Monday, September 7, 2009
The controversy over the use of the Enola Gay in a Smithsonian exhibit and how the end of WWII was being portrayed began in the 1980s. In 1984, Robert McCormick Adams was appointed Secretary to the Smithsonian and in 1987 Martin Harwit is hired to direst the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). These are the two men with the idea to, in Adams words, be “in the business of confronting and learning from history, not suppressing it. It was in 1988 when Adam and Harwit began discussing the idea of displaying the Enola Gay in an exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the End of WWII. I agree that it is important for people to be able to view history critically and from all sides. It states in the first of the five drafts of the exhibits scripts: “The primary goal of this exhibition will be to encourage visitors to undertake a thoughtful and balanced re-examination of these events in the light of the political and military factors leading to the decision to drop the bomb, the human suffering experienced by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the long-term implications of the events of August 6 and 9, 1945.… The Museum hopes that the proposed exhibition will contribute to a more profound discussion of the atomic bombings among the general public of the United States, Japan and elsewhere.” Many veterans, including the pilot Paul Tibbets, spoke out against the portrayal of the end of the war and the displaying of the Enola Gay. It is a shame that the Enola Gay was left, to in effect decay, in open air storage until this time when it was to be restored for the exhibit. If this plan was such an icon and important part of history why was it not placed in a museum before then? There were faults in many of the drafts for the exhibit yet for the history to be ‘watered down’ in order to show a less controversial exhibit of a controversial event is ineffectual. The atomic bombing of Japan did lead to the end of WWII in the pacific but it was done with little knowledge of the true effects it would have on a community of people and out of anger. It states in the first script of the exhibit, “(the exhibit) will embody one common wish: that nuclear weapons never be used in anger again.” However a nuclear bomb would most likely have been used anyway, whether by the United States or another country, and the effect on Japan that the bombs left has in my opinion stopped the use of nuclear weapons, or at least caused the possessors of such weapons to think twice before using them in retaliation. If possible historical exhibits should engage all viewpoints of an event. One of the points the Enola Gay exhibit lacked was the view of the Japanese government and what the conditions of the surrenders were, the surrender proposal before the dropping of the bombs and the conditions after that included the aid of the United States in rebuilding post war Japan. As difficult as it can be historians should strive to prevent displaying people in aspects of blame, the men on the crews of the plans involved in dropping the bombs were just doing there duty as soldiers and following orders, few even knew the exact reasons and repercussions that would occur following their missions. In the end the Exhibit would open on June 28, 1995 as "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II" which focused mainly on the plans used for bombing in WWII with the use and restoration of the Enola Gay at its center. However, the rest of the original was not scraped but split up and acquired by other museums as exhibits across the country. Perhaps it was too early for this controversial event to be displayed in all its truth.
One of the most controversial questions that can be asked when viewing a historical exhibit of some sort is: 'Is this the truth or a biased point of view?' As controversial as this question can be, and has been, it is still asked and in my opinion must be asked in order to understand how the exhibit is portraying the event or person of subject. One who is creating an exhibit or display of historical significance typically chooses the artifacts and information according to how the public is willing to receive the event. For example as stated in Prof. Jordanova’s essay when creating an exhibit for the anniversary of the end of WWII and the dropping of the Atomic bomb, an exhibit in America would most likely show the success that was achieved in ending the war in the pacific. While an exhibit in Japan or even perhaps on the west coast (an area with a significant Japanese and Asian population) would most likely portray it as an unnecessary gruesome tragedy. While neutrality is seemingly impossible to achieve in many exhibits I believe that a historian needs to approach a display not only through what the immediate possible public wants to see but through both sides. How do all parties involved portray an event? What were some of the events and actions leading up to the featured event?
(Above picture aquired at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/medtour/smithsonian.html)