Bowing to pressure, Smithsonian rewrites its history of World War ll Wrestling with History

October 05, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

During 22 hours of talks at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, negotiators agreed that seven atomic mushroom cloud photographs were too many. Four would do: two from Hiroshima, two from Nagasaki.

And the photograph of a badly burned Japanese woman being treated at a Red Cross hospital would be deleted because it was considered too graphic. And the figure of 31,000 Allied troop casualties anticipated in an invasion of Japan would have to be bumped way up, 10 times or more, to accurately reflect the historical record for an exhibit called "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II," expected to open next May.

The first and only wartime use of atomic weapons had occurred 49 years before, but in a windowless room on the Washington Mall the history was taking shape again.

Historians, museum officials and representatives of the American Legion sat together for two days late last month wrestling with a heap of images, reams of words, and a question that inevitably colors any dispute over public historical exhibits: Whose story will be told?

It's one thing for historians to argue controversial theories in scholarly journals and books. It's another to do it in such a place as the National Air and Space Museum, a two-block-long marble and glass behemoth on the Washington Mall. Visited by 8.2 million people a year, it is one of the most popular museums in the world.

"The public historian faces obstacles that the academic historian does not face," says James O. Horton, a professor of history and American civilization at George Washington University and a speaker at a forum tomorrow night at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History titled "Who Owns History?"

Historian James McPherson of Princeton University expresses the public historian's peril this way: "The more people you reach, the more you're going to offend." That's especially true, he says, when many of the people who were directly involved in the history are still living.

Mr. McPherson is a member of Protect Historic America, the group that opposed the Walt Disney Co.'s recently abandoned plan for a $650 million historic theme park near Manassas, Va. The group's chief objection was the proposed site near a major Civil War battlefield. But some members, including Civil War historian Shelby Foote, also feared Disney would distort history.

That's exactly what veterans' groups accused the Smithsonian of doing with its World War II exhibit. The show was condemned as too soft on Japanese aggression during the war and too fixated on the horrors of the bombing.

In Hiroshima, the bomb is believed to have killed about 70,000 people in seconds, ultimately perhaps twice that number. The death toll in Nagasaki, where the bomb was dropped on Aug. 9, 1945, has been put at about 50,000.

Even before the first photograph was hung, the Air and Space Museum was trying to mollify veterans by reviewing the exhibit's 500-page script line by line with representatives of the American Legion.

On Sept. 21 and 28, about a dozen representatives of the Smithsonian met with Hugh Dagley, the American Legion's director of internal affairs, and Herm Harrington, representative of the Legion's national commander.

Major changes

As a result of those meetings, the Smithsonian agreed to major changes in the show's words and images, particularly those illustrating the destruction caused by the bomb and the Allied casualties anticipated if an invasion of Japan had been necessary to end the war.

The changes included:

* Omitting a wooden clog left behind by a Japanese woman whose body was never recovered from the rubble at Hiroshima. A water bottle carried by another woman in Hiroshima remains in the show.

* Dropping a photograph of a boy who later died of leukemia. Another photo of a badly burned child being carried by another boy in Nagasaki was also dropped. "If you see image after image of burned children," says Mr. Dagley, "you're going to get an idea the target was children."

* Deleting a photograph of a Japanese woman whose back was burned with the imprint of her dress pattern from the bomb flash.

* Replacing a photograph of Japanese prisoners of war listening to Emperor Hirohito's surrender speech on Aug. 14, 1945, with a photograph of American prisoners of war listening to the speech.

* Removing a wristwatch with its hands frozen at 8:15, the moment the bomb exploded over Hiroshima on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. An other Hiroshima wristwatch and a wall clock from Nagasaki remain.

In the original script, the casualties projected in a planned two-phase invasion of Japan's home islands were estimated at 31,000 in the first 30 days, based on the invasion of Luzon in the Philippines. The revision shows Truman had reason to fear casualties ranging from more than 200,000 to as many as 1 million, based on the casualty rate in the invasion of Okinawa.

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