Enola Gay exhibit opens without an agenda

June 28, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

If you like looking at airplane parts, you'll enjoy the National Air and Space Museum's new exhibit of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The display, which opens to the public today, features one whole propeller and parts of another, one of the bomber's four Wright Cyclone radial engines, one radar antenna, a 20-foot tall tail section, a navigator's astro scope and even a swatch of airplane insulation. And there is the front part of the Enola Gay fuselage, an immense gleaming aluminum tube lighted inside to show the cockpit and the bomb bay.

Originally, of course, airplane parts were not meant to dominate. Originally, the Smithsonian Institution planned to put on a show of historic sweep, a display that would follow the trail of war leading to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and look at the factors President Harry S Truman and his advisers weighed before deciding to use nuclear weapons. Plans called for a close look at the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki illustrated with photographs and objects borrowed from Japanese museums. Originally, the exhibit was to consider the beginning of the Cold War and the use of nuclear power.

But all that is history, so to speak.

Years of planning, five script revisions, a political firestorm and one museum director's resignation later, the Smithsonian has unveiled a show designed to mollify critics who charged that the museum curators were bent on a leftist mission to make the United States look bad. Veterans organizations -- chiefly the American Legion and the Air Force Association -- called the planned show poorly balanced. Too much detail of nuclear horror, too much speculation on whether the bombings were necessary to end the war quickly and save lives.

The plans were called "revisionist" history. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay and named the bomber after his mother, called the original "a package of insults."

Call the new show Enola Lite, 97-percent controversy free.

Along with the airplane parts and explanations of the technological innovations the bomber represented, there's a six-minute video about the plane's restoration and a 16 1/2 -minute video featuring interviews with five members of the Enola Gay crew.

Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, the navigator on the Aug. 6, 1945, mission, says in the video that Allied casualties worsened as the war in the Pacific continued after victory in Europe. The war was an all-out effort, he says.

"Under these conditions if there were anything we could do to shorten the war or end it, they'd jump at the chance to do it. . . . In the long run, I am thoroughly convinced that use of this weapon shortened the war and saved lives."

The crew

On the matter of the necessity of the bombings, only the crew members are heard. Of the bombing victims we see two quick shots in the crew members' video -- one man nursing a burned arm, another with a burned back. A third shot shows a devastated Hiroshima. The three glimpses together last about 15 seconds.

Mr. Tibbets, who saw the show a couple of weeks ago, wrote to Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman on June 21 complimenting him on a "first rate" exhibit.

"I firmly believe that you have gotten to the basic facts," writes Mr. Tibbets, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. "There is no attempt to persuade anyone about anything. Thank you for that. And, I must say that this form and format -- this objectivity, demonstrates the merits and the positive influences of management."

The exhibit is not 100 percent free of controversy, however. Now peace groups and some historians' organizations are upset. But they apparently have little clout in Congress these days. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a confederation of peace organizations, was reduced to staging a press conference in the rain out front of the museum yesterday, announcing plans for a few days of leafleting and protest.

"To display the Enola Gay without context and without the considerable historical information and interpretation that is available, is to glorify and legitimate the use of nuclear weapons," said Jo Becker of the Fellowship.

The Historians' Committee for an Open Debate on Hiroshima has called for a national "teach-in" on the subject and has condemned the Smithsonian's treatment of the subject as "historical cleansing."

Members of the Air Force Association saw the show last week and liked it. So did representatives of the American Legion. Rep. Samuel Johnson, the Texas Republican who had joined 80 other members of Congress in calling for the resignation of former museum director Martin O. Harwit, pronounced it "perfect. . . . It's in good taste and it's American all the way."

Mr. Johnson, who was appointed to the Smithsonian Board of Regents this year, says he never actually read the last version of the script, which comprised about 500 pages.

Mr. Harwit resigned in early May, five months after the Smithsonian announced plans to cancel the old plans and substitute a smaller show.

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