The Smithsonian’s Decision to Exhibit the ‘Enola Gay’

This essay is an insider’s account of one of the most significant salvos in America’s contemporary culture wars: the 1994 proposal of an exhibit on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the Smithsonian. Despite attempts to productively engage with critics, the curators were overwhelmed by political currents and the sensitivities associated with memorial anniversaries. With critical analysis pitted against veneration, the author asks, were education and commemoration compatible goals?
Languages: English

See the corresponding PHW Focus Interview with the author





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?

The Fiasco

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.”[1]

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.

No Celebration

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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4] 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][5]

Lunch Box

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.[6]

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…”[7] 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.[8] There seems little, if any, common ground in today’s hyper-polarized political climate.[9]

Bad Timing

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.[10]

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.


Further Reading

  • 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.

Web Resources


[1] 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.”
[2] 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.
[3] Martin Harwit, An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of Enola Gay (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1996),  247.
[4] 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.
[5] Harwit, An Exhibit Denied, 283.
[6] 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.
[7] Harwit, An Exhibit Denied, vii.
[8] 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).
[9] 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.
[10] “Enola Gay Display Angers Victims,” BBC News, December 16, 2003, accessed August 4, 2022, (last accessed 3 October 2022).


Image Credits

Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay © CC-0 by Gary Todd.

Recommended Citation

Herken, Gregg: The Smithsonian’s Decision to Exhibit the ‘Enola Gay’. In: Public History Weekly 10 (2022) 7, DOI:

Editorial Responsibility

Jasmine Alinder / Alan Christy

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  1. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    The Core Mission

    In this article the author notes surprise by the willingness of the director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to share artifacts. From its opening in 1955, however, the Hiroshima museum’s core mission has been to share the experiences of atomic bomb survivors to prevent future use of nuclear weapons. This was compatible, though not identical, with the goal of Smithsonian director Martin Harwit to provide multiple perspectives in a National Air and Space Museum exhibit of the Enola Gay to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. No blame can accrue to Harwit and the Smithsonian curators for the later stripping of virtually all context in the final version of the exhibit, whose title was tellingly reduced from “The Crossroads” of World War II and the Cold War to “The Last Act,” putting a period to the narrative. The political atmosphere in America had become far too toxic by 1995, even though some of the original critics had come around to a revised version of the exhibit script.

    Nevertheless, the curators’ reluctant decision not to display the lunchbox of a schoolgirl who died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima still gives rise to heartache. The removal of any hint at the perspectives of victims of the bomb was not only unjust, it ultimately hurts, at least by making more brittle, even those who insisted on this very course of action..  When reading again about that nadir of the “Enola Gay fiasco,” I first thought of the present-day anger expressed by some Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors (hibakusha in Japanese) at the failure of the August 2022 nonproliferation treaty review conference to respond to anti-nuclear pleas from hibakusha. The conference had been convened to strengthen some of the treaty terms, but in the end the Russian delegation refused to cooperate. “So the voices of hibakusha have not been heard,” said Wada Masako, deputy chief of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations.”[1] Hamasumi Jiro further exclaimed, “I feel nothing but anger toward not only Russia but also countries that have nuclear weapons.” I also thought of a chance conversation in 1995 that I had with an American World War II veteran at the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park. He was insistant that if Americans were being vindictive when dropping the atomic bombs, cities rather than military installations would have been selected as targets. He could not bear to contemplate what actually happened. The Hiroshima schoolgirl’s lunchbox did, in a way, pose a grave threat. Confronting it would probably have devastated the veteran.

