The University Record, April 24, 1995

Enola Gay experience teaches need for sensitivity

Enola Gay experience teaches need for sensitivity

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Considerably more than a year of writing, collecting, planning and organizing crumbled in January when the Smithsonian Institution, under fire from veteran's groups, scrapped plans for an exhibition featuring Enola Gay, the B-29 warplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, signaling the beginning of the end of World War II.

Four panelists gathered here last week at a symposium on controversial museum exhibits sponsored by the U-M and the Smithsonian Institution to discuss "The Enola Gay Exhibit: A Case Study in Controversy," and to try to determine what led to such a high level of conflict. Panelists agreed that it was important to mount exhibitions that are controversial, but varied in their approach to doing so.

"If the [National Air and Space] Museum has an obligation to inspire its visitors," said Thomas Crouch, chairman of the Aeronautics Department at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, "we believe that it should also at least occasionally move beyond that function in an effort to help visitors understand the complex background of aerospace development and the impact those developments have on the world." Crouch supervised curators who prepared the original script for the interpretive exhibit of the Enola Gay. Plans for the exhibition included not only the plan and photographs of the results of the bombing, but, critics said, devoted far too much space to moral issues without considering reactions from Americans on both sides of the issue.

"Public outrage, fed by an avalanche of critical stories in the news media, reached a fevered pitch. Members of the House and Senate expressed their dissatisfaction. The situation was complicated by the appearance of counter-protests from a variety of scholarly groups and peace activists who chastised the Museum for caving in to the critics," Crouch said.

"So what went wrong?" he asked.

"At the National Air and Space Museum, we began the program with only one question to be answered: Is this script an honest, accurate account of the story? We didn't pause to answer a second question--Are there factors at work here that might make an honest and accurate account of the events in question unacceptable to Museum staff members or to the public?

"I think we can answer that question in the affirmative."

Herman S. Wolk, senior historian at the Air Force History Support Office, said he had seen the script for the exhibition before its scheduled opening date, but contends that suggestions by the Air Force Association were never acknowledged or incorporated into subsequent writings.

"My own view," Wolk said, "is that the script failed on three levels--substance, process and structure. The initial scripts, and especially the first script, were neither balanced, fair, nor in proper context." Wolk said his impression after reading the scripts was that they showed a "preponderance of material and a repetition of issues" that raise doubts about strategic bombing, imply that the unconditional surrender policy was wrong and suggest the atomic bomb should have been tested before it was used.

"It was not that these issues should not have been raised, but that in the early scripts the sheer repetition of them pointed in my own mind to an agenda," Wolk said.

He pointed to what he calls the "false dichotomy between history and memory," noting that the issue is not history versus memory, but that "history and memory equals good history. The mix makes for an accurate historical presentation." Memories of events and the feelings of the people involved in them play an important part in giving a true portrayal of historical events, he said.

"People who structure exhibits need to understand the context of the times," Wolk said. "There needs to be a focus on the larger issues rather than getting bogged down in a single issue.

"I see no valid reason why controversial exhibits cannot be accomplished," he concluded, "emphasizing the context of the time and giving short shrift to lecturing the public."

Daniel Martinez, National Park Service historian for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, who also was involved in the Pearl Harbor memorial exhibit and the National Park Service's Little Big Horn National Monument, echoed many of Wolk's thoughts about the need to include in the process those who have strong connections to the events being portrayed.

Although he likened the invitation to speak at the conference to "being invited to Secretary Heyman's house for dinner and being asked to critique the food that is served," Martinez did not mince words when it came to how he felt the initial process should have been handled.

First, he said, it is important to bring in the public relations department early in the process so that the event can be perceived from another angle.

"They immediately could see what buttons could be hot and where we needed to be careful. We were close to the subject and somewhat myopic at times," he said of his own experience in constructing exhibits.

He also advocated private review of potential scripts, asking reviewers to maintain confidentiality. The script for a 23-minute film for the National Park Service, he said, went through 26 revisions, but all were in private homes.

Occasionally, he noted, it is important to recognize national pride and patriotic events. At the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he continued, the State Department determined that there would be no foreign nation invited to the ceremony.

"The 50th anniversary program became a patriotic program that featured the veterans. It was exemplary," he said. "But one of the events that was canceled early on was a reconciliation event. We were going to invite 50 schoolchildren from the 50 states to join with 50 children from Japan and they were going to come up side by side with Barbara Bush and drop flowers to honor the dead at Pearl Harbor.

"It was decided this event was not in keeping with the commemorative event and it was canceled.

"I think a key mistake in the Enola Gay exhibit was not understanding what the audience was going to be," he said. "The veterans are the pulse. The exhibit of the Enola Gay was going to touch that pulse. And if they felt that it was somehow unpatriotic or that their honor was not going to be portrayed in the proper light, they were going to react."

The National Air and Space Museum did not understand that the Enola Gay was an icon that represented a commemorative event of World War II, that it was important as a symbol of the end of the war, Martinez said.

"The future of museums is going to be the coordination of scholars and public historians. It has to happen for our museums to function on a scholarly and public level," he concluded.

John Shy, professor of military history at the U-M, said the issue was both divisive and complicated, but focused on three points, the first two about war.

"War," he said, "is truly terrible.

"It is not some gigantic sports event with very high stakes and the whole world as spectators. War is really about death, pain, loss and suffering on a huge scale, things that endure long after the last shot is fired."

War is a responsibility shared by everyone in a democratic nation, he continued. "We are not only responsible for the young people we send to war but also for the people who suffer by our wartime actions."

Second, Americans had been convinced that World War II was a justified war, he noted, but it is not possible or morally justifiable to forget the others who are affected by our actions in the conflict.

Third, memories of our own life experiences are the core of our humanity, but remembering only the parts that are not painful is not enough.

"Facing the truth about ourselves and those we love, including our nation, is the right thing to do," Shy said. "No one owns the national memory; it belongs to all of us. No group may impose its version of the national past on a quarter billion Americans."

In closing, Shy again broke into three categories his conclusions about the Enola Gay exhibit. First, he said, dropping bombs from great heights is an ugly aspect of the era and became "an indiscriminate killer of large numbers of people in the last year or so of the War" despite claims of pinpoint accuracy in strategic bombing.

There will always be a fine line between the responsibility as a nation for the wartime acts and the knowledge that killing is wrong, he said as his second point.

"To decide that the commemoration of the Enola Gay mission should have been kept strictly separate from any serious remembering of what actually happened in August of 1945 is a serious mistake," he asserted.

Finally, in remembering any war, we cannot forget all the people who were categorized as our enemies 50 years ago.

"To just present the fuselage and the crew and that's it, and not to include anything that happened on the ground, that, I think, is fantasy and it is very dangerous to our national health," he said.

Questions at the end of the panel presentation included whether the controversy had taught anything to those who construct exhibits, what curators could do to negotiate between diverse interests and a debate on whether the Enola Gay itself was a commemorative object or simply an airplane that flew missions in World War II.

Crouch answered that he had learned a great deal from the episode, and that his conclusion was that there was no way the Enola Gay exhibition was simply too controversial to overcome.

Martinez counseled curators and museum directors to tell the story as honestly as possible and to tell "our side" of the story; that the "other side was told in Japan or in China" and that visitors to an American museum expect to see an American view.

Is the Enola Gay a symbol of the conclusion of years of courage and suffering on the part of Americans, or is it simply, as moderator Preble Stolz suggested, a B-29--an airplane that was one of many used during that war? Stolz, professor emeritus of law at the University of California, Berkeley, drew groans from the audience when he suggested that the Enola Gay was not the symbol of hope of the end to a long war.