Not since 1855 has the Smithsonian been riven by a controversy to equal that precipitated by the proposed Enola Gay exhibit. The issue then was whether the Smithsonian should be the national library, as the librarian Charles Coffin Jewett wanted, or a research institute, as Secretary Joseph Henry preferred. Henry won, but not before a congressional investigation led by Jewett's backers on Capitol Hill put Henry's leadership to the test. Today the possibility of a similar congressional investigation hangs threateningly over the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian is currently seen neither as a national library nor as a research institute. Rather it is regarded as a museum, or collection of museums, whose principal purpose is to put on exhibitions for the general public. Its published annual report no longer even lists the publications of its research scholars. The jewel in the crown of all Smithsonian museums is the National Air and Space Museum (nasm), the world's most visited museum. The history of its establishment, dating from its authorization (but not funding) by Congress in 1946, reflects a continuing debate between those who wanted to "memorialize" and "enshrine" the sacred symbols of American ingenuity in conquering air and space (such as the Wright Brothers Flyer and the Apollo II spacecraft), and those who wanted to "educate" and "interpret" their broader meaning.
The extraordinary increase in visitors to the Smithsonian to see the Mercury spacecraft in which Alan Shepard and John Glenn were hurled into space in 1961 and 1962, and the even more intense excitement when the moon rocks brought back by the 1969 Apollo II mission were exhibited, turned the tide in favor of those insisting that a great new museum be funded to enshrine such glorious objects. Stirred by the passionate arguments of Reserve Brigadier General Senator Barry Goldwater on the floor of the Senate in 1970, an appropriations bill was finally included in the Smithsonian's 1972 budget.
The first director of the Air and Space Museum was astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted the spacecraft on the spectacular Apollo mission to the moon in 1969. He opened the museum on July 1, 1976, on the two hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, another reminder of the patriotic character of the institution's birth. When the Enola Gay exhibit was being planned in the 1990s, one observer was uncertain whether the staff of the Air and Space Museum could "overcome" the celebratory character of its establishment "and make the exhibit of the Enola Gay the educational opportunity it is planning. . . Can it make this shrine into a school?" he wondered.
In 1987 Martin Harwit, an astrophysicist rather than a retired military officer like most of his predecessors, was appointed director of the National Air and Space Museum. By that time many of the curators of the museum's early years, who were experts on the technical aspects of the hardware of air and space craft, had retired, left, or been let go. A new corps of curators, trained as social historians in America's universities in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, has taken their place. The Smithsonian's newer curators, sensitive to the condescension or condemnation of their university colleagues for representing an institution whose exhibits were considered celebratory rather than critical, technical rather than interpretive, gradually shifted their emphasis to match the approach of their academic colleagues. From an ideological point of view that shift usually meant moving to the political left and to a view of the United States as more often than not the cause of the world's problems.
Warning signs might have alerted the Smithsonian's top administrators to the coming storm. "The West as America" exhibit in the National Museum of American Art in 1991 was so totally reflective of the Marxist fantasies of the academic left that it amused and outraged even such liberal institutions as the Washington Post. The Smithsonian reacted defensively, making a hasty modification of some of its exhibit labels and bringing in academic proponents of "the new Western history" to defend the exhibit's point of view.
The "Science in America" exhibit in the National Museum of American History--opened in 1994 after a long preparation period in which the American Chemical Society, which underwrote the exhibit, almost withdrew in disgust--caused a less explosive but slower burning reaction. The exhibit emphasized discrimination against women and minorities in science, pollution of the environment, and other negative aspects of science, while underplaying its positive achievements. Officials of the American Physical Society as well as the American Chemical Society expressed their dismay and disappointment directly to the secretary, and change seems to be in the works.
The election of November 1994 changed radically the grounds of the debate over the Smithsonian's future. Instead of "softball" questions traditionally floated to Smithsonian secretaries during the annual hearings on its budget (nearly 80% of which is provided by the taxpayers), the new Smithsonian secretary, IRA Michael Heyman, chosen by the Board of Regents in May of 1994 and installed in September, had to expect "hardball" questions drilled close to his head by the new Republican majority. New members appointed in January 1995 to the Smithsonian's Board of Regents included Rep. Samuel Johnson (R-Texas), Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), and Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), were reappointed to the Board.
