“The Last Act” at Air and Space

Sept. 1, 1994
The Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, has never been displayed to the public. Next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of its famous mission. The National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution is completing preparations to show the Enola Gay in an exhibit that will open in May 1995. The plan, however, is to present the aircraft as part of an emotionally charged program about the atomic bomb.

The broad outlines of the exhibit plan have been known for some time. World War II veterans have been expressing their objections to the museum for years, but the issue did not receive wide notice until April 1994, when AIR FORCE Magazine published an article titled “War Stories at Air and Space.” The Air Force Association subsequently published, on April 7, a detailed content analysis of the museum plan, documenting specific areas of imbalance. Since then, veterans have bombarded Congress with complaints. Extensive news media coverage soon added pressure to the controversy.

The primary focus of AIR FORCE Magazine’s report was a 559-page exhibition script, completed by the museum in January. We drew as well on a series of previous planning documents for the exhibition, an interview with the museum director, and a body of statements and letters from museum officials over the years.

The position of the Air Force Association has been that the planned exhibit was fundamentally lacking in balance and context. The curators picked up the story of the war in 1945 as the end approached. Their script depicted the Japanese as defenders of homeland and emperor but provided little background on Japan’s earlier aggression, which had made such a defense necessary. In this telling of it, the Americans were cast as ruthless invaders, driven by revenge.

Smithsonian officials have consistently disparaged — in public, at least — AIR FORCE Magazine’s report as inaccurate, unfair, and misleading. Privately, museum officials re-examined their plans and reached a far different conclusion. Dr. Martin O. Harwit, director of the National Air and Space Museum, told his staff on April 16 that he had “evidently paid greater attention to accuracy than to balance” in his initial reading of the script. “A second reading shows that we do have a lack of balance and that much of the criticism that has been levied against us is understandable,” he said.

Dr. Harwit nevertheless resumes his attack on AIR FORCE Magazine in “Enola Gay and a Nation’s Memories,” a signed article in the August-September issue of Air & Space Magazine. His comments there are an imaginative interpretation of what we actually said.

The New Script

A revised exhibition script was completed May 31. Honoring a commitment made during a radio debate June 2, the museum provided a copy of the new script to AIR FORCE Magazine on June 23. The exhibit has been retitled and is now called “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II.” It had been called “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War.”

In form letters sent to those who complain, the museum characterizes AIR FORCE Magazine’s criticism of the January script as nit-picking a raw, initial draft fifteen months before the opening of the exhibition. In correspondence as late as June 7, Dr. Harwit was still talking about “a year to cull out any inaccuracies, perceived imbalance, or phrases that could be misinterpreted or misconstrued in unintended ways.” It was a short year. On June 21, Dr. Michael J. Neufeld, curator of the exhibition, summarily informed the museum’s advisory board and the historians of the armed forces that the latest script “must be considered a final product, minor wording changes aside.”

The January script, incidentally, was the fourth planning document, not the first, seen by AIR FORCE Magazine for this exhibit. Both the January and June scripts flowed directly and conceptually from earlier documents. Through all of those planning stages, the museum pumped out letters reassuring veterans that the exhibit would be fair to them. Here again, the internal correspondence tells a different story.

In a memo to Dr. Harwit July 17, 1993, Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams worried that the museum would be vulnerable to criticism because the exhibit lacked “balance” — his assessment, well before AIR FORCE Magazine said it — and because it emphasized Japanese suffering while giving scant attention to American casualties in the Pacific war. He declared it inappropriate that “upon entering the exhibit . . . the central image will be one of a mushroom cloud.”

Four days later, Dr. Tom Crouch, chairman of the museum’s Aeronautics Department, sent Dr. Harwit a memo arguing against Secretary Adams’s suggestions to tone down the message. “Tweaking the introduction,” he said, would not delude visitors into thinking the central point of the exhibit was anything except the atomic bomb. “Do you want to do an exhibition intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan?” Dr. Crouch asked. “Frankly, I don’t think we can do both.”

In his 1994 Air & Space article, Dr. Harwit is back at his usual stand, describing the exhibit as he customarily does in public. “The focus of the exhibition,” he writes, “will be the last months of the war in the Pacific and the role of the Enola Gay in bringing a fierce conflict to a sudden and merciful end for the millions of young servicemen who were poised to sacrifice their lives for their country.”

The Imbalance Remains

The revised script contains a number of commendable changes, but the extent of the revision is far less than the Air Force Association had expected. The changes consist of point additions and deletions that do not, in the aggregate, shift the mass of the exhibit appreciably. The plan is still unbalanced. It does not provide adequate historical context for understanding the events of August 1945. It is still a partisan interpretation that many Americans — and most veterans — will find objectionable.

