Number 44-86292

July 05, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In the end, the Enola Gay has become just another museum piece.

The Smithsonian's exhibit of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan has been reduced to this:

A huge fuselage of the B-29 stuck into the wall as if it had just landed. A presentation called: ''What is Aircraft Restoration?'' A 16-minute video of crew members telling their story. A statistical account of the ''Little Boy'' bomb: 8,900 pounds; 2 feet 4 inches in diameter; 10 feet 6 inches long, 12 to 20 kilotons in damage. A placard acknowledging that the bomb caused ''many tens of thousands of deaths'' and ''led to the immediate surrender of Japan.''

An antiseptic display at the Air and Space Museum that never gets down to the ground. At least not to Ground Zero.

Last fall, a furor erupted over the anniversary exhibit originally designed as ''a contemplation'' of the bombing that ended World War II and began the Atomic Age. The Smithsonian's attempt to raise moral and historic discussion was fatally flawed by a pair of tone-deaf and dumb sentences: ''For most Americans, this was . . . a war of vengeance,'' read the first draft. ''For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.''

It wasn't just these words that caused such outrage and bitterness, especially among veterans and older Americans. It was that the museum explored the reasons, the right and the wrong, of dropping the bomb itself. Questions that aren't welcome.

In this 50th anniversary season, we are awash in memories of the Good War. Americans revisit this war from its beginning at Pearl Harbor to its finale at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as one long righteous parade. We resist any hint of a bad ending to the good war.

I do not agree with those who second-think President Truman. Nor do I agree that the decision to use the first nuclear weapon was uniquely immoral. World War II was a military case study in the escalating efficiency of mass civilian destruction.

Where do you draw an absolute moral line between the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the fireballs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why do 100,000 victims of Tokyo have a lesser claim to our attention than 100,000 victims of Hiroshima? And how can we know the number of lives -- American and Japanese -- that might have been lost in an invasion.

But brutality begets brutality. The belief that one side can remain pure in war because the other side started the fight is a comforting and dangerous illusion.

For a long time, Americans were shielded from the full knowledge of what one nuclear bomb had done -- to people. We were protected from trying to reconcile the belief in ourselves as the good guys with the pictures of human beings vaporized, melted, poisoned.

Documentary footage of a Japanese newsreel was labeled Top Secret by our government. Private photos taken a week or so later by an American military photographer were locked in his trunk for decades, away from his children and from his own eyes.

Gradually we learned and understood. From one side of the nuclear dividing time line, the bomb marked the end of the war. In the Smithsonian's video, the pilot Paul Tibbets says, ''We succeeded in putting the carnage to an end and everybody got to go home.'' The young American men on ships in the Pacific knew they would live.

But from the other side, the mushroom cloud grew until it cast an ominous shadow over life itself. As Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell write in ''Hiroshima in America:'' ''Hiroshima signified the pointless apocalypse -- the sudden realization that we could extinguish ourselves as a species, with our own technology, by our own hand, and to no purpose.''

Today when a terrorist bomb goes off in Oklahoma City, when yet another country builds a nuclear weapon, when the police catch some Russians smuggling nuclear material out of their country, I am not the only one who wonders darkly, ''Is it possible that nuclear weapons will never be used again?''

This may be too much history and too much moral weight for one B-29 to carry. Or for one exhibit to embrace. But in a retreat, the Smithsonian has chosen a much too comfortable territory, displaying the tools of war, not the consequences. In forcing this retreat, we've proved how difficult and essential it is to talk about the atomic age, the past 50 years and the next.

Here, the aircraft that changed everything is just an artifact, number 44-86292, bearing the name of the pilot's mother. The rest is up to the imagination.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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