Secretary Heyman, coming on board as the latest Smithsonian controversy was erupting, at first sought to calm the waters and steer a middle course. Writing in a statement drafted "well before my installation as Secretary" and published in the October 1994 issue of the Smithsonian magazine, Heyman put the Enola Gay controversy in terms of "principles of fundamental importance to the Smithsonian." One was "the independence of the Institution from detailed political direction," making it "analogous to a public university." Heyman's "public university background" made him "especially sympathetic to this viewpoint." The other principle related to the question of the Smithsonian as a museum exhibiting objects "without context" and "without any particular educative role." Heyman expressed distaste for "those who argue that we should present our positive accomplishments. . . more as propagandists than as educators." Yet, he added, "it is the responsibility of the curators of the Smithsonian to organize their exhibitions 'fairly.'"
Heyman had the practical experience of standing between the California legislature and the distinguished Berkeley faculty, but dealing with Speaker Willie Brown of the California legislature was different from dealing with Speaker Newt Gingrich of the U.S. House of Representatives. Heyman's goal in both relationships was to uphold academic freedom while keeping the funding authorities supportive. But he became increasingly convinced that academic freedom in a great public museum is different from that in a great public university. Over the years, exhibits--particularly showy blockbuster exhibits--have assumed a larger role, while research in museums has become increasingly invisible. Directors have assumed "I am the museum" personalities and curators have been reduced from the role of "curator-in-charge" of exhibitions to "resource persons." Directors or their delegated "project managers" now determine the character of museum exhibits and approval is too often measured by the extent to which the exhibit opening attracts vips and is noticed in the "Style" section of the newspaper. It is rare that a curator is even mentioned in the press coverage. There is frequently no individual author or creator of an exhibit: hence, the notion of academic freedom for an individual to express his views in an exhibit, as in a book, is often beside the point.
With Capitol Hill now dominated by the conservative Right, the Smithsonian's movement to the liberal Left in the previous ten years caught it "zigging" when the rest of the country was "zagging." Under the previous secretary, the Smithsonian had enthusiastically pursued affirmative action (though the word "diversity" replaced "affirmative action" in Smithsonian documents in the late 1980s), and had begun to emulate the universities in their effort to achieve proportional representation of approved minorities (which did not, of course, include such minorities as Polish-Americans, Catholic-Americans, or Jewish-Americans, however disproportionately represented or unrepresented they might be; these were all lumped into the category of a disfavored white majority). I will not attempt to deal with the evolution of the Enola Gay script, as fascinating as such an exercise would be, except to say that various revisions of it were sent out for comment to outside organizations, such as the Air Force Assocation and nasm's own Advisory Committee on Research and Collections Management (headed by Richard Kohn of the University of North Carolina). As disagreements came to a head the controversy became public and was soon being aired in the press, along with internal memoranda among Smithsonian officials. The essence of the disagreement was summed up in a memo by Tom Crouch, chief supervisor of the exhibit, to Director Harwit: "Do you want to do an exhibition 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."
Those scripts are now available for sale from the "Historians' Committee for the Free Discussion of Hiroshima," a group of historians organized to bring pressure on the Smithsonian, following Secretary Heyman's decision to cancel the original plans for the exhibit in favor of a scaled-down version that would, he hoped, overcome the controversy of the original proposal. Gregg Mitchell, a member of the committee, has prepared a "Summary of Changes in the Script" under the headings "What They've Deleted," "They've Revised the Script to Show That," and "What They've Added," and has made statistical comparisons between the number of photographs of Japanese bomb victims and those of American crew members.