Casualties in the Pacific war. AFA’s criticism of the previous script said that the emphasis on Japanese suffering was so strong that visitors to the exhibit might well perceive Japan as the victim — rather than as the aggressor — in the Pacific war. In his April commentary, Dr. Harwit stated a similar conclusion. He said, “We talk of the heavy bombing of Tokyo, show great empathy for Japanese mothers, but are strangely quiet about similar losses to Americans.” He suggested that the curators “put in an equal number of pictures of death and suffering in Section 200 [“The Decision to Build the Bomb”] for soldiers on both sides.”

Some adjustments were made to the script, but the effect of the revisions was to reduce this particular imbalance from ninety-four to eighty-two percent — a definite improvement but still a long way from balance.

“Ground Zero” visual images. The curators planned for the “emotional center” of the exhibition to be Exhibition Unit 4, “Ground Zero: Hiroshima, 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, 11:02 a.m., August 9, 1945.” Because of the images in this section, the first line on the first page of the earlier script warned, “This exhibit contains graphic photographs of the horrors of war. Parental discretion is advised.” (The warning has been eliminated in the revised script, even though most of the graphic images remain.)

In his April 16 commentary, Dr. Harwit acknowledged that “Section 400 [the Ground Zero segment] has far too many explicit, horrible pictures” and suggested the staff “take out all but about one-third of the explicit pictures of death and suffering in Section 400.” As the table at the top of p. 60 shows, that did not happen.

Seventy-five percent of the “human suffering” photos are still included. Ninety-two percent of the artifacts remain. The graphic emphasis on women, children, and mutilated religious objects — documented in our April 7 report — is almost the same as before.

Another item of note: Our previous report cited as an example of emotional loading the intention to display a Hiroshima schoolgirl’s lunch box with remains of peas and rice reduced to carbon. That artifact was specifically described in ten lines of text in the previous script. Specific reference to this item is deleted in the new script, although there is an entry at the corresponding point for a “Hiroshima lunch box — label copy to be provided.” This is almost surely the same artifact, without the descriptive detail that drew criticism last time.

“Ground Zero” Artifacts and Photos

January Script Revised Script
Total photos
75 64
“Human suffering” photos 49 37
Photos featuring women, children, religious objects 25 23
Total artifacts 26 24
Object-related 16 16
Person-related 10 8
Artifacts related to women, children, religion 13 12

Emphasis on Japanese suffering. The emphasis on Japanese suffering is further seen in the number of text pages and photos devoted to that theme. (The revised script has a total of 295 text pages, of which eighty-four are about Japanese suffering. That emphasis is reinforced by ninety-seven photos.)

By contrast — and demonstrating the point about the lack of context — the new script devotes less than one page and only eight visual images to Japanese military activity prior to 1945. The script lays virtually no groundwork about Japan’s drive for conquest in the 1930s or popular support for the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” that was on the verge of making the Pacific a Japanese lake by the 1940s.

The Revised Script’s Emphasis on Japanese Suffering

Pages Photos Subject
58 64 Hiroshima/Nagasaki “Ground Zero”
21 28 Previous bombing of Japan
5 5 Hardship/deprivation on Japanese home front

Changes of Specific Note

The revision contains a number of other changes that should be specifically noted.

Copyright notice. The cover page of the new script adds a copyright notice and specifically forbids photo-copying the document without written permission from the Smithsonian Institution. It is unknown whether this restriction was applied because AFA photocopied the previous script and made it available to veterans, news media, and Congress. AFA believes that plans for a controversial exhibit in a public museum, funded mostly by public money, should be open for public review.

At a meeting with veterans’ groups July 13, Dr. Harwit said all of the publicity — most of it generated by AIR FORCE Magazine’s reports — was needlessly “troubling elderly people.” As of that date, the copyrighted script had received only limited circulation. Some of the veterans groups attending the meeting had not seen it yet.

(Selected people, however, had seen it. According to correspondence from Wakako Takeuji, program director of NHK Japan Broadcasting Corp. in Nagasaki, to AIR FORCE Magazine, the Smithsonian sent a review copy of the script to the Peace Museum in Nagasaki. It was the revised version, apparently, since Ms. Takeuji refers to the new title.)

Additions for balance. The segment “War in Asia and the Pacific: 1937 — 1945” adds eight graphic elements: photos of a Chinese baby in the ruins of a Japanese air raid on Shanghai, the carnage from the 1937 “Rape of Nanking,” the US fleet under attack at Pearl Harbor (two photos, ships burning and exploding), and an “Avenge December 7” poster plus photos of the Bataan Death March, Marines after the fighting on Eniwetok, and a burial at sea. Added to the section on “Home Front USA” are three photos — a Gold Star mother who lost her sons, a death notice telegram, and a letter of condolence — and a flag used in the burial of a Navy Seabee. The strongest single element that has been added is a photo of a kneeling Australian flyer, about to be beheaded in August 1945, after Japan had surrendered.

