Sunday, September 6, 2015

Enola Gay Smithsonian Exhibit Disaster Part 1

draft being rewritten

I can not imagine why anyone would care what. I think about anything related to the issues discussed in this post, unless they had some interest in the "popular understanding of history by a citizen" or something of that nature.  I recommend you skip this post unless you happen to be specifically interested in the issues discussed here.

I read a book about the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum Enola Gay exhibit, a disaster of monumental scale, a nuclear explosion if you will, in which the veterans, the Air Force, the US Congress compelled the Smithsonian to back off from an exhibit which they were far along in creating.   The book is called "History Wars" and it presents the historians point of view on the subject and the larger issues of the interpretation of history.

I expected the book to be a balanced discussion of the issues that also showed that the situation had spun out of control and that the Smithsonian certainly was not planning to do an exhibit that would have presented the veterans or this country guilty of all sorts of nasty things.   But in fact the book did not do that, the book instead presented the very clear point of view that there was one way to interpret history, it was the historians way, and any other opinion was wrong.

So I wanted to write about this book and the exhibit but to do so I felt I had to explain something about the situation that the book describes and to do that is a Vietnam-like morass of complicated issues.  Issues that do not lend themselves to simple sound bites.

And so this post is the attempt to get a basic synopsis of the issues behind the incident.  I am sorry.  Feel free to ignore it and don't think worse of me because of it.   I don't know whether we should have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima or what would have happened if we had invaded the home islands of Japan, or whether the Japanese would have surrendered immediately anyway, or any of dozens of other fascinating and unanswerable questions.   I know that the dropping of the bomb was not a casual decision and I know what the veterans thought about what the sudden ending of the war meant to them and their lives because they were very clear about that topic both at the time and now.

So forgive me, here is the background, and then there will be post on what my impression of the historian side of the story.

The book discussed here can be found on at  "History Wars" 

To recap, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum planned an exhibit about the mission on August 6, 1945 to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The centerpiece of that exhibit would be the Enola Gay, the highly modified B-29 that actually dropped the bomb (there were 7 B-29s on that mission that day, but the Enola Gay carried the bomb itself). It might sound straightforward but it was anything but straightforward and here are some of the reasons.

1. The Smithsonian had the Enola Gay for decades but had refused to exhibit it. It was literally left out to rot in the rain and snow getting progressively more decrepit and rusted. Their actions were perceived for what they were, contempt for the history of this country, contempt for the veterans. The Air Force begged for the Smithsonian to give this historic plane to them so that they could restore it and show it in one of their museums, but the Smithsonian refused. The plane stayed in the rain and snow and rotted.  This did not exactly endear the Smithsonian to the Air Force or the veterans.

2. The dropping of the atomic bomb was an unusually specific event that could be said to end one era and begin another. Usually these transitions are more amorphous and take place over years or decades. But because the atomic bomb either was apparently the immediate cause of the end of WW 2 and the beginning of the cold war and the nuclear age, it presented many difficult historical problems that any exhibit either had to address or ignore, but a decision had to be made about them and no decision could be a decision. Realize also that accomplishment of dropping that bomb was the culmination of at least three different important efforts that we, the United States, took during that war.   Most people know of the Manhattan Project, but the creation of the B-29 and the story of the unit that dropped the bomb was no where near as well known.

3. There are very strong differences of opinion about the value of dropping the atomic bomb and its role in ending the war in the Pacific. But there was no doubt in the minds of anyone in the US armed services in the Pacific that it had ended the war and that it had saved their lives by doing so. But many Americans who certainly know we dropped the bomb that day are not as aware of why the veterans thought it had saved their lives.    (3)

4. The people at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum determined that their exhibit about the Enola Gay and the dropping of the bomb was going to be a "balanced exhibit", in their words, that talked about many different points of view about the event.   From the veteran point of view, this meant that they would be portrayed as heartless killers of children who had dropped a bomb for no good reason. . If America had not had to drop the bomb and if it was an immoral act then arguably America could be accused of committing a war crime in doing so and this was obvious to the veterans who were not amused by this.

5. It should be remembered that this was no mere article in a magazine somewhere, this was the premiere United States aviation museum passing judgment on the morality of dropping the bomb on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the event and the end of WW 2.