In addition to the Historians' Committee, the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the largest organization of professional historians concerned with American history, formally involved itself in the fray with an Executive Board Resolution at its October 22, 1994 meeting "condemn[ing] threats by members of Congress to penalize the Smithsonian Institution because of the controversial exhibition on World War II and the dropping of the atomic bomb." The Board resolved that "The oah further deplores the removal of historical documents and revision of interpretations of history for reasons outside the professional procedures and criteria by which museum exhibitions are created." It also proposed to join with other professional organizations to draft a Statement of Rights, Responsibilities and Professional Autonomy of American Museums and Historical Societies, stimulated by an article by Alfred F. Young which proposed, in the wake of the controversies over the Smithsonian's "The West as America" exhibit and the "year-long political attack" on the script for the Enola Gay exhibit, "that American museums adopt a Bill of Rights to protect freedom of interpretation."
The Single Estimate
The debate over the "academic freedom" of the curators to say whatever they want has a surface logic. If the curators at NASM were in a university, they could present their interpretation in class, or in a publication, without a review by anyone in the university (least of all the president) and without the fear or threat of sanction by their universities, which would not be held responsible for their individual views. No administrator at Stanford is concerned that Professor Barton Bernstein has estimated that the planned invasion of Kyushu in November of 1945, and a proposed assault on the Tokyo plain scheduled for March of 1946, would have cost fewer than fifty thousand American lives. But Bernstein's estimate of possible American casualties, adopted by Director Martin Harwit as the figure to be cited in the final script, was the straw that broke the back of the fragile agreement between nasm and the American Legion, which had been engaged in a dialogue with the museum over the details of the script.
The decision to provide a single estimate of potential casualties was a poor decision, because the question of how many casualties would have occurred is unanswerable. Any single estimate given under the authority of the museum would be bound to mislead the general public. Why? Because there are any number of estimates of possible casualties, made before and after the end of the war, written and unwritten, all conditional upon imponderable and uncertain events, and expressed with a variety of motives. Every American participant in the invasion of Iwo Jima and that of Okinawa, from private to general, as well as every American in uniform who did not participate in those battles but who was expecting to participate in the invasion of Japan (as were two Smithsonian regents, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Barber Conable) could legitimately and rationally guess at the number of casualties that American forces might have suffered in an invasion of Kyushu and Honshu, using Iwo Jima and Okinawa as yardsticks. A wall of NASM could have been covered with the varying numbers of expected American casualties, none of which would correspond with any historically certain figure, whether put forward by a general or a private. Had the curators wished to emphasize the uncertainty of such estimates, they could have plastered a wall with such numbers, each with a question mark after it.
Significantly, all the estimates of expected casualties considered by the curators, as well as estimates of Japanese willingness to surrender with or without conditions, are by Americans, not by Japanese historians whose views were not solicited and who may not, in any case, have dealt with such questions. I have been unable to elicit answers to such questions from any of my Japanese historian acquaintances. Japanese political leaders were briefly interviewed after the war by members of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. But, despite the Survey's conclusion that Japan would probably have surrendered before the end of 1945, even absent the bombing, the Russian entry into the war, and the invasion--a conclusion cited triumphantly by revisionist scholars such as Gar Alperovitz--the evidence from the actual interviews with Japanese at the time does not support the conclusion, as Robert P. Newman has pointed out.
That American scholars, most of whom have written without a linguist's knowledge of the Japanese language or an anthropologist's knowledge of Japanese culture, should presume to assess with accuracy Japanese willingness or unwillingness to surrender without the dropping of the atom bomb (or to assess the consequences for the future had the war ended in a negotiated settlement) is as foolhardy as asserting their own ability to estimate accurately the casualties of an invasion of Japan. But even if an American historian or political scientist possessed such skills--indeed, even if he were a Japanese scholar well trained in his own language and culture--he could only guess what Japanese policymakers, up to and including the emperor, might have done had the bomb not been dropped. What we do know among the indisputable facts is that even after the dropping of the first bomb on Hiroshima the Japanese cabinet was almost equally divided on the question of surrender, even conditional surrender. Even after the second bomb fell on Nagasaki and the emperor dramatically intervened to break the cabinet deadlock, the recorded announcement of his decision to be broadcast to the nation had to be protected from die-hard military officers who believed Japan should die with honor ("gyokusai of the one hundred million") rather than suffer the disgrace of surrender. An American belief that the Japanese were beaten is not the equivalent of a Japanese belief that they had to surrender.