Modification of “War of Vengeance.” The January script included the following assertion, which the Air Force Association and others found especially offensive: “For most Americans, this war was fundamentally different than the one waged against Germany and Italy — it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.”

Asked about this by a reporter from the Washington, D.C., City Paper, Dr. Crouch acknowledged, “That’s not a good sentence.” The reporter understood that the lines were likely to be changed or eliminated in the revision, although Dr. Crouch believed the initial assertion was valid. “By then [the summer of 1945], the spirit of vengeance was pretty strong in the United States,” Dr. Crouch said. “The Japanese had reached the point where they knew they were not going to win the war, and all they wanted to do was preserve national sovereignty.”

The “War of Vengeance” assertion was modified and reads as follows in the revised script: “For most Americans, this war was different from the one waged against Germany and Italy: it was a war to defeat a vicious aggressor, but also a war to punish Japan for Pearl Harbor and for the brutal treatment of Allied prisoners. For most Japanese, what had begun as a war of imperial conquest had become a battle to save their nation from destruction.”

A Tilt That Persists

The defining characteristics of the museum’s plan include the unilateral emphasis on Japanese suffering in the war, the excessive use of provocative Ground Zero pictures and artifacts, and the slight attention paid to events prior to 1945. Other elements contribute to the distinctive ideological tilt of the plan:

Selective presentation of consequences. The final section of the script, “The Legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” adds a wall label quoting a former soldier who says he and his colleagues heard the news of the atomic bomb with “relief and joy” because their lives would not be at risk in an invasion of Japan. (No photo is indicated.) The inclusion is welcome, of course, but this eight-line wall label is all the exhibit says about the invasion that no longer needed to happen. In the same section of the script, greater attention goes to the postwar antinuclear movement, complete with “Ban the Bomb” buttons, other artifacts, and peace demonstration photos.

An attitude of imbalance. The script is interspersed with a series of “Historical Controversies,” such as: Would the Bomb Have Been Dropped on the Germans? Did the Demand for Unconditional Surrender Prolong the War? How Important Was the Soviet Factor in the Decision to Drop the Bomb? Was a Warning or Demonstration Possible? Was an Invasion Inevitable Without the Bomb? Was the Decision to Drop the Bomb Justified?

A recurring undertone in the plans and scripts for this exhibit has been suspicion about why the United States used the atomic bomb. Museum officials have seemed reluctant to accept the explanation that it was a military action, taken to end the war and save lives. Some of this speculation has been removed in the latest revision, but the script lingers respectfully on such individuals as nuclear scientist Leo Szilard, who protested the use of the bomb.

As the “Historical Controversies” listed above indicate, nearly all of the doubts and suspicions are directed at the United States. The Japanese are shown repeatedly in a quest for peace. Aggressiveness on their side is depicted as the province of a few military fanatics. The revised script eliminates a statement in the previous version saying that prior to 1945, Emperor Hirohito “showed much enthusiasm for the armed forces and their conquests.”

The new script, like the last one, avoids showing warlike images of the Japanese armed forces. One of the few exceptions is the section on the kamikaze, who are treated with near-mystical reverence. They are seen facing certain death bravely as comrades and schoolchildren cheer their selflessness. Indeed, they are the only military members on either side who appear in heroic roles in this exhibit.

The internment issue. The exhibit script allotted two text pages to the internment of Japanese-Americans in the United States compared to one paragraph on Japanese treatment of American prisoners of war. In his April 16 commentary, Dr. Harwit said that “we do not note that conditions in the American internment camps were far more favorable than in Japanese internment camps, where slave labor conditions prevailed.” The balance is adjusted in the new script, although the comparison of conditions is not explicitly drawn. There is no coverage at all of Japanese “internment” of American civilians, such as occurred at the notorious Santo Tomas prison compound in Manila, the Philippines.

The internment of Japanese-Americans still commands a prominent place in the section on “Home Front USA.” This entry has been edited down in the revision, but a new label directs visitors to another exhibition, “A More Perfect Union” in the National Museum of American History, for more information on the wartime treatment of Japanese-Americans. (That exhibition, keyed to the 200th anniversary of the US Constitution, generated great controversy when it opened. Dr. Crouch was the curator of “A More Perfect Union.”)

View of the postwar world. The final “Legacy” section of the exhibit gives a single line — preceded with a dismissive “on the other hand” — to the proposition that “nuclear deterrence may have ensured for the first time that wars between the great powers were no longer possible.” This concept is worth far more than a throwaway line. This is one of many instances where the curators seem either not to understand or to have light regard for military perspectives in an exhibition on a military subject.

