Monday, September 7, 2015

Enola Gay Smithsonian Exhibit Disaster Part 2

In this post, I review the book that historians wrote about the issues involved in the disaster of the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, a disaster that was very public and very embarrassing for the historians involved. You can find this book here.  You can read a synopsis I wrote about some of the issues here.

This post is likely to be only interesting to those of you who are interested in museums, or historiography, or possibly how the history of the cold war is interpreted for the public.  The rest of you should skip this and move on to more entertaining posts.

There are four questions I had in mind when I read this book. The first was whether the accusations that veterans made about the historians during this encounter were in any way validated by this book. The second was whether the historians were disingenuous in how they presented the issues here. The third was about whether the historians gave any serious credence to what people who had been involved in the event told them. And the fourth was whether the historians involved should have realized that they were about to cause a major controversy and whether they took reasonable steps to prevent it.

1. During and after the Enola Gay exhibit controversy, which you had to be deaf not to have heard about at the time it occurred, two accusations were made by the veteran associations about the historians writing the exhibit. The first was that the historians were adamant that they were going to present revisionist conclusions about this event whatever the veterans thought and the second was that the historians involved were incredibly, unbelievably arrogant. After reading this book from the historians point of view, I can tell you that without doubt the historians involved were adamant that they were going to present their revisionist point of view and that furthermore as far as they were concerned that was the only legitimate point of view, period. And the second impression I got, dripping from every page, was exactly how superior the historians thought they were to anyone else involved. Exactly like the veterans said. No misunderstanding there, whatsoever.

2. One of the things I look for in reading arguments from one side or another of a debate, is how well they present issues that I happen to know something about. If, let us say, there are 20 issues discussed and it just so happens that I know very well what is involved in two of them, I look with special interest at those two. It lets me judge to what extent those other 18 issues are presented in good faith. This is especially useful in the situation where one side admits honestly to something that does not help their argument, but they do so anyway in the interests of fairness. This may be a lot to ask, but I do it anyway.

At one point, the argument is made that the B-29 was an uninteresting airplane technically or aeronautically (is that a word?) and in and of itself had no particular justification for being in the Air & Space Museum. They even trot out an Air Force Officer to make that comment and then leave it there in the book as being decided. The B-29 was uninteresting.

This is an astonishing misrepresentation of the facts. It is so outrageous as to call into doubt anything else the authors of the book say. The B-29 was not only an incredible technological achievement, it was an achievement that had to be reached in order for the Army Air Corps to make their argument that they deserved to be a separate service and this is all intertwined with the history of aviation and the theory of strategic bombing. The B-29 was the technology that was going to prove this principle and it was the second most expensive R&D project of the war.  In other words, it was not only technologically interesting, it was of tremendous importance to the history of how we fought the war and how we planned the future of aviation. Without doubt, this plane and the effort to create it, deserves a place in the history of aviation.  The B-29 deserves to be at the Air & Space Museum.

 It makes me wonder just who they thought was going to read this book that they would make such an outrageous misstatement.  But this behavior fits the model that says that the historians of this period live in their own world and believe what they want to believe.  

Years after this disaster, the Smithsonian restored the Enola Gay, presumably over their dead body, and exhibited it at their secondary location outside Washington.  They still have not told the amazing story of the 509th Composite Group to the best of my knowledge.

The second issue is a bit more subtle but without doubt demonstrates bad faith on the part of the historians. At one point, they talk about how much money was spent to restore the Enola Gay with the implication of “there, are you happy now” referring to, in their opinion, the childish wishes of the veterans. What the book fails to tell you, but I happened to know, is that the Enola Gay had been treated like garbage by the Smithsonian, and left to rot and rust for decades in spite of the complaints of the veterans and the Air Force. The reason it cost so much to restore was because the Smithsonian had treated this artifact with contempt. But this was not mentioned.

In other words, the historians who wrote this book were completely ok with misrepresenting the facts to try and win their argument. Lying was not a problem for them. This is a bad way to get credibility, it seems to me.

3. If there is one thing that this book makes clear, the historians involved did not give a fuck what the veterans thought. As far as the historians were concerned, the veterans were unintelligent, ignorant children relative to a brilliant academic historian. They were given no credible voice in the dialog until the veterans and the Air Force forced the issue..

4. Should the historians have realized they were walking into a touchy situation and somehow avoided it? I think that they did know that what they were saying was controversial but they thought they would come out OK for one very good reason. They assumed that everyone understood going in that there was one truth, and only one truth. And that truth is what the historians said it was. Period. There could be no other truth, no other truth had any credibility. The veterans were just children, immature children who did not want to admit, naturally, that they had murdered all those innocent Japanese for no reason. That was the only conclusion, a historian conclusion, and that was that.

So, to ask the question, were the historians involved in this disaster arrogant?

No, not arrogant. Not merely arrogant. Unbelievably arrogant.

The book was a fabulous eye opener for me. It brought doubt on the credibility of the academic field of history and of historians, at least historians of the modern period. In that sense, the book was very successful beyond its goals.   It not only explained the disaster of the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit, it lowered the credibility of the field of academic history in general.

Good work, guys.

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