Enola Gay's Final Fight

September 06, 1994

The National Air and Space Museum's long-awaited plan to exhibit Enola Gay, the American B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, has run into more flak than the aircraft ever encountered in the skies over Hiroshima.

On one side are museum officials who have tried to tell the story of the birth of the atomic age with compassion toward its victims as well as homage for its heroes.

On the other are veterans and others angered by the exhibit's emphasis on the destruction wrought by the bomb, which they see as a form of revisionism that ignores the millions of American and Japanese lives that were saved when Enola Gay's historic flight rendered a U.S. invasion of the Japanese islands unnecessary. To them, the exhibit presents a deliberately distorted view of how Americans felt at the time about the morality of using the bomb in order to end the war quickly.

There is probably no way an exhibit about such an emotionally charged subject can satisfy everyone. Viewed in retrospect -- and with the benefit of recently uncovered documents indicating the Japanese might have surrendered even without a U.S. invasion -- it is easy to question the decision to drop the bomb. Yet anyone old enough to remember also recalls the gratitude millions of Americans -- in and out of uniform -- felt when the bomb finally stopped the killing.

The Enola Gay, named after the mother of pilot Col. Paul Tibbets, embodies all the mixed motives and contradictory emotions attached to America's entry into the nuclear age. If there is fault on the museum's part is that officials tried too hard to make an exhibit about events of 1945 politically correct by the standards of 1994.

The half-century separating those two dates has witnessed a sea change in attitudes -- about war and America's role in the world -- as the full import of the nuclear peril gradually sank in.

There is no way around this. Perhaps the best that can be done is simply to accept that a certain moral ambiguity will always attach to the subject. The historic aircraft symbolizes the nightmarish uncertainty people of every nation now must endure as they confront the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. That is an uncomfortable prospect for anyone to contemplate.

How ironic that history exacts such a price of victors and vanquished alike.

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