To compound their insistence on an imaginative historical interpretation of what might have been, the NASM curators presumed to speculate on the implications for the future of nuclear weapons, giving the exhibit not only a double dose of historical crystal ball gazing but also stepping into a philosophical and moral morass of controversial ethical imperatives. Was it immoral to kill by radiation and blast an enemy who was being killed, without moral objection, by conflagration and suffocation? (The prohibition against making civilians the direct target of military operations had long since been abandoned by all the warring powers.) No overt comparisons were made by the curators between the ethics of killing by fire, radiation, or (if one extended the comparison to Cambodia, Rwanda, or Burundi) by rocks, clubs, machetes, guns, or even swords, an instrument occasionally used by Japanese to decapitate prisoners. Nevertheless, the growing strength of the post-World War II movement to freeze, ban, control, or abolish nuclear weapons provided the curators with an opportunity to link the effectiveness of strategic bombing, with or without nuclear weapons, to the moral questions surrounding its use. In their earlier World War I exhibit on air power, the curators, in addition to taking an ironic look at what they regarded as the excessive adulation of World War I "aces," and incorporating for the first time a ground-based perspective of aerial bombardment, introduced the specter of the nuclear age in the form of an enlarged photograph of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. It was a conscious effort to make the visitor think about the implications of strategic bombing today by reference to its simplified beginnings.
Those who are familiar with the debate over the effects of strategic bombing in both the Pacific and European theaters in World War II know that the optimistic estimates of air power enthusiasts were, for the most part, not even partially realized. But the atom bomb was more than a blockbuster. It was a city buster, as those who saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki soon after the bombing can attest. But the time and perspective from which one considers the issue of the bomb do much to shape one's ethical stance. Certainly Albert Einstein, worried that the Germans might first perfect the atom bomb, was under pressure to persuade Roosevelt to develop American atomic capabilities. The same response might have been triggered by Japanese efforts to develop such a bomb, had they been known in the West. The moral and intellectual confusion of those who worked to develop the American atom bomb spans the spectrum from those who had objections to its very development to those who engaged in espionage in the belief that the Russians should be provided the secret of the bomb. Such moral conflicts were clearly in the mind of the leader of the American group, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, on the successful demonstration in the New Mexican desert of the bomb's feasibility (and controllability), quoted the words from the Bhagavad Gita, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
The questions surrounding the production and use of the bomb extended also to the problem of estimating the seriousness of the radiation effects of atomic weapons (fortunately we do not have to speculate on equivalent problems stemming from biological and chemical weapons, which were not widely used during the war). Even during the Korean War, during which I was recalled to active duty in the marine corps, training exercises were held to demonstrate that American military forces could prevail on an atomic battlefield. I was lucky enough not to participate in any of these exercises. But recently I talked at the Bethesda Naval Hospital with a navy pilot who flew, without adequate protection, through the nuclear cloud during bomb tests in the Marshall Islands in 1954, and who is now paying the price. These examples suggest, in contrast to the views of the Historians' Committee for Open Debate on Hiroshima, that the radiation effects of nuclear weapons were not fully known, either for the Japanese targets of the first bombings or the American participants in later experiments.
