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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

Board of Regents members U.S. Rep. Samuel Johnson, a Texas Republican, and Manuel L. Ibanez, president of Texas A&M University-Kingsville, acknowledge that board members were concerned about federal support. But they dispute Harwit's claim that fund-raising somehow became more important than mounting quality exhibits.

Mr. Johnson, who was appointed to the board by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, says the trouble with the show was Harwit and his curators who "leaned on the Japanese interpretation" of World War II.

The conservative turn in Congress in the November 1994 elections enhanced the influence of the exhibit's chief critics. It also exacerbated the Smithsonian's anxiety about federal cutbacks. The combination of the two events, Harwit says, eroded support for the show, which by late January was in its fifth draft.

By then, the American Legion had demanded that the exhibit be canceled. Eighty-one members of the new Congress, almost all of them Republicans, called for Harwit's removal as museum director.

Revised show

On Jan. 30, Heyman announced that the original exhibit plan would be dumped in favor of a simpler, less analytical show focusing on the technology of the B-29 and the crew of the Enola Gay. The show opened in June 1995 and will continue indefinitely. Heyman told several hundred reporters in a press conference that the museum erred in trying to couple a 50th anniversary commemoration with historical analysis.

Harwit sees no mistake. In his view, the museum was acting in the spirit of the 1846 act of Congress that established the Smithsonian Institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

Had Heyman withstood the criticism and allowed the original exhibit to open, Harwit says, there is reason to believe it would have been well-received, even by veterans' organizations. During congressional hearings in the spring of 1995, Col. Charles D. Cooper of the Retired Officers Association and Robert Manhan of the Veterans of Foreign Wars testified that they felt most veterans would have liked the show.

Cooper told the hearing "There was a growing consensus, at least among reviewers of the Air Force Association, the Retired Officers Association, and the VFW, that the exhibit would have been found acceptable by most veterans."

Manhan testified that the exhibit cancellation "in the VFW's opinion was not justified."

That was May 1995. By then it was too late. The original show was history and so was Harwit, who says he suspected soon after Heyman's arrival that they would have difficulty working together. By the time Harwit was called into Newman's office on April 20 and asked for his resignation, he was already scouting around for other work. On May 2 he resigned.

"The real losers in this were the American public," says Harwit, "who were denied the opportunity to decide if this was a good exhibit or not."

Harwit spends his time these days looking for steady work, writing a third edition of a college astrophysics textbook and advising space satellite projects in Europe and the United States. He takes a philosophical view of his fall from one of the most prestigious positions in the museum world.

"I've had a lot of setbacks in my life," he says. "Every scientist does."

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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