Casualty of War Controversy: Martin Harwit is unapologetic about his role in the firestorm that brewed last year over the Smithsonian Institution's planned exhibit on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

September 04, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The former director of the National Air & Space Museum seems at peace with the memory of his own head on a platter. Martin Harwit served it at his boss' request, resigning after a long dispute over a planned exhibit about the atomic bombings of Japan.

Some of his adversaries publicly applauded his downfall, others were content to claim a customary spoil of victory: the power to have history told their way.

Harwit, an astrophysicist by profession, went home to Washington, disappointed but not bitter. Not then or now, says Harwit, 65, who holds a doctorate in physics. Still, in a new book called "An Exhibit Denied," he doesn't hesitate to criticize the Smithsonian Institution's leadership for sacrificing "academic integrity" in the interest of raising money.

He writes that the protest and eventual cancellation of the original atomic bomb exhibit demonstrates that "whatever it costs to buy influence, you can now have your own version of our nation's history displayed and opposing views suppressed at the Smithsonian Institution."

Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman and Undersecretary Constance Newman declined to comment because they have not seen advance copies of the book, which is expected to appear in bookstores later this month.

Harwit is a slim man with penetrating brown eyes and graying hair. He smiles readily and speaks softly with a slight Czechoslovakian accent. He betrays no personal resentment about the events that made it necessary for him to leave the helm of the most visited museum in the world, a position he'd held since 1987 and clearly enjoyed.

"There are two things about me," he says. "One is I'm very thick-skinned. The other is I have profound respect for the people who work in that museum. ... The extent to which people's hearts are wrapped up in their work in that museum is incredible."

Critics of the museum's aborted exhibit featuring part of the B-29 Enola Gay -- the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 -- came to wonder what was in the hearts and minds of Harwit and his curators.

Members of the American Legion, the Air Force Association and a smaller group of B-29 veterans argued that the museum was concocting an anti-American show, playing up Japan's suffering while glossing over its brutality and aggression in World War II. Some critics said the exhibit focused too much attention on the nuance and politics of the decision to drop the bomb. Wasn't it enough, they argued, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event by saying that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and thus saved American and Japanese lives?

Harwit acknowledges that the first draft of the script presented a distorted picture. He told his staff so in a memo in April 1994. But first drafts, he says, always need work. They also are not meant for public consumption. Unfortunately, portions of this one leaked out and created a public image of "political correctness" and "revisionism" that never really improved.

Harwit calls his book "An Exhibit Denied." He might have also called it "The Bonfire of the Humanities," as it reports in 456 pages of minute detail on a conflagration of history, language, images of war and official rhetoric fanned by shifting political winds.

Feelings aside

Harwit's book tells the tale from an insider's perspective minus the passion of one who stood in the fire. In his book and in an interview conducted last week at the Johns Hopkins University, Harwit remains the detached observer.

"I think it's the only way you can do a book like this," he says.

He didn't start working on the book until last November, about six months after he resigned, giving himself some distance from the events. Harwit relied for most of his information on letters, memos and personal recollection rather than interviews. He says he interviewed fewer than a dozen people.

Some veterans complained of Harwit's arrogance, of his staff's failure to respond to their concerns about the script. But nowhere in the book does Harwit acknowledge any missteps of his own that might have changed the outcome of the dispute.

"One can always do things differently here and there. It may change the details," he says. He does not believe there was anything he could have done as museum director to rescue the original concept of a historical exhibit about events leading to the atomic bombings and their impact on 20th-century history. Forces beyond his control, he says, were working against this plan.

By mid-1994, he says members of the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents had become increasingly concerned about the prospect of federaL budget cuts. More emphasis was being placed on raising money. Heyman told Harwit in a meeting in July 1994, two months after he was confirmed as secretary, that he felt his chief mission was to raise money.

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