Change in size and tone of Enola Gay exhibit may defuse long dispute HISTORY MADE SIMPLE

January 30, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

Dayton, Ohio -- The Smithsonian Institution may decide today to save its beleaguered World War II atomic bomb exhibit by taking this cue from the U.S. Air Force Museum: keep it simple.

Since 1961, the Air Force Museum here has displayed Bockscar, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, the second nuclear blow that forced Japan's unconditional surrender and ended the war. There have been no public protests, no petition campaigns, no tumult in the museum hierarchy.

Many veterans who are protesting the Smithsonian's plans to display part of the Enola Gay, which dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, say the Air Force Museum succeeded where the Smithsonian failed. And they say it did so more by what the Bockscar display does not show.

No photographs of burned bodies, no examination of President Harry S. Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb, no discussion of the political implications of the bombings through the Cold War.

This morning, the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents is expected to determine the fate of the Enola Gay exhibit, which has been engulfed for months in a storm of criticism from veteran's organizations and members of Congress.

Critics say the exhibit portrays the Japanese as victims of American brutality and glosses over Japanese aggression and war atrocities. They also say the exhibit underestimates the number of American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan.

The American Legion has called for cancellation of the show, which was expected to cost $600,000 to produce. And 81 House members -- 68 of them Republicans -- have signed a letter demanding the resignation of National Air and Space Museum Director Martin Harwit.

The Regents may decide to cancel the show, which was scheduled to open in May, or they may try to quell the storm by creating a simpler display similar to the exhibit in Ohio.

With the Republican-controlled Congress already gunning for federal funding of the arts and public television, the Smithsonian may face more pressure to appease veteran's groups and their conservative supporters on Capitol Hill. Last year, 75 percent of the Institution's $458 million budget came from its federal appropriation.

"Political correctness may be OK in some faculty lounge," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Friday, "but . . . the Smithsonian is a treasure that belongs to the American people and it should not become a plaything for left-wing ideologies."

Both Mr. Gingrich and his new appointee to the Board of Regents, Texas Republican Rep. Sam Johnson, say Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman is contemplating a sharply scaled-down version of the show, including a section of the restored Enola Gay fuselage with a few photographs and comments from members of the crew. That would mean scrapping a several-hundred page script, now in its fifth draft, that illustrates events leading up to the bombings, details of the injuries and destruction caused by the bombs, and the continuing historical debate about Truman's decision.

The Air Force Museum display of Bockscar includes none of that. And many World War II veterans -- especially those who believe their lives were saved by the atomic bomb -- like it that way.

BTC "I think they do all right, they don't overdo it," says Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Fred Olivi of Chicago, who was co-pilot on the Bockscar's Nagasaki mission.

Mr. Olivi, who donated some of his aviator's gear and his Distinguished Flying Cross to the Air Force Museum exhibit, is part of a group of B-29 veterans protesting the Smithsonian show with a national campaign that has gathered 19,000 petition signatures.

"The Air Force has clearly handled the Bockscar with more dignity and respect than the Smithsonian has handled the Enola Gay," says Phil Budahn, spokesman for the American Legion, the nation's largest veteran's organization with 3.2 million members. seemed prudent to do more than just put a plaque on the [Enola Gay] and say 'Here it is.' But with all the problems we've had perhaps that's all you can do."

From the start, the curators of the National Air and Space Museum show planned to do much more than that. The B-29 Enola Gay has been undergoing a $1 million restoration so that the forward fuselage could be used as the centerpiece of an exhibit that the curators said would view the bombings in terms of the history of World War II and the Cold War.

Air and Space Museum officials knew from the beginning they were stepping into a minefield of emotional image and historical interpretation.

"When we began discussions of the exhibit, there were two points everyone agreed on. One, this is a historically significant aircraft," Mr. Harwit said in an interview with The Sun a year ago. "Two, no matter what the museum did, we'd screw it up."

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