50 Years Later: The Controversy of the Enola Gay Exhibit

Courtesy of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Courtesy of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

In 1994, the Smithsonian began the restoration of the Enola Gay, the infamous B-29 warplane that dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. The museum also began to create an exhibit based around the plane that included Japanese accounts of the event as well. When news of this “rounded approach” spread, controversy ensued. Eventually, Congress canceled the exhibit. The Enola Gay is now at home in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located outside of Washington, D.C. in Chantilly, Virginia- notably without much commentary.

The Smithsonian is a federally funded institution; this means the government is all-powerful in deciding what is placed on exhibit and, more importantly, how it is placed on exhibit. Basically, what Congress says, goes. Congress definitely had a lot to say about this exhibit, particularly on how the Japanese accounts of the bomb affected the perception of America’s decision to use it. Here is how the Congressional hearings over the museum began:

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Senators lobbied their opinions, and technically their constituents’ opinions, against the nature of the proposed exhibit. To many, it seemed like depicting too much of the devastation painted the United States as a war-hungry, evil power. World War II was very much a war of morality, and the United States staked victory with being “the good guys.” To be painted in an unflattering light, especially in terms of the bomb that gave Americans victory, would possibly turn Americans into the “bad guys,” and therefore wipe out any reason and justification behind the war itself. Senator Nancy Kassebaum, who submitted the resolution, relayed this opinion in the following statement:

“The script continues to lack balance and historical context. For example, there are still more than twice as many photos of Japanese suffering than Americans. I think this is wrong. The role of the Enola Gay was momentous in helping bring World War II to a merciful close, saving both American and Japanese lives. Any exhibit involving the historic plane should respect the men and women who served this country so faithfully and selflessly during World War II and should avoid impugning the memory of those who gave their lives for freedom,” (Documents, 1137).

Other members of Congress were quick to sympathize. Senator Ted Stevens, Chairman of the hearing stirred personal sentiment by saying, “I do not want my grandson to walk out of that museum and ask me why I was one who was the aggressor, and why did I try to kill Japanese babies,” (1143). Senator Wendell Ford also agreed that the way the veterans and people of the time remember the war is how everyone should remember it in the future, that the audience of the exhibit should “[understand] the full ramifications of the war, but still somehow [feel] good about the role that the United States played in ending the war,” (1141).

Perhaps the most important comment from the hearing came from California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who said, “It seems to me that I would look at a curator to determine Boeing_B29___Enola_Gay___by_araeldhistoric value and validity of that value, not to interpret, not for their editorial comment,” (1141). The narrative of the bomb- that it had saved lives by avoiding a land invasion and that is had ended the war much sooner than the other option would have- needed to remain intact for America to continue seeing itself as the “good guy” in World War II. The generation of Americans who dealt with the war first hand, some of who were also in Congress in the 1990s, had a relatively uniform way of seeing the Japanese and the outcome of the war. That opinion is reflected in the newspaper ads, film cartoons, and most entertainment media of the time. As the war became more and more separated from the present, however, the narrative changed. As mentioned before, controversy over the Atomic bomb began once people realized the human devastation the bomb had brought to Japanese shores. Congress wanted to make sure the questioning of the Atomic bomb did not overshadow the memory of the valor of the American military in the war.

In light of the controversy over the bomb, the United States needed justification for its actions more than ever. In the 1990’s, it was enjoying unipolar status; the United States was clearly the most dominant country on the globe. This exhibit, pointing to the atrocities caused by the bomb, undermined American victory and therefore its morality surrounding the war. The exhibit would go on to question American ideals, policy decisions, and values just because it included too much information. Senator Ford said the following during the hearings:

“Whoever reads it is going to have his interpretation of who the bad guys are and who the good guys are, who wore the black hates and who wore the white hats. I think I have got a pretty good idea from listening to your comments this morning who the white hats are going to be and who the black hats are going to be,” (1142).

Memory ran deep within this Congressional group. Many members had visible physical wounds from the war or grew up reading the newspapers full of racist ads and watched the cartoons fill their tv screens; for them, the war was not a distant memory as it was probably becoming to the general population. To have an exhibit question victory that these men and women fought for, lost limbs for, lost friends and family for, would devastate an entire generation. On top of that, this generation was still uncomfortable with the Japanese. It is understandable that it may be difficult for a generation to experience four years of pure hatred for an entire nation with the desire to destroy them and then somehow forgive and forget within a lifetime. To these Americans, giving the Japanese “a dose of their own medicine” was all the Atomic Bomb was.

It is the year 2014, 73 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For Americans who understood congressthe gravity of that situation, the terror and hate still exists, if in a diluted form. As a personal example, when I saw my family over Thanksgiving break, I showed the cartoons to my grandmother, great-aunt, and great-uncle, who are all in their 80’s. They found the cartoons hysterical and even told me that seeing Donald Duck in a uniform made them nostalgic. The comment, “I still don’t like them,” passed through the air… but I won’t say who said it.

Media propaganda both influenced and reflected American attitudes towards the Japanese during World War II. This attitude was strong enough to carry itself into the 1990’s to crush the Enola Gay exhibit and even to live into the twenty-first century.

 

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