The Enola Gay ControversyHistory on trial Main Page

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About - Introduction

Do you want to do an exhibit to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? Frankly, I don't think we can do both. -- Tom Crouch, NASM curator

On August 6, 1945, Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., piloting the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima. That event has a curious double meaning in our history. On the one hand, it successfully ended a long and bloody World War II and was almost universally applauded at that time for saving many lives in the long run. On the other hand, some people have said that it inflicted horrible carnage on the civilian population of a country on the verge of surrender or total defeat anyway and inaugurated a potentially catastrophic nuclear arms race and the Cold War -- making it the subject of much debate in our time.

The controversy over how history should represent dropping an atom bomb on Japan came to a head in 1994 when the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum drafted an exhibit entitled "The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War" around the refurbished Enola Gay to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in 1995.

Various stakeholders in the representation of this historical event were quickly embroiled: several levels of Smithsonian officials, military organizations such as the Air Force Association and the American Legion, "celebrity" veterans like Paul Tibbets as well as unheralded "grunts," members of the United States Congress, academic historians, military historians, the news media, officials of other museums, and even the Japanese.

These various stakeholders tended to pose strict dichotomies when they stated and argued their positions. The controversy was continually framed in the seemingly unbridgeable either/or terms of curator Tom Crouch in a memo to NASM director Martin Harwit: "Do you want to do an exhibit intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? Frankly, I don't think we can do both."

Questions like these underlay the vigorous differences of opinion:

Should the function of a museum be to celebrate the past or examine it? To memorialize or to educate?

Should a museum be a shrine or a school? A temple in which to worship or a forum in which to raise questions?

Should history record the past or mold the future? Inform or "heroify"?

Should history be written from the perspective of the past or the perspective of the present? Is it the province of those who lived it or those who study it?

Should history be patriotic or polemical?

Should we commemorate the end of World War II or investigate it?

Should this be an anniversary that focuses on the victors or the victims?

Should the exhibit be politically correct or historically accurate?

Should the exhibit make veterans feel good or make visitors think about the consequences of war?

After about ten months of open, sustained controversy -- reported by and fueled by the highest levels of national media -- the Smithsonian bowed to pressure, canceled the original exhibit, and replaced it with one less controversial. That action was both praised and scorned. And the whole episode continues to be a flash point among the indefatigable belligerents of the so-called "culture wars," flaring again, for instance, in 2003 when the Enola Gay was put on permanent display in a new Smithsonian museum.

The controversy over the proposed Smithsonian exhibit put "history on trial."

The "history" of this attempt to represent history can tell us much about the function of history in our culture and why history matters.

Thus, the pages that follow enable users to experience -- in some sense to relive -- the evolution of the Enola Gay controversy by reading through a chronological list of over 850 documents divided into five "rounds." The resources here include documents from the Smithsonian archive, records from the Air Force Association (the leading critic of the proposed exhibit), and newspaper and magazine articles, many of which will be directly accessible for subscribers to major online databases through the SFX links.