Before I go further in describing the controversy around the exhibit I want to digress for just a moment on the role of the bomb in causing Japan to surrender and whether Japan knew it was defeated and was planning to surrender anyway.  Both of these issues are fabulously complex and controversial.   Most of all it requires the historian, professional or otherwise, to put themselves into the position of what was known at the time vs what was known later.   And to understand things outside the experience of most normal people (like what is involved in invading the home islands of Japan and what it would mean to delay such an invasion to let things evolve). (2)

6. But drop the bomb we did, and shortly thereafter began a firestorm of controversy about whether the bomb needed to be dropped to end the war. 50 years later, the Smithsonian wrote a draft of the planned exhibit, and that exhibit was leaked both to the Air Force and to various veteran groups. Of course it should have been leaked, it should have been sent for review by those groups. Surely the Smithsonian did not think they could just surprise people with the exhibit and their interpretation of the event?

7. The resultant explosion was everything that could be desired and more so. The veterans went nuclear, so to speak, and called for the Smithsonian's blood. The Smithsonian retaliated by ripping the wings off the Enola Gay and exhibiting it without an exhibition. No interpretation or story at all. It just hangs wingless in the Smithsonian (it has since been moved to the new gallery outside Washington and had its parts restored). The head of the Smithsonian and a few specific historians returned to academia. The veterans got nothing, the historians got nothing, the Smithsonian had completely dropped the ball. 

The Enola Gay without its wings, with one propeller on the wall, and no discussion of what happened

It was an unmitigated disaster for the Smithsonian as they had failed, utterly failed, to represent in any reasonable way the event, the technology, the end of the war, the story of the dropping of the bomb, anything.

A total failure.

But it wasn't over yet.

End of part 1.


1. The other two are on the origins and legality of the American Civil War and a post on writing the genre of prediction with special reference to lessons learned from Nostradamus, a very misunderstood writer of fiction.

2. There are many, many controversies. A partial list includes: (a) that we were about one month away from the invasion of Japan and we knew this was going to be very bloody (b) that Japan knew we were very close to invading and had every intention of fighting and had worked with initiative to prepare and had done a very competent job of that given their situation at the time, (c) that the bombing of the Japanese cities had caused vast destruction and misery to all sectors of Japanese society and yet had not apparently destroyed their determination to fight and there is no doubt that situation caused many Americans in leadership positions to wonder what exactly was going to be necessary to cause Japan to surrender, (d) that Japan leadership knew they had lost the war but hoped to negotiate an end to the war that allowed them to keep their empire in Korea and Manchuria, although the extent that this is true is certainly debatable, (e) that the American people wanted this war over now, (f) that the USSR having completed the war in Europe was now moving to assist us in the far east in Manchuria and people were sensitive to the role that Stalin and the USSR would play in the post-war world, and some historians consider it immoral for us to consider this issue in the decision to hurry the end of the war by dropping the bomb, (g) and last but not least, unlike Germany, the Japanese armies were undefeated in the field in China and Korea and did not see a terribly pressing need to surrender all that they had been fighting for. Yes, the home islands were suffering, yes in fact they were all suffering, but from their point of view they were far from defeated.

3. It should be no surprise that the average American does not know their own history on this matter, but it is odd that the historians do not. There are those who claim that this is because historians are ignorant of the fundamental issues that they study and there is quite a bit to support that argument. At the time the bomb was dropped, we were in a terrific struggle with the Japanese and people were dying by the scores every day, both Americans and Japanese. We never had a defense against the suicide attacks on ships. They never had a defense against our incendiary bombing of Japan or the unrestricted submarine war on their merchant shipping.

By far more Japanese were dying than Americans, but that was about to change because we were literally within eight weeks of an invasion of the Japanese home islands that would probably make the invasion of Normandy look peaceful in comparison.  Projected casualties varied wildly depending on who did the predictions. When Truman took office after Roosevelt, probably his single most important issue to address was how to bring the war to a successful conclusion with a minimum of casualties.  What you, the non professional, need to understand is that for an invasion of this scope 8 weeks is almost no time at all, its not even a weekend. You should think of it as 15 minutes before midnight. It means that all the ships, planes, munitions, etc are built and in place, and all the men are trained and in position (not quite, but almost, I exaggerate here a little). It means that the hospital ships are built, and the doctors and nurses trained, and most of the medical supplies are ready to go, or nearly so.

When the bomb was dropped and the war suddenly and unexpectedly ended, there were several million Americans in uniform getting ready to storm the beaches and support that activity. These people to the last person, as far as I can tell from reading mostly secondary sources and a few primary ones, believed that the dropping of the atomic bomb saved their lives because it made it unnecessary to invade the Japanese home islands.   For those who believe that the war was over, and that Japanese knew they had lost, you are invited to learn about the invasion of Okinawa and what that entailed.

But since we did not actually invade Japan, the number of casualties is of course not known, and many people who have studied the issue (but who were not there) have a different opinion of what would have happened had we not dropped the bomb.

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