Scholars criticize Enola Gay exhibit

Smithsonian fails to note plane dropped atom bomb

November 02, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - When officials at the Smithsonian Institution unveiled a new home for the World War II bomber Enola Gay in August, they had hoped to avoid the kind of controversy that had previously troubled efforts to exhibit the airplane, which carried the first atomic bomb.

But a group of scholars, writers, activists and others has signed a petition criticizing the exhibit for labeling the Enola Gay "the largest and most technologically advanced airplane for its time" without mentioning that the Boeing B-29 dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

"You wouldn't display a slave ship solely as a model of technological advancement," said David Nasaw, cultural historian at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and one of more than 100 signers of a petition on the project. "It would be offensive not to put it in context."

Peter J. Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, who initiated the petition with members of the anti-war group Peace Action, emphasized that they were not opposed to the display. "It is essential that the plane be displayed," he said, "but it must include discussions about the decision to drop the bomb."

He said he and other signers of the petition hoped "to sit down with Smithsonian officials to see the seriousness of this and revise the exhibit."

Claire Brown, a spokeswoman at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, said institution officials would have no comment until the petition is presented to them.

The Enola Gay is exhibited with other vintage warplanes at the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Its explanatory placard is two paragraphs long and includes the restored airplane's dimensions. The text explains that although it was built to be used in Europe, it found "its niche on the other side of the globe."

This is the second time the Smithsonian has been taken to task for its display of the Enola Gay, named after the mother of its pilot, Paul Tibbets. In 1994, war veterans criticized material in a planned Smithsonian exhibit, saying viewers could conclude that the Japanese were victims of American aggression.

The groups also took issue with the number of Americans - 30,000 to 50,000 - that military officials estimated would have been killed in an invasion of Japan, which has been noted as the crucial factor in President Harry S. Truman's decision to approve the use of the bomb. The Smithsonian, which is heavily supported by federal money, increased the estimate to 1 million, which then drew historians' complaints of "historical cleansing." A compromise was reached for a pared-down exhibit in 1995.

As it was before, the argument is as much about politics as history. The intellectuals and activists who are lining up to oppose this "celebratory treatment" say it is particularly dangerous at a time when the United States is displaying its military might. They want the bomber to serve as a catalyst for national debate on nuclear weapons.

"We've just broken ground in our history with a pre-emptive war," said Jean-Christophe Agnew, a cultural historian at Yale University. He said there was much more public discussion between 1945 and 1947 about the wisdom of the bombing, "there was a lot more openness and a lot more doubt."

This is a "lie of omission," said writer E.L. Doctorow, who signed the petition. "To present this as a technological marvel with no reference to the number of people killed ignores what happened when the bomb hit the earth."

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