    Harwit and the essay’s author agreed that a crucial opportunity was lost in 1995 for Americans to hold a broad debate about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which to be substantive had to include grappling with Japanese experiences of atomic ruin. Direct engagement with other points of view had not always been impossible for the American public: after all, John Hersey’s Hiroshima was widely read when published in 1946, while the 1955 visit of the “Hiroshima maidens” to the United States for reconstructive surgery was greeted with positive (though by no means unproblematic) publicity.[2]

    What would a meaningful national discussion look like today? American society is even more starkly divided than in the 1990s. On the other hand, various scholars and activists have done invaluable work since then to expand and deepen our understanding of August 1945. They have reminded us that there were not only two sides to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Parallax Visions, Bruce Cumings provocatively argues there is in fact a single “right point of view,” but that this view is neither American nor Japanese. Rather, he centers the experiences of Koreans within Japan’s multi-ethnic empire who were present in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.[3] Perhaps a bit disconcertingly, from the “outside” perspective of a colonial subject, the United States and Japan could be seen to have a great deal in common as imperialist competitors in the Asian sphere. Moreover, Lisa Yoneyama has powerfully demonstrated how the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park have had their own blind spots, above all with respect to Koreans and other Japanese colonial subjects.[4] From the late 1940s, both Hiroshima city officials and the American occupation administration sought to situate the particular history of the deployment of atomic bombs within a more abstract discourse of world peace.[5] Whether or not it was a conscious goal, the result was to erase colonial difference and obscure Japanese imperialism. The Hiroshima museum today does include a number of specifically Korean stories. And yet, it still does not center them in such a way as to rethink its “universalist” orientation toward humanity, which remains subtly rooted in the postwar U.S.-Japan relationship.

    The Smithsonian curators fought in the 1990s to broaden American public engagement with the meaning and implications of the atomic bombs dropped on two major Japanese cities. Today, Wada Masako and others continue to call for “no more hibakusha.” To achieve this, we must listen to the voices of survivors individually and as a collective, and in particular to the varied voices of survivors who testify to the impact of empire, past and present.


    [1] Yomiuri Shimbun, August 29, 2022. Accessed September 24, 2022.
    [2] John Hersey, Hiroshima, reprint edition (U.K., Gardners Books, 2002).
    [3] Bruce Cumings, Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American.-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 42.
    [4] Lisa Yoneyama, Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 121-22.
    [5] Yoneyama, 25-26.

  2. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    A Valuable Insider Account

    In September 1952, Life magazine ran a photo-essay featuring Yamahata Yōsuke’s photos of the bodily damage wrought by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. This was for most Americans their first look at the corporeal consequences of the atomic bomb. Letters to the editor poured in. “I…am hardened to shock,” wrote Faye Johnson of Arkansas, “but when I saw the pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki I nearly wept. That we perpetrated this horror against innocent victims is almost unbelievable.” The very next letter came from Mrs. Max Dalton of Utah: “Terrible and shocking! But no more so than those endless rows of neat, white American crosses.”[1]

    After surveying the “firestorm” of controversy that erupted around the Enola Gay exhibit and the damage to memory politics it left behind, the author of this essay rightly notes how little has changed since the 1990s. Judging by the pages of Life, the same could be said of the 1950s. Though the world has transformed in all sorts of ways since the 1950s, the polarized reactions capture the contours of public memory into the present.

    This invaluable insider account of the Enola Gay Controversy offers insight into many of the dynamics behind these deeply entrenched positions. The role of the media in amplifying outrage, the interconnections between veterans groups and Congressional caucuses, the symbolic significance of the G.I. Generation: these and other factors all figured into the dispute, much as they do in the history wars of the present day.

    One of the most remarkable features of this essay is the light it sheds on the care taken by the curators themselves to get buy-in from different communities and nip potential criticisms in the bud. It is indeed difficult to imagine a team of curators and scholars making a more concerted effort to build consensus and public support. Despite work-shopping scripts, convening ad-hoc panels, and proactive outreach to different civic groups, the exhibit was hollowed out, robbing the American public of an opportunity for meaningful remembrance.

    Where, then, does this leave us? How do we move this debate forward in an era of deepening partisanship and information silos?

