brought some new people to the museum. Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the National Museum of American History—and principal author of an exhibit there on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—had been a curator at NASM years earlier. Tom returned to the museum in 1989 to become the new chair of the Aeronautics Department. I was offered a dual position as chair of the Space History Department and curator of military space.
Because there was a delay in bringing Tom over to NASM, Martin asked me to become involved in two projects that he and his special assistant, Steve Soter, were interested in. One project was to bring the “Enola Gay” out of the Garber collections and restoration facility, and finish the plane’s restoration in time for a major exhibit on the Capitol Mall to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. Since I had written a doctoral dissertation on the aftermath of the atomic bombing, later published as The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945-1950, Martin asked me to take the initial lead in planning the “Enola Gay” exhibit, until Tom arrived at NASM.
From the outset, Martin was clear that he did not intend to celebrate the atomic bombing; but, rather, to commemorate the event with an exhibit that would tell the whole story, from the American as well as the Japanese side—in effect, from the perspective of those who had made the decision and those who suffered its consequences. Anticipating that the exhibit would generate some controversy, we put together an advance series of public lectures, films, and symposia at NASM on the subject of strategic bombing, for which we received a MacArthur grant. As part of the planning exercise, I went to Japan’s Hiroshima Museum in summer 1991 and met with its then-director, himself a survivor of the bombing. To my amazement, he was entirely supportive of our plans to tell the story of the atomic bombing, and even offered to loan us any of the artifacts his museum had in its collection, for as long as the “Enola Gay” remained on display at NASM.
Martin and Steve likewise decided that we should show a draft of the exhibit’s planning document and label script to those we thought might be our most prominent critics, with the hope of responding to and defusing their criticisms before the “Enola Gay” went on display. The initial response from both the American Legion and the Air Force Association (AFA) was silence, which we took to be either acquiescence or assent. That was a mistake.
A Full-Scale Assault
Starting that spring, the AFA launched a full-scale assault on the exhibit as “politically biased,” and an example of “politically correct curating.” Enlisting its own well-connected media relations and communications departments in the campaign, the AFA also contracted with one of Washington, D.C.’s largest public relations firms, in what was soon a campaign to fundamentally change the exhibit to the AFA’s liking, or force its cancellation altogether.
In late April 1994, responding to the AFA’s assault, Martin Harwit put together a so-called “Tiger Team” to review the exhibit’s label script and see if we could find some common ground with our critics. The six-member team consisted of a retired Air Force brigadier general, NASM’s deputy director–a WWII fighter ace—as well as Martin’s special assistant, a Garber docent, an Aeronautics curator, and myself. My memory is that the AFA required us to say the following three things in the “Enola Gay” exhibit, and we were given to understand that these assertions were unequivocal and non-negotiable. They were: (1) The atomic bomb ended the war; (2) It saved one million American lives; and (3) There was no real alternative to its use. In truth, all three of these claims have been challenged by generations of historians, citing documentary evidence from the time that contradicts or significantly modifies each one.
On May 25, 1994, our team submitted its 22-page report, reviewing the exhibit section by section, and recommending a significant number of changes to the label script. The revised exhibit was renamed “The Last Act.” Despite those changes, the AFA’s executive director wrote in August that “the Smithsonian’s fix-up plan is too little, too late, and that it’s time to shut down this exhibit and start over with different curators.” [emphasis in the original]
Distressingly, the AFA also demanded that certain objects be removed from the exhibit. These included the artifact that we curators had nicknamed the “lunch box,” which was on loan from the Hiroshima museum. From the outset, we had agreed that the museum would not display prominent pictures of the maimed or burnt victims of the atomic bombing, as we thought they were too gruesome, as well as unnecessary. The “lunch box” was a small ceramic tube, containing rice and peas, that a little girl had taken to school on that day. The contents, carbonized and preserved by the heat of the bomb, were still clearly visible at the top of the cylinder. Every parent who saw the “lunch box” would know the fate of that little girl. The AFA, knowing the evocative power of that simple artifact, demanded that it go. Reluctantly, Martin agreed. It was the first time that I began to give up hope for “The Last Act.”
By that fall, opposition to the exhibit, from the media and in Congress, bordered on the hysterical. In letters to the editors of major newspapers, Martin was compared to the notorious Japanese militarist Hideki Tojo. Veteran groups called for the curators who wrote the labels to be fired. The lead curator, Mike Neufeld, even received anonymous death threats.
Ironically, some in the Legion’s senior leadership had come around to the view that the exhibit was balanced after being given the opportunity to read the revised label script. But their earlier efforts to mobilize the opposition of their rank-and-file members had been too successful; and the leaders were now being dragged along by their followers.
A Pale Shadow
The exhibit that opened at the Mall museum on June 28, 1995, was a pale shadow of the “Enola Gay” exhibit as originally conceived. The centerpiece was the forward fuselage of the bomber, since displaying the entire B-29 would have required removing most of the other aircraft from NASM’s Aeronautics Hall. Under the plane’s bomb bay was a “Little Boy” of the type that had been dropped on Hiroshima.
The focus of the exhibit was upon the painstaking and exacting restoration of the aircraft by the specialists in the museum’s Collections Management department, who rushed to complete the project in time for the anniversary deadline. The minimal exhibit script and a short video featured quotations from the “Enola Gay” pilot, retired Air Force brigadier general Paul Tibbets, and the other crew members, describing the mission. Japanese casualties, at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were simply described as “many tens of thousands.” None of the museum’s curators were involved in writing the much-reduced, and much-revised, final label script, which contained no discussion of the historical controversy that has long surrounded the Hiroshima bombing.
