Historians Protest New Enola Gay Exhibit

Debbie Ann Doyle, December 2003

A group of historians and activists has delivered a petition challenging the National Air and Space Museum's proposed exhibit of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress used in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The museum had earlier announced plans to display the restored and fully assembled aircraft at its new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport, which will also feature other aviation artifacts too large for the main facility on the National Mall—such as the Space Shuttle Enterprise, an SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft, and the Dash 80 prototype of the Boeing 707.

The new exhibit, scheduled to open in December 2003, will, as a NASM press release (available at http://www.nasm.si.edu/events/pressroom/releases/110703.htm) notes, identify the Enola Gay as the aircraft that "dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat" and describe the B-29 as "the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II," but will not otherwise explore the historical context of Hiroshima or nuclear weapons.

The Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Current Policy charges that the proposed exhibit will be "devoid not only of historical context and discussion of the ongoing controversy surrounding the bombings, but even of basic information regarding the number of casualties." (See the "introductory letter" on the committee's web site at http://www.enola-gay.org.) The committee's Statement of Principles (also available on the web site) declares that displaying the Enola Gay as a technological achievement reflects "extraordinary callousness toward the victims, indifference to the deep divisions among American citizens about the propriety of these actions, and disregard for the feelings of most of the world's peoples." A number of historians signed the statement, which was delivered to Smithsonian officials on November 5. Among the many other signatories are several prominent activists, authors, and other public figures including Noam Chomsky and Robert Jay Lifton; authors E.L. Doctorow, Daniel Ellsberg, Jonathan Schell, and Kurt Vonnegut; writer-producer Norman Lear; actor, director, and activist Martin Sheen; and filmmaker Oliver Stone.

The petition asks Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence Small and NASM's director, General John R. Dailey, USMC (Ret.), to meet with scholars to plan an exhibit that places the aircraft in historical context. It also asks the museum to cosponsor a conference on the history of nuclear weapons. The petition says that should the museum fail to respond, "we will join with others in this country and around the world to protest the exhibit in its present form and to catalyze a national discussion of critical nuclear issues."

A statement issued by the National Air and Space Museum in response to the petition, (see http://www.nasm.si.edu/events/pressroom/releases/110703.htm) notes that "this type of label is precisely the same kind used for other airplanes and spacecraft in the museum." Museum officials believe that the text "does not glorify or vilify the role this aircraft played in history" but rather conforms to the museum's congressionally mandated mission to "memorialize the national development of aviation and space flight."

The current controversy continues the acrimonious debate about exhibiting the Enola Gay that began in 1994. In that year curators at the Air and Space Museum planned to exhibit the aircraft, situating it in the context of the use of strategic bombing, the end of World War II, and the beginning of the cold war. The exhibit would have been a departure for the museum, which had focused until then on celebrating technological achievements. Veterans' groups such as the Air Force Association, as well as Congress and the media, strongly objected to the proposed exhibit script, which they perceived as an attack on America's conduct during the war. Facing calls for a congressional investigation and budget cuts, the museum revised the script, eliminating most discussion of debates about whether to use the bomb. A group of historians protested that the "historical cleansing" of the proposed script was "unconscionable.[since] the exhibit will no longer attempt to present a balanced range of the historical scholarship on the issue; . . . . a large body of important archival evidence on the Hiroshima decision will not even be mentioned; and . . . the exhibit will contain assertions of fact which have long been challenged by careful historical scholarship."1 The museum canceled the plans for a contextual exhibit, and merely displayed the fuselage of the Enola Gay with minimal text. The controversy revealed the emotional resonances that the bomber could strike even as a museum artifact.

Partly in response to the controversy, the Society for History in the Federal Government, the National Council on Public History, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association adopted a set of "Standards for Museum Exhibits Dealing with Historical Subjects" (available at http://www.theaha.org/press/MuseumS.cfm) that attempted to balance the interests of museum professionals, academic historians, and the public in developing museum exhibits that address painful or controversial issues.2 Because "historical exhibits encourage the informed discussion of their content and the broader issues of historical significance they raise," this statement of standards pointed out, "attempts to suppress exhibits or to impose an uncritical point of view, however widely shared, are inimical to open and rational discussion." The statement also stipulated, "When an exhibit addresses a controversial subject, it should acknowledge the existence of competing points of view. The public should be able to see that history is a changing process of interpretation and reinterpretation formed through gathering and reviewing evidence, drawing conclusions, and presenting the conclusions in text or exhibit format."

Debbie Ann Doyle, administrative associate and convention assistant at the AHA, also staffs the AHA Task Force on Public History.

Notes

1. Edward T. Linenthal, "Anatomy of a Controversy," in History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, ed. Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996), p. 52.

2. For a discussion of the document, written before AHA endorsement, see Victoria A. Harden, "Museum Exhibit Standards: Do Historians Really Want Them?" The Public Historian 21 (Summer 1999), 91–109.