Volume 12 Number 1
March 31, 1996
The Museum of Hard Knocks

Enola GayIn the late spring of 1995 Boeing B-29 Superfortress 44-86292, known on August 6, 1945 and forever after as “Enola Gay,” went on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. In the process, the United States Congress took a hand in the exhibition of an old airplane, the director of the world’s best-attended museum lost his job, and debates about national pride and national guilt swirled through the pages of the American press. A year later, NASM still operates with an interim Acting Director as scandal and controversy continue to plague the museum. A General Accounting Office (GAO) study published in October 1995 under the title “Better Care Needed for National Air and Space Museum Aircraft” was highly critical of the storage conditions at the museum’s Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland (known to enthusiasts as Silver Hill). Adding injury to insult, in February of 1996 a 17-year NASM staff member (now former staff member) began serving a federal prison term for the theft and sale of artifacts from the collection.

Because the National Air & Space Museum has long been regarded as a standard-setter in the world of aviation historic preservation, TIGHAR feels that a thoughtful review of its recent trials and tribulations might prove instructive. In this and future issues of TIGHAR Tracks we’ll examine three issues:

  • The Enola Gay Debacle: A Collision With the Limits of Artifact Interpretation.
  • Too Much on the Plate: The pitfalls of over-acquisition and inadequate aircraft/artifact storage at air museums.
  • Conflict of Interest: The tension between employee/volunteer trust and collection security.

We invite and will publish member comments as we explore these difficult topics.

The Exhibit: Hanged, Drawn and Quartered

First to greet visitors is the bomber’s towering tail, now less towering, mounted on a lighted wall. Around the corner on another wall hangs a massive engine nacelle looking for all the world like an aluminum rhinoceros head. Turning about brings one face to face with the airplane’s lopped-off forward fuselage, its polished skin and flawless plexi looking as perfect as the complexion of the guest of honor at a viewing – except for the words “Enola Gay” on the nose. Later touch-ups here have been carefully removed because the faded letters are thought to be the only markings original to the airplane’s moment in history. The streaked and chipping brush strokes add a Dorian Gray touch to the otherwise pristine picture. Through the glassed-over gash where the wing once hung can be seen the restored interior of the bomb bay. Below on the floor rests the bomb itself (just the shell, we trust) encased in a transparent box. The feel of the exhibit is technical, antiseptic, devoid of any sense of what happened on the ground. Anyone not comfortable in the English language might easily stroll through without realizing what they are looking at. Around the next corner the voices of crew members drone from a darkened theater where a film perpetually tells their story.

In the end, the Enola Gay non-exhibit might be said to offer some measure of satisfaction to both sides of the controversy that ultimately trashed both the planned presentation and museum that prepared it. The veterans’ groups and others who wanted a tribute rather than a retrospective have a display which features the machinery and the recollections of the people who used it. Different eyes may see the display’s sterility as evidence of the denial that is the deepest expression of shame.

The Facts: The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth

by Gar Alperovitz
Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1995
847 pages, no illustrations. $32.50

This is a deeply disturbing book which should be avoided by anyone who has no wish to upset cherished beliefs about the end of “the last good war.” What makes the book so troubling is not its premise, that the reasons for America’s deployment of atomic weapons against Japan were very different from present-day popular perceptions. After all, historical revisionism is a staple of the publishing industry. This book hits home because its shocking allegations are extraordinarily well-documented. Source materials are not only cited but are exhaustively reproduced in the text. The author’s credentials are impeccable and his approach to the subject is scholarly to the point of being tedious. The book is ponderous rather than sensational. It is a book you wade through rather than read, but you come out the other side with information that is terrible to contemplate.

The most common justification of the bomb’s use – that it saved untold American and Japanese lives by ending the war without an invasion – is based upon a false premise. By the time the decision was made to use the atomic bomb neither President Truman, nor anyone in a position to influence him, believed that an invasion would be necessary to end the war, bomb or no bomb.

Military leaders who went on record as believing that the war could have, and should been won without bomb included: Admiral Ernest J. King; William D. Leahy; Chester W. Nimitz; “Bull” Halsey; General Douglas MacArthur; Dwight Eisenhower; Carl “Tooey” Spaatz; even Curtis E. LeMay commanded 20th Air Force which flew missions.

