When is a fuselage not just a fuselage? To many World War II veterans, the Enola Gay-the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima-is an icon of their deliverance. The bomb, they feel, was the only alternative to a bloody, massive invasion of Japan. For many others, the Enola Gay is the symbol of the unleashing of a terrifying, sinister, world-changing force; the start of the nuclear age.
On January 30, the Smithsonian Institution announced that, beginning in May, the front 56 feet of the Enola Gay's fuselage will be displayed alone in the Air and Space Museum, accompanied only by a video of recollections from its flight crew. The exhibit that was planned to accompany the plane, "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II," has been cancelled after more than a year of controversy.
Veterans' groups, who said the exhibit was too sympathetic to Japan and waged a public campaign to get it changed, count themselves as winners in the debate. But on closer examination, it's hard to see who can truly benefit when truth is tossed out the window (excluding the bit of political mileage gained by congressional representatives who took up the veterans' cause).
The exhibit script had already bounced around for several months before the cancellation. Pressure from the American Legion and others led the museum to announce in September substantial revisions that supported the assertion that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the war and save American lives.
In January, it was announced that one of these figures-the number of anticipated casualties for a U.S. invasion of Japan-was being lowered to reflect a more accurate interpretation of documents from the time. Angered that numbers supporting the "necessity" of the bomb would be tampered with, the American Legion demanded that the exhibit be cancelled.
The Smithsonian, under both political and financial pressure, capitulated. Lawmakers have called for congressional hearings into the controversy and for scrutiny of government appropriations to the museum. Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman acknowledged that the furor delayed certain private financial donations to the museum.
THROUGHOUT ALL of this, the mainstream media have shown a lazy predilection for superficial reporting. Coverage of the controversy often included without critique phrases such as "revisionist history" and "political correctness," or prominently featured kid-gloved interviews with veterans who supported the American Legion's point of view.
Even now, after the exhibit's cancellation, the media continue to describe it solely in its critics' terms, referring to the exhibit as "anti-American" and claiming that it focused inordinately on the destruction the bombs caused. The truth is that imbalances in early scripts that downplayed Japanese militarism and over-emphasized U.S. racism were corrected early in the revision process.
The section that showed the bombs' effects on the Japanese was also sharply cut during revisions, with many fewer artifacts, photographs, and personal belongings from the drop zone planned for display. Pressure from veterans' groups had also eliminated a planned section on the postwar nuclear arms race and reshaped the exhibit so that it would appear that there was no significant debate or criticism of the bombs' use.
Into this mix, the voices of peace activists and scholars came too little, too late. Alternative views and additional historical information about events surrounding the atomic bombings were presented with clarity by several organizations during the fall, but by then the American Legion and allies were firmly in control of the spin. The peace movement will need to better anticipate political passions and the media's taste for the status quo, and more aggressively claim such moments.
Veterans' groups justified exhibit changes with the claim that showing the graphic results of the bombing would be "anti-American" and disrespectful to American soldiers. So instead they shifted and multiplied distortions in other directions. An event can't be detached from history without cost.
Nor can newly discovered information about the past be ignored. Evidence has emerged in the last two decades showing that the bombing of Hiroshima was unneeded to avoid an invasion. Many top U.S. and Allied policy makers and military leaders at the time-from Dwight Eisenhower to Winston Churchill-felt that the bombing was unnecessary to force Japan to surrender.
To acknowledge and repent of destruction that our nation has caused does not demean the integrity, commitment, and sacrifices of individual soldiers, who usually fought from the best of intentions. Christians, holding life as a holy trust, can respect the willingness to sacrifice one's life for what one believes even if not agreeing with military service as the context within which to do so.
The Enola Gay, in the end (and on exhibit), is just so much aluminum and steel. But history is the living, continuing story of creation and peoples. We either face it in its fullness, its horrors, and its contradictions, or we are left to fashion our future out of ignorance and denial.
For more information about work to make the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II an opportunity for learning, reflection, remembrance, and repentance, contact The Nonviolent Network/1995-2001, c/o War Resisters League, 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012, (212) 228-0450; or the 1995 Disarmament Coalition: 50 Years Too Many-Disarm Now!, c/o Pax Christi Metro DC, 3047 Fourth St. NE, Washington, DC 20017, (202) 635-0441.