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For two Smithsonian curators, the Enola Gay’s mission launched the nightmare of the nuclear age. To WWII veterans, dropping the bomb saved U.S. lives. Their conflict over a commemorative exhibit sparked the museum’s retreat and a bitter... : WAR OF WORDS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shrink-wrapped, wingless and with its tail section missing, the Enola Gay lies silently amid the debris of museum construction, like a beached whale awaiting its fate.

When fully assembled, the most famous bomber aircraft of World War II is 99 feet long and has a 144-foot wingspan. It is simply too big and too heavy to be displayed in one piece in a museum. Even one as cavernous as the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum on the Mall here.

So only the front fuselage of the Enola Gay sits behind locked and guarded doors in a closed-off museum gallery, while curators slowly--and now cautiously--build an exhibit around the B-29 to tell its story.

“We could have cleared an entire area of the main hall and just had room enough to display the Enola Gay with its wings on, but it’s so heavy it still would have gone right through the floor into the parking garage below,” says museum spokesman Mike Fetters.

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That’s a nice bit of symbolism for the implosion that’s hit the Enola Gay’s exhibit as well.

Five months before the scheduled May, 1995, opening of the most controversial exhibit ever staged at America’s most popular museum, the emotion-soaked debate over the plane and its display has already become so politically charged and so weighted down by personal recriminations that the Smithsonian has been forced into retreat.

Under unprecedented public pressure, the museum has drastically altered its original plans for its exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the Enola Gay’s only mission: the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

Call it a victory for American heritage over the forces of political correctness and revisionism. Or call it the triumph of uneducated censorship over legitimate historical inquiry. No matter your point of view, one thing is clear: The Smithsonian has all but surrendered to the veterans groups and other critics who loudly opposed the museum’s initial exhibit plans on the grounds that they were wildly anti-American and laden with the scent of political correctness.

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Now, after five revisions and a series of arduous, line-by-line editing sessions between the museum staff and representatives of leading veterans groups, the museum has produced a final script for the proposed Enola Gay exhibit, “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II,” that has been cleansed of most of its controversy. The language that had tarred it as being a product of political correctness run amok has been thoroughly excised from the script.

The Smithsonian’s about-face has been so complete, in fact, that the greatest outcry against the exhibit now comes from liberal historians sickened by what they see as the triumph of the personal memory and nostalgia of American veterans over clear-eyed history of the U.S. decision to drop the atom bomb.

“The museum has caved in to right-wing political pressure,” argues Kai Bird, a World War II historian.

Sensing victory, meanwhile, veterans groups continue to press for even further changes to the organization of the exhibit, arguing that the curators still hope to play “emotional tricks” on museum visitors by linking the display of the Enola Gay to depictions of Hiroshima bomb victims and survivors.

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“The curators are still retreating, but they are doing so grudgingly, word by word, line by line, and it’s not because they believe they are wrong, it’s because of the outside pressure,” says John T. Correll, editor of Air Force Magazine, the journal of the Air Force Assn., a veterans organization that has campaigned successfully for changes to the exhibit.

Meanwhile, the exhibit’s original planners--curator Michael Neufeld and Tom Crouch, director of the Air and Space Museum’s division of aeronautics--are so frustrated that they no longer are willing to discuss the exhibit with the media.

“Are they happy with the current exhibit? Happy isn’t the word I would use,” acknowledges Fetters, the museum spokesman.

Indeed, perhaps it is fitting that in this new conservative era, the backlash against PC--real or imagined--would achieve its greatest triumph here in Washington, within sight of the Capitol building and a Congress now firmly under Republican control.

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In many ways, in fact, the story behind the Smithsonian’s struggle over the Enola Gay has much more to do with 1990s cultural politics than it does with the history of World War II.

The American decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, brought World War II to a shattering and troubling end. President Harry Truman had moved decisively to use the bomb to end the war quickly and to save thousands of American lives by averting a planned invasion of a recalcitrant Japan.

But in the process the United States had also ushered in the nuclear age, and with it gradually came a new sense of ambivalence about the uses of American power.

From the start of their planning for the 50th anniversary of the Enola Gay’s mission to Hiroshima, Neufeld and Crouch were convinced that they had to explore that larger history of the nuclear age, and what Hiroshima meant for the modern world. Unlike the Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers’ Flyer or Chuck Yeager’s X-1, the Enola Gay would not be displayed on its own, but would rather serve as the centerpiece for a political history of the dawn of the nuclear threat and the onset of the Cold War.

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As Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley argues, the decision not to simply display the bomber on its own, but to place it in a historical context of the curators’ choosing, was at heart a political act. Neufeld and Crouch wanted to use the Enola Gay to “address the significance, necessity and morality of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because the question of whether it was necessary and right to drop the bombs continues to perplex us.”

Yet almost by definition, that meant they would be looking at the history of the Enola Gay through a 1990s lens--and given Crouch and Neufeld’s own views, a critical one at that--and fail to grasp its 1945 context.

It quickly became clear that this approach was meant to convey an anti-nuclear perspective for the exhibit, one that seemed to suggest that the United States had committed an immoral and racist act by dropping the bomb on Japan.

For a museum staff that recognizes that many of its visitors are young children or teen-agers who are almost wholly ignorant of the history of World War II, that was a cavalier step to take.

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Crouch and Neufeld seemed to dismiss the controversy as essentially a generational dispute, pitting the veterans of World War II against their children, who grew up under the threat of nuclear war.

But the exhibit’s flaws ran much deeper than that. Its anti-nuclear message was overlaid on a script that took astonishing liberties with the history of World War II leading up to the Enola Gay’s mission.

For example, in the first version of the script, written last January by Crouch and Neufeld, they described the War in the Pacific as an American “war of vengeance,” while insisting that for “most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.”