“It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing...”
--Dwight D. Eisenhower

The official U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (1946) concluded that, by mid-summer of 1945, “The Japanese leaders had decided to surrender and were merely looking for a sufficent pretext to convince the die-hard Army Group that Japan had lost the war and must capitulate to the Allies. The entry of Russia into the war would almost certainly have provided this pretext...” Again, bomb or no bomb, a full invasion of Japan “would not have been necessary” and even the initial Kyushu landings scheduled for November were judged to be only a “remote” possibility.

On July 11, 1945 the U.S. intercepted an “extremely urgent” cable from the Japanese Foreign Minister to the Japanese Amabassador in Moscow stating that “We are now secretly giving consideration to the termination of the war....”. The Emperor desired that the war “be quickly terminated” but “so long as England and the United States insist upon unconditional surrender the Japanese Empire has no alternative but to fight on...”

In the summer of 1945 it was widely recognized that the single greatest impediment to Japanese capitulation was their fear that “unconditional surrender” meant that the Emperor would be tried and hanged as a war criminal. Such action was never seriously contemplated and, indeed, the Allies saw an intact and cooperative Emperor as vital to restoring peace to Japan. As the author points out, “[E]very top presidential civilian and military adviser up to this point in time [July 18, 1945] except [Secretary of State James] Byrnes – as well as Prime Minister Churchill and the top British military leadership – clearly and directly urged a clarification of the unconditional surrender formula.” No such clarification was offered.

Of over-riding concern to Truman and Byrnes in the weeks prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the question of whether and when the Soviet Union would declare war on Japan. Prior to the bomb’s first successful test at Alamagordo, New Mexico on July 16, Russia’s promised entry into the Pacific war was encouraged as the event which would almost certainly bring about an immediate Japanese surrender. Developments in Eastern Europe, however, were making clear the cost of any partnership with Stalin. After Alamagordo, Truman and Byrnes saw the bomb as a way to end the war without Soviet involvement. The trouble was, the combat-deployable bomb wouldn’t be ready for at least two weeks. To forestall a Soviet-brokered end to the war the surrender terms were not clarified and the Japanese peace initiative through Moscow died on the vine. An atomic attack on Japan before Stalin’s projected mid-August entry into the war became a top priority, both as an instrument for ending the war and as a demonstration to render the post-war Soviets more tractable. As it happened, the Hiroshima bomb was dropped on August 6 and Russia declared war on Japan two days later. The next day Nagasaki was bombed and Japan surrendered on August 14.

In the book’s second section the author attempts to track the evolution of the popular notion that the atomic attacks prevented an invasion. This proves to be a far more difficult task than documenting the beliefs, concerns and motivations surrounding the weapons’ actual use. The very fact that most Americans fully expected and dreaded the coming invasion, only to have that cloud suddenly lifted by a force they hadn’t known existed, created an impression of miraculous salvation that would have been inevitable even without outside reinforcement. Alperovitz documents, however, that there was significant and systematic official encouragement of this misconception by the U.S. government. He marvels, somewhat naively, at the reluctance of veterans to accept the overwhelming evidence that America’s use of the atomic bomb in World War II was not militarily justifiable. “Time and again, the question ... has become entangled with the quite separate issue of our anger at Japan’s sneak attack and the brutality of her military.” He notes that “we have often allowed ourselves to confuse the issue of modern research findings with criticisms of American servicemen. ... The men serving in the Pacific in 1945 were prepared to risk their lives for their nation. By this most fundamental test they can only be called heroes.” He’s right, of course, but the Smithsonian’s experience with the Enola Gay exhibit demonstrates that the difficulties Americans have in dealing with what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be so easily assuaged.

The Enola Gay Debacle, Part Three: The Failure – Hazardous Material

The Smithsonian’s Director of Communications has honored TIGHAR’s request for copies of both the original draft of “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II” and the revised version which resulted from negotiations with veterans’ groups. Ultimately, the entire exhibit was cancelled and replaced by the much-abbreviated present display. In the next issue of TIGHAR Tracks we’ll look at the aborted scripts and offer an opinion about how accurate, or inaccurate, they really were. We’ll also explore the question of how the planned exhibit exceeded the practical limits of artifact interpretation.

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