The attention of this final section of the exhibit is on other things. It concentrates on the nuclear arms race, radiation effects of nuclear weapons, the rise of the antinuclear movement, nuclear waste and contamination, and the curators’ perspective on Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD. Another theme of this postwar section is to show the American victors celebrating merrily in contrast to the anguish and suffering of the defeated Japanese.

The Tilt Persists

January Script Revised Script
Photos of Japanese casualties 49 32
Photos of American casualties 3 7

What the Military Historians Really Said

According to museum officials, the script was drafted by four individuals, none of them veterans of military service. The changes to the revised script were incorporated by Dr. Michael Neufeld, the exhibition curator. He is a Canadian whose background is in European economic history.

Time and again, museum officials have left the impression that any imbalance is in the eye of AIR FORCE Magazine and that the exhibition is supported by the historians of the armed forces. A standard element in such remarks is to prominently identify Dr. Richard P. Hallion, Jr., Historian of the Air Force, as a member of the museum’s advisory committee, followed by a statement that the committee is supportive of the museum’s plan.

Dr. Harwit wrote in April, for example, “I believe I am not putting words into the committee members’ mouths in saying that the unanimous response was that our exhibition plans were well informed, accurate, and responsible.” Smithsonian Secretary Adams, writing to Rep. G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery to dispel “misinformation and unfounded rumor,” said, “The script has been carefully scrutinized for accuracy and balance by a committee of some of the nation’s leading scholars, including Dr. Richard Hallion, Chief of the USAF Center for Air Force History” [sic]. In the course of a radio debate, Dr. Crouch said that some of the service historians — specifically the historian of the Air Force — had endorsed the exhibit.

Dr. Hallion, speaking for himself, gives a different assessment: “The exhibit as currently structured is not one we would have done. We feel that though the museum has made considerable progress over its original concepts, it still needs to show that the central issue behind dropping the bomb was shortening the war and possibly saving upwards of 500,000 Allied troops.”

Writing to a veteran who inquired about his position, Dr. Hallion said, “The bottom line is that Harwit and his two curators, Crouch and Neufeld, came under heavy pressures (as you know) because the Enola Gay exhibit script was not in balance nor context. As a result, Harwit has formed a new committee to revise the script so that it doesn’t seem that America was the aggressor in the Pacific!”

Referring to the January version of the script, Dr. Hallion reported that the professional historians of the armed forces “unanimously consider it a poor script, lacking balance and context.”

Museum Director Harwit was well aware of this reaction from the services. Writing to a special group he had appointed to work on revisions, he said that “a team of historians from different branches of the military” had “expressed dissatisfaction with the script’s overall balance. In their opinion, it was flawed in its portrayal of Japanese and American history, activities, and customs.”

After reviewing the revised script, the Office of Air Force History said that “the overall impression gained from ‘The Last Act’ is that the Japanese, despite years of aggression and wanton atrocities and brutality, remain the victims. The culprits in this version of history are the American strategic bombing campaign (against civilians) and those who directed and implemented it.”

Other Opinions

There has been some suggestion also that objections to the Smithsonian’s plans for the Enola Gay are limited to AIR FORCE Magazine and a small number of individual veterans. That is hardly the case.

In May, the national executive committee of the American Legion adopted a resolution strongly objecting “to the use of the Enola Gay and the heroic men who flew her in an exhibit [that] questions the moral and political wisdom involved in the dropping of the atomic bomb and [implies] that America was somehow in the wrong and her loyal airmen somehow criminal in carrying out this last act of the war, which, in fact, hastened the war’s end and preserved the lives of countless Americans and Japanese alike.”

In June, the Air Force Sergeants Association presented its first-ever “Freedom Award” to Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., USAF (Ret.), pilot of the Enola Gay, and special awards to surviving members of the crew. W. Burr Bennett of Northbrook, Ill., unofficial coordinator for a group of World War II veterans concerned about the Enola Gay, said that through August 8, 1994, he and his colleagues had collected more than 11,400 signatures on petitions of protest to the Smithsonian.

Since the publication of the Air Force Association and AIR FORCE Magazine reports five months ago, the letters and telephone calls supporting our position have not stopped.

General Tibbets says the “proposed display of the Enola Gay is a package of insults.” How does he believe the National Air and Space Museum should exhibit it? “Like the Smithsonian displays any other airplane,” he says. “Look at Lindbergh’s airplane. There it sits, or hangs, all by itself in all its glory. ‘Here is the first airplane to fly the Atlantic [solo].’ OK. ‘This airplane was the first one to drop an atomic bomb.’ You don’t need any other explanation. And I think it should be displayed alone.”