I will not attempt to determine who blinked first in the face-off between the secretary of the Smithsonian and Capitol Hill over scrapping the original concept of the Enola Gay exhibit. Secretary Heyman stated in a letter to The New Republic that "Speaker Newt Gingrich and I never negotiated any arrangement concerning the Enola Gay exhibit. I came to the decision to scale it back independently. I then consulted with the Smithsonian's Regents. Days after, I notified the Speaker of my decision in the course of a phone conversation about another subject." Being an expert administrator who comprehended the forces arrayed against him, Heyman may have acted like the Chinese generals discussed in Sun Tzu's On the Art of War who, after making a sophisticated analysis of the forces each possessed, would agree to accept the logical result of their potential battle without a fight. It was not only the expedient decision, it was the right decision, both intellectually and morally. As secretary of the Smithsonian, Heyman must accept responsibility for the actions of all the institution's employees, as he was not expected to do as chancellor at Berkeley. He quickly realized that he had been let down by his subordinates, who, with their supporters in the university, were crying about "academic freedom" to justify, in the context of a commemorative exhibit on the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of World War II, their ideologically tinged speculations on the brutality and racism of that war as waged by the United States, the flawed character of American political decision-making in the utilization of weapons in that war, and the dangerous infatuation of American leaders with the possible use of nuclear weapons in the future. Had one of the curators written a book or article conveying his views on the subject and obtained publication through the usual refereed channels, little would have been said about it. It would have joined the vast scholarly literature on World War II. Even if discredited later, as much American scholarly literature on Soviet communism has been, neither the author nor his institution would have been particularly embarrassed.
While scaling back the size and character of the exhibit, Heyman vigorously upheld the commemorative and educational objectives of the Smithsonian under his leadership. "I never intended to exclude 'celebration' of the past from the need to teach the past," he wrote in a letter to Insight magazine in response to a critical article. He also proposed a series of academic style seminars in which controversial issues could be debated among scholars. The first such conference, on the theme of "Presenting History: Museums in a Democratic Society," took place under Smithsonian and University of Michigan auspices, at Ann Arbor on April 19. That most of the "usual suspects" of the academic left--scholars such as Gar Alperovitz, Eric Foner, Noam Chomsky, Todd Gitlin, Richard Barnet, Daniel Ellsberg, Victor Navasky--combined with other more moderate voices, mobilized under the rubric of the "Historians' Committee for Open Debate on Hiroshima," to condemn the Smithsonian for allegedly caving in to political pressure could not have surprised Heyman, since his Berkeley campus was famous as the epicenter of 1960s radicalism, and the revolution begun there had been "tenured" in the 1970s and 1980s in elite American universities. The radical elite retains its preeminence in the universities, even in the face of the collapse of communism and the discrediting of socialism, although academic discourse no longer rings with celebrations of the latest Marxist revolutionary and denunciations of the fatal flaws of capitalism. Indeed, Heyman probably sensed that it was an advantage to be attacked by such a crew, even though there were many sincere scholars among the group who failed to see the distinction between being a cog in a public museum created to "memorialize" American achievements and educate a general public, and being a tenured professor writing a book for which the author alone was responsible. Heyman, indeed, outflanked and rendered superfluous the Enola Gay curators by flatly asserting that he--not they--was now the curator of the exhibit and he would be the author of the script that will accompany the Enola Gay when it is finally exhibited to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war. That he is a former marine, albeit one too young to have served in World War II, has added to his credibility on Capitol Hill.
The Enola Gay label that finally emerges is likely to resemble the brief one proposed by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., the commander of the Enola Gay, or the equally simple label on the Bock's Car, the plane that dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki, which is now at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio. It would be in the tradition of earlier museum labels that identified particular objects and their use, without engaging in extensive interpretation or speculation about their larger meaning.
Heyman's repudiation of the work of his subordinates, and his promise to Congress to conduct a review of nasm's management, resulted not unexpectedly in the "resignation" of Director Harwit on May 2, 1995. The terse announcement by Secretary Heyman also noted that Harwit had "decided not to accept the Institution's offer to remain as senior scientist."
What Kind of Symbol?
Is Hiroshima a symbol of power or of suffering? Professor Rinjiro Sodei of Hosei University, Tokyo, in his paper at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Washington on March 30, posed these alternative views. From a contemporary Japanese point of view Hiroshima is a symbol of suffering. When I was in Japan in 1946, however, Japanese expressed to me their awe of the power that we clever Americans were able to bring to bear on them while they were unable to do the same to us, despite their best efforts. In the context of 1946, of course, there were many reasons why one did not hear criticism of America's use of the atom bomb (along with other types of bombs) to destroy Japanese cities. By 1995, however, as Professor John Dower of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it at the same oah session, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum virtually implies that the war began with the attack on Hiroshima, and the city has become for many Japanese and Americans a symbol of suffering and the abuse of power. Indeed, President Clinton's comment that the United States should not apologize for using the bomb and that President Truman was right to have authorized it, immediately created an uproar in Japan. "Nearly everyone here," wrote T. R. Reid, the Washington Post correspondent in Tokyo, "views the U.S. decision to use the nuclear weapon as a war crime or, as Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama put it earlier this year, 'that atrocity.'"
