Reprieved from Doomsday

October 01, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum caved in to pressure from veterans groups this week and agreed to revise its controversial exhibit about the Enola Gay, the American B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan.

It was the right thing to do. Museum officials agreed to rewrite some of the texts accompanying the exhibit and delete others that the veterans found objectionable.

The museum has also pledged to consult more closely with veterans groups in the coming months to ensure that the final product is something everybody can live with.

The exhibit, scheduled to open next year, originally included texts and photographs that the veterans say distorted history by ignoring the 1 million American and Japanese lives that may have been saved when the bomb rendered a U.S. invasion of the Japanese home islands unnecessary.

The veterans also were outraged by the exhibit's suggestion that the Japanese would have surrendered even without an invasion and that President Truman's decision to drop the bomb was motivated more by racism against an Asian people and a desire to demonstrate American might than by military necessity.

That was a pretty bitter pill to swallow for people old enough to remember the vast sense of relief that swept the country when the bomb finally forced Japan's surrender.

It was particularly tough for veterans. Over the years I've talked to quite a few men who served as ordinary soldiers during World War II.

Pretty much without exception, all of them thought they probably would be killed in an invasion of Japan. They remember the news of the bomb and the Japanese surrender as a moment of jubilation that allowed them to believe that they might actually survive the war.

The Enola Gay, named after the mother of its pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, embodied all those feelings Americans experienced at the time.

Unfortunately, after the passage of half a century it also has come to symbolize all the mixed motives and contradictory emotions attached to America's entry into the nuclear age and the Cold War that followed.

The balance of terror so relentlessly sustained over the last 50 years now colors the view of two generations of Americans who have grown up with the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The museum tried to take account of both these perspectives in its 50-year retrospective exhibit -- perhaps an impossible task.

The half-century separating us from that time has witnessed a change in attitudes about war and America's role in the world as the full import of the nuclear peril has gradually sunk in. It 'N probably was inevitable that any effort to present the events of 1945 in terms that are politically correct by the standards of 1994 would come to grief.

Surely we owe the veterans of that war the courtesy of respecting their feelings about how they are portrayed in a national museum.

But the story of the Enola Gay is not just the story of the end of World War II; it is also the story of the dawn of the nuclear age and the mad, Strangelovian world of ''mutual assured destruction'' that followed.

Today's fortysomethings, for example, have vivid memories of being taught as schoolchildren to crawl under our desks in case of nuclear attack. We also recall knowing at the time how futile such a gesture was.

Somehow I wish the Enola Gay exhibit could also tell what we feel when we think of the bomb.

Unlike earlier generations of children threatened by the specter of war, most of us harbored few illusions about our chances for survival. We knew in our bones that nuclear war meant Armageddon.

In October 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis erupted, most of us were teen-agers. I can remember, for example, calmly sitting down to write a long goodbye to my sweetheart, who lived in another state:

''Pray that when this world ends, a better one will arise on its ashes,'' I wrote. ''It is hard to accept what is going to happen, but I am really trying. The thing that truly pains me is that I will never see you again.''

In the 1980s, after President Reagan called the former Soviet Union an ''evil empire,'' his administration proposed an upgraded civil-defense program to protect the population in case of war.

I was living in Alexandria, Virginia, at the time, and when the federal Office of Emergency Management finally came out with a proposal for evacuating our area, it suggested we simply get on Duke Street and drive to West Virginia.

We would have laughed if they hadn't been serious.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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