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Further, they planned to begin the chronology of the exhibit with the final land battles of the Pacific on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. That gave the exhibit the sense that the United States was easily rolling over an already defeated enemy, leading to the central historical point that the curators hoped to make: that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not necessary to end the war, and that Truman and his advisers knew it.

“The script gives the impression that President Truman, in making his decision to drop the bomb, did it to impress the Soviet Union rather than to save American lives in any potential invasion of Japan,” wrote Richard Hallion, chief historian of the Air Force, who reviewed the script as a member of the museum’s advisory board. “The script also conveys the idea that Truman was motivated by racism and that dropping the bomb was unjustified.”

The original show would conclude with a gut-wrenching display called “Ground Zero,” which Crouch and Neufeld called the “emotional heart of the exhibit.”

Here, “photos of victims, enlarged to life-size, will stare out at the visitor.” The photos would be supplemented with artifacts from victims, including a young girl’s carbonized school lunch box, as well as religious artifacts melted and misshapen by the atomic blast. And, so that no one would miss the connection, a replica of the “Little Boy” bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima would be positioned right underneath the fuselage of the Enola Gay.

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For American veterans of World War II--many of whom had sent small donations to the Smithsonian over the years urging the museum to restore and display the plane that they believed had saved their lives--the initial reports of the Smithsonian’s plans came as a horrific shock.

“Those whose business it is to create, mold, manipulate and utilize public opinion have done so as a matter of self-serving interest,” complained Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets, the now-retired commander of the Enola Gay on its Hiroshima mission; he has refused to cooperate with the museum’s curators. “Consequently, history has been denigrated, the Enola Gay has been miscast, and a group of valiant Americans have had their role in history treated shamefully.”

Veterans groups mobilized early this year, and eventually got Congress involved as well. The Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kansas) that decried the Enola Gay script as “revisionist and offensive” to World War II veterans. And, once the national media discovered the controversy, the coverage was almost universally critical of the Smithsonian’s plans.

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Despite the onslaught of criticism, Crouch and Neufeld wanted to tough it out and go ahead with their original exhibit plans.

But the Smithsonian’s upper management, including Air and Space Museum Director Martin Harwit, soon figured out which way the political winds were blowing and recognized the need for compromise.

By April, Harwit was backtracking and mounting a rather disingenuous defense of his earlier approval of the January script. “I evidently paid greater attention to accuracy than to balance,” he said. “Accuracy is somewhat easier to check, at least for the aspects of the exhibition that are familiar. Balance is more difficult to assess, since it requires an overview that allows one to see the script as a whole.”

So on a second reading, Harwit said he found that “we do have a lack of balance, and that much of the criticism that has been leveled against us is understandable.”

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“Most strikingly . . . we show terrible pictures of human suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki without earlier showing pictures of the suffering the Japanese had inflicted in China, in the camps they set up for Dutch and British civilians and military, and U.S. prisoners of war. . . . We show virtually no pictures of Allied dead or wounded, while (the Ground Zero display) has any number of heart-wrenching, tragic stories of suffering on the ground. Where are the corresponding tragedies in China, in the Philippines, in Singapore, in the former Dutch possessions?”

Harwit established an internal review process to revise the script, but that failed to mollify the veterans groups, who demanded more involvement in the exhibit rewrites. Eventually, both the Air Force Assn. and the American Legion forced the museum to negotiate with them in a series of semantic skirmishes over script wording. As the controversy swelled and public opinion sided with the veterans, they tended to win most of those battles.

As a result, a close reading of the final exhibit script, published in October, shows that it bears little resemblance to the earlier efforts. Not only has the controversial language and “anti-American slant” been excised, the portion of the exhibit dealing with the Cold War and the nuclear age has been all but eliminated.

No longer does the exhibit focus on the decision-making process in Washington over whether to drop the bomb. Instead, the museum has almost doubled the exhibit space to add an entire new section on the origins and history of the entire War in the Pacific. The number of photographs and artifacts from Hiroshima bomb victims has been reduced, the number of photographs of American casualties increased, and a video of the recollections of bomber crews added.

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Yet that new approach prompted a group of 62 authors and academics to issue a letter to the Smithsonian in November, protesting its willingness to give in to the veterans’ demands. Recent historical research had uncovered many of the nuances and subtleties behind Truman’s decision to drop the bomb, and yet now the museum was abandoning its efforts to address that issue, the group argued.

Last Thursday, a group of religious leaders and peace activists met with Harwit to present similar concerns, arguing that the exhibit now fails to explain the long-term consequences of the Enola Gay’s mission. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, “were not just the final acts of World War II . . . they were the opening acts of the nuclear age, and all its dangers,” said Dr. Robert K. Musil, director of policy and programs for Physicians for Social Responsibility. And the new exhibit plan, Musil said, “does not present the continuing consequences for the world in which we now live.”

Ironically, the changes made to the exhibit also may prevent the Smithsonian from gaining access to the Hiroshima artifacts that it has been counting on to fill out its “Ground Zero” section. Those artifacts are now held by Japanese museums, and museum spokesman Fetters says the controversy here has made them reluctant to lend them to the Air and Space Museum.

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Yet as the debate rages on, Fetters worries that the real loser will be the Air and Space Museum. With 8.2 million visitors last year, it is the most popular museum in the world, and until now, has been largely free of controversy. It is always a gee-whiz hit with families touring the nation’s capital.

“This is a shrine to American technology,” Fetters says. “We just had our 25th anniversary for the Apollo moon landings, and we are already getting excited about 2003 and the centennial of flight. But when we do something like this that doesn’t fit with our image, it surprises and disappoints people.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to win a lot of people back.”


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