The hostility displayed by the academic community toward the display in a positive light of symbols of American power such as the B-29, the atom bomb, and sometimes even the American flag, reflects the turmoil occasioned by the 1960s, the Vietnam conflict, and the Cold War. Comments reflecting this attitude have been thrown about by opponents of the Smithsonian's Enola Gay policy. At the Organization of American Historians session alluded to above, one heard such phrases as "Valhalla of Air and Space," "historical cleansing," "equivalent to denying the Holocaust," "New McCarthyism," and "gunfighter nation."
The air force is the particular victim of the Enola Gay controversy. The army, navy, and marines have their own memorials and museums in Washington; the air force is uniquely dependent upon the Smithsonian to recognize its achievements. With the changing character of the Smithsonian, and of its curators and exhibits, the patriotic, celebratory result anticipated by the Congress and the air force in 1972 quietly began to slip away.
The danger that the Smithsonian's budget could be cut because of the political controversy engendered by the Enola Gay exhibit still remains. The critics of the Smithsonian are right to assert that the controversy is part of the current "culture wars" being waged over the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Standards for American History, school choice, and affirmative action. Secretary Heyman might seem an unlikely candidate to turn the Smithsonian around. As chancellor at Berkeley he implemented many of the same changes that have more recently altered the character of the Smithsonian. But he was, to some degree, acting under what Charles Krauthammer has called "the near comic overreaching of California's affirmative action forces," acting through mandates imposed by the California legislature to create an ethnic spoils system based on proportionality for the favored ethnic groups of the state. Now, if the national trend to the right continues, he will be acting under mandates to create a system of opportunities and rewards based on individual merit--or disability--rather than group identity. A less self-assured and forceful administrator might have attempted to compromise with the increasingly unrepresentative but still powerful academic establishment. But this route, in my opinion, would spell disaster for the Smithsonian, outraging its supporters on Capitol Hill and setting the stage for a major reorganization of the institution at the hands of its current critics. I am hopeful that Heyman will avoid such a course.
The original Enola Gay exhibit plan was not a material culture exhibition. It was history at its farthest remove from the specific description of artifacts. Although it rested on the "hook" of the fiftieth anniversary of the famous flight of its central object, it was not "object-driven." Rather, it was "idea-driven," in keeping with recent trends in the museum world. But even in terms of these trends it was exceptionally speculative history, of the kind least capable of documentation and most conducive to the working of the individual imagination. Few would object to an individual historian, like Charles Beard, concluding that Roosevelt deliberately lured the Japanese into war with the United States, or to a filmmaker like Oliver Stone suggesting that the fbi or cia may have killed President Kennedy. Everyone--even the partisans of such theories--recognizes that they constitute challenging theses, not agreed-upon history. Few would argue that such theses deserve to define the events they discuss in a national museum for a public audience. Heyman, in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, emphasized that "curators--professionals with scholarly training and abilities--should be afforded freedom to present their views largely unsupervised by the directors of the museums in which they work. . . Scholarly work, of comparable quality [to that of university professors], translated into an exhibition in a museum, and in particular a national museum, however, is seen as an official statement and a national validation."
Counterfactual propositions have their role in history. The Speaker of the House, Professor Newt Gingrich, has a novel in press based on the counterfactual proposition that Germany did not declare war on the United States immediately after Pearl Harbor. What would have been the result had that in fact happened? Could President Roosevelt have obtained a declaration of war against Germany under such circumstances? It is a question that has fascinated me for years, and I have many theories concerning it. But this is not history.
It is part of the mystique that surrounds history.Essay Types: Essay