What was lost when the Smithsonian was forced to abandon “The Last Act”? It is hard to disagree with Martin’s assessment that the “losers in this drama were the American public…” But, while we will never know, since the exhibit was cancelled, it is at least conceivable that “The Last Act” might have sparked a legitimate national debate on the decision to drop the atomic bomb.
No such debate exists today. Proponents of the decision steadfastly maintain that the bomb was both necessary and decisive in forcing Tokyo’s surrender, thereby avoiding a costly U.S. invasion of the Japanese home islands. The decision’s perennial critics, on the other hand, insist that the bomb was both unnecessary and a morally indefensible attack on a vulnerable civilian population. There seems little, if any, common ground in today’s hyper-polarized political climate.
In retrospect, none of us at the museum had an appreciation of how much the political climate had changed in Washington since planning for the “Enola Gay” exhibit began. But it is also true that the timing of the exhibit could not have been worse. Understandably, the aging veterans of the “greatest generation” were looking forward to an exhibit that would celebrate their sacrifice, not analyze it in the larger context of history. That sentiment was exploited by the museum’s critics, with remarkable success.
On December 16, 2003, the day after the “Enola Gay” was unveiled in its new—and likely permanent—home, NASM’s new annex near Dulles airport, a half-dozen atomic bomb survivors joined fifty self-identified “peace activists” to unfurl a banner reading: “Hiroshima—Never Again” in front of the plane. Two men, part of the group, threw red paint—symbolizing blood—hitting and slightly denting the fuselage just below the pilot’s window. The men who threw the paint were arrested, the other protesters left peacefully, and the damage to the aircraft was quickly repaired.
Although NASM’s Collections Management staff anticipated subsequent protests and repeated vandalism, particularly on the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, almost two decades have passed without further incident. Today, the “Enola Gay” is just one of more than 150 aircraft on display at the Hazy Center. The anniversaries of the atomic bombings are observed elsewhere.
- Harwit, Martin. An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of the Enola Gay. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1996.
- Nobile, Philip (ed.), Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. New York: Marlowe & Company, 1995.
- Linenthal, Edward and Tom Engelhardt (eds.), History Wars: The “Enola Gay” and Other Battles for the American Past. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.
- “Controversy over the Enola Gay Exhibition,” Atomic Heritage Foundation, October 17, 2016. https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/controversy-over-enola-gay-exhibition (last accessed 3 October 2022).
- “The Enola Gay and the Smithsonian Chronology of the Controversy 1993-1995,” Air & Space Forces Magazine. https://www.airforcemag.com/PDF/SiteCollectionDocuments/Enola%20Gay%20Archive/EG_chronology93-95.pdf (last accessed 3 October 2022).
- Freed, Fred and Len Giovannitti. “NBC White Paper. The Decision to Drop the Bomb”. New York: NBC Universal, 1965. http://www.worldcat.org/de/title/nbc-white-paper-the-decision-to-drop-the-bomb/oclc/925906180 (last accessed 3 October 2022).
 In its various iterations, the exhibit underwent numerous name changes. The original title, in 1993, was “Fifty Years On.” It became “Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Cold War” in early 1994. The following May, a final, revised version of the label script was called “The Last Act.”
 My introduction to the Enola Gay came shortly after I arrived NASM, when I visited the Garber restoration facility. As senior museum staff, I was given permission to climb into the bomber’s cockpit, where I sat in the seat occupied by the bombardier on the Hiroshima mission, Major Thomas Ferebee. On a metal panel, just to my left, were a series of toggle switches. One, labeled “Bombs,” would have had a paper tag reading “Special” underneath it on August 6, 1945. Simply flipping that switch brought about the prompt deaths of at least 78,000 Japanese from the effects of the bomb’s blast, heat, and radiation.
 Martin Harwit, An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of Enola Gay (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1996), 247.
 A “Tiger Team” is what the government calls a group of people who are asked to provide a solution to a problem that has attracted widespread public attention. In 1986, NASA’s “Tiger Team” investigating the Challenger disaster identified the temperature sensitivity of the rubber O-rings in the Space Shuttle’s rocket boosters as the cause of that tragedy.
 Harwit, An Exhibit Denied, 283.
 Our “Little Boy” was not a replica or mock-up, but a so-called war reserve weapon in the museum’s national collection. It lacked only the enriched uranium and high-explosive of the original atomic bomb. The U.S. Department of Energy reluctantly allowed us to put our “Little Boy” on display—surrounded by electronic alarms, and watched over by NASM guards 24-hours-a-day. But we could not inform visitors that it was a real weapon.
 Harwit, An Exhibit Denied, vii.
 Even the facts around the exhibit would be contested. See the differing—and dueling—chronologies by Martin Harwit in An Exhibit Denied (pages 430-34), the Air Force Association, and the Atomic Heritage Foundation (last accessed 3 October 2022).
 That fact was dramatically demonstrated by the numerous responses to an article I was asked to write—“Five Myths about the Atomic Bomb”—for the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
 “Enola Gay Display Angers Victims,” BBC News, December 16, 2003, accessed August 4, 2022, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3315729.stm (last accessed 3 October 2022).
Herken, Gregg: The Smithsonian’s Decision to Exhibit the ‘Enola Gay’. In: Public History Weekly 10 (2022) 7, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2022-20578.
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