    We might begin with the documents. We live, after all, amidst an epistemological crisis. Everyone has a hardened opinion, and yet no one can seem to agree on the basic facts of Japan’s surrender, the potential costs of an invasion, or the broader geopolitical context of the close of the war. This is to say nothing of the basic facts of American history or even current events.

    If scholars have any hope of moving public opinion beyond the calcified myths that surround the atomic bombing, it will be by taking the debate back to the sources and putting them out in the open. At a time when these historical debates rage online in Twitter threads, comment boxes, and Wikipedia pages, enabling ready access to digital sources is of vital importance. With good reason, the author of this essay asks what it will take to spark “legitimate national debate” on this topic. Setting aside questions of who gets to define “legitimacy” in this context, it seems to me that coupling arguments and analysis with digitized primary sources offers one way to shore up public trust in the process.

    There is good news on this front. We no longer live in a world where critical documents remain locked in an archive, available only to pedigreed scholars. Quite the contrary: new digital platforms have shattered barriers to access, enabling scholars and the public alike to scour sources as never before. One such source is, a bilingual digital archive devoted to disseminating information about the strategic bombing of Japan.[2] Hyperlinks to these digitized materials stand at the front of scholarly efforts to bring greater empirical rigor and transparency to these public debates.

    It remains an open question whether or not these sorts of digital materials would be enough to prompt people to actually change their views. There is considerable evidence that it will do precisely the opposite. But democratizing knowledge and opening up the archive will at least aid good faith actors in their efforts to return these debates to the language, logic, and operating assumptions of the period.

    Closer collaboration between Japanese and American curators, scholars, and educators presents other opportunities to push this debate in new and productive directions. It is striking, in reading this account, to learn of the role played by Japanese stakeholders, who lurk in the background of the controversy. One can only wonder what these projects of memorialization would look like if they were conceived, launched, and defended as a truly transpacific endeavor. Having worked for the last five years as part of a team of Australian filmmakers, American scholars, and Japanese bomb survivors, I am more convinced than ever that these transnational projects hold the greatest potential in casting tired tropes in a new light.

    Finally, it is worth noting that the author’s repeated framing of this issue as a “decision” to drop the bomb points to another hurdle to analysis and commemoration. For too long, scholars and the public alike have paid only passing mention to the firebombing of 66 cities, from March 1945 onward. Both scholarly predilections and public interests have erected an analytical partition between the atomic bomb literature and most everything else.

    This, too, is to the detriment of meaningful reflection and debate. Far from a sideshow to the atomic bombings, these incendiary raids fundamentally changed the moral calculus of the war. They indelibly shaped American public perceptions of what constituted a legitimate wartime target and conditioned the Japanese response on the ground. To arrive at a fuller understanding of the history and memory of the mushroom clouds that shot up over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is, we would do well to reflect on the making of the firestorms that preceded them.


    [1] Life, September 29, 1952.
    [2] See at  (last accessed 5 October, 2022).

  3. I visited the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center yesterday for the first time; a normal 40-something American man with no particular ties to the events of August 6, 1945. When we came to the Enola Gay exhibit, I was overcome with emotion; I cried like a baby in front of dozens of fellow museum-goers.

    It’s not that I’m ashamed of what my country did – certainly not at all. And I know full-well that, as catastrophic and terrible as the deployment of the bomb was, it likely saved many more lives than it took. But no amount of logic or righteousness can take the horror out of the knowledge that this plane was used to kill more than 100,000 human beings.

    I understand that the Enola Gay needs to be there, and I know people need to see it, even to experience just a fraction of the feeling that overwhelmed me yesterday.

    But I am incredulous at the opening statement of this article: “the director and curators of the National Air & Space Museum (NASM) hardly anticipated the firestorm of controversy that would result.” This tells me they have lost all touch with the human significance of the exhibits they are responsible for. I would hope that my director and curators would be passionate and connected, but their failure to anticipate the public’s reaction shows that they are not.

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