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History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other…

History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past

by Edward T. Linenthal

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Two narratives merged in the abortive display proposed by the Smithsonian of the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima: the successful ending to a long and devastating war and the devastation of two Japanese cities. History is all about stories, what the tell us and what they reveal about us. The text accompanying the display originally was characteristic of what Hoffer describes as the "new History," which portrayed the United States in a more nuanced manner and with less rah-rah, often seeing events from different points of view.

The content, which portrayed the horror wrecked upon the Japanese pissed off many, including Senator Dole, who had been seriously injured in WWII and who was then running for president. The text then was politicized, attacked by the right as un-American, promoted by the left as accurate and representing a multicultural perspective. Historians are typically ill-prepared and powerless to defend themselves against these kinds of polemical attacks. This book was an attempt by the essayists to address the issues raised by their detractors.

Linenthal had been involved in the 1993 Little Big Horn display controversy, and frankly should have know better than to get entangled in the Enola Gay disputation. While the desire to represent multiple points of view may be laudable, they should have expected a backlash. Ironically, protests against use of the bomb, was not a recent phenomenon, in fact, protests from the right, including Henry Luce, had been voiced in 1945. They argued the war could have been ended without use of the bomb, which, according to Luce, challenged the "Christian conscience."

It was the post-Vietnam War executive director and board members who were the most anxious to create an Enola Gay exhibit. The military representatives saw little purpose. After all, the mission had been a milk run and was simply a continuation of the strategic bombing policy developed by General Curtis LeMay to firebomb Japanese cities, part of the "morale" campaign that had originated in Europe. The mission of the Smithsonian, as chartered, was celebratory in nature and intended to be a "repository" for equipment and devices that represent advances in aviation. Some questioned whether the Enola Gay and the dropping of the bombs met that mission. The museum, with the help of the aviation industry and military, had become a showcase of American triump and ingenuity. The displays themselves had little historical context. So the Enola Gay exhibit would be a departure from that original intent.

By 1994 positions had hardened between those who accused the Smithsonian of being anti-American and wanting to revise history, and those at the Smithsonian who were trying to rewrite the script and avoid a public relations disaster. They were being accused of saying things even after the passages had been excised from the script. The controversy said more perhaps about 1990's United States culture than about the exhibit itself which had become a lightning rod for the American shift to the right. The Senate had passed a resolution making explicit the federal law that required the Smithsonian to commemorate "the valor and sacrificial service" of America's armed services. This, ironically, was very similar to the conservative Japanese refusal to express and remorse or apology for Japan's aggression. Both represent a veneration for the dead that permits only a celebratory response to the historical record.

The Smithsonian was unable, or unwilling, to mount any coherent counterattack and soon their opponents had enlisted members of Congress, etc., etc. and other groups, many of whom had clearly not even read the entire script, let alone the massive revisions. The only conclusion one could draw was that the Air Force was very worried that any portrayal of its use of nuclear weapons and their consequences might redound to the detriment of air power as a strategic weapon.

". . .as the fiasco of the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution showed, American recollections of the war reveal a powerful emotional and ideological impulse to strip the historical record of all its ambiguity, all contradiction, all moral complexity, and simply wrap it in the flag." ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
History Wars: the Enola Gay and other battles for the American Past is a collection of eight essays that look at the controversy around the proposed 1995 National Air and Space Museum marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two. Before I can start to write a review I am going to confess my bias. I was a charter subscriber to the National Air and Space Museum’s magazine “Air and Space”, I have been called a bleeding heart liberal, I enlisted in the US military in the fall of 1975, I spent over a decade in the late 1970s and 80s reading World War Two history, and during retirement I hope to work in public history, museums. During the controversy I was squarely behind the Smithsonian and was appalled at what I saw as extreme right wing politicians attempts to destroy the institution.

The introduction and several of the essays examine the proposed exhibits history from conception to cancellation. One very telling quote kept being mentioned, Tom Crouch, the exhibits project manager, wrote to Martin Harwit, the National Air and Space Museum’s director. asking “... 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.” Harwit, an academic astrophysicist not a public historian, insisted they could. Early in the book I could see that the Smithsonian and Martin Harwit had screwed the pooch. In the language of business they turned a deaf ear to important stakeholders. Those stakeholders were American veterans, the aerospace branch of Eisenhower’s military industrial complex, and, later, conservative politicians.

I think it is a tribute to the fairness that historians work to achieve, that, as biased as I was for the curators and the Smithsonian before reading the book my opinion quickly changed. I looked at other reviews before reading the book and some of them had valid points but the fact that all the essays were pro-Smithsonian is not one of them. As previously stated, everyone has a bias. Articles on the subject collected from “The Air Force Magazine” or from the upper levels of the GOP would also have a predictable slant. One review criticised the book for a claim that the political conservatives were adverse to the exhibit because of homophobic concerns excited by the name “Enola Gay”. I have to agree with the criticism. I have to imagine that this was not a peer reviewed article, I can not imagine such a ludicrous idea getting past a serious review. Why not just say that the idea of presenting the bare fuselage of the Enola Gay was to phallic for anti-sex America?

I have very mixed feelings about this book. Several of the essays presented critical examinations of the proposed exhibits and the events that led to its cancellation. Others lost course or contained nonsense, one confused patriotism with nationalism, and of course there was the “Enola Gay” comment. Overall I came away from the book disappointed with the Smithsonian. Our national museums deserve to be run by professional public historians. A trained public historian would not have blundered into the political and emotional minefield that Harwit did. None of the essays came out and said that putting someone not trained as a public historian in charge of the nations most important public history venue was a blunder. That was disappointing. If anyone ever suggested two exhibits, one leading to the Enola Gay’s flight that assured there would be no invasion of Japan and a later one that looked under the fiery mushroom cloud and what it means to live under the threat of a global Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, it was never mentioned. If the suggestion was never made that is very disappointing. The veterans deserved to be remembered as do those of us who grew up looking out from under our school desks at our own nuclear incineration.

A slightly more involved version of this review can be found at http://timothyleecrawford.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/history-wars/ ( )
1 vote TLCrawford | Dec 3, 2012 |
In 1994 the Smithsonian Museum's National Air and Space Museum decided to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Enola Gay which dropped the first bomb with an exhibit. Their plans unleashed a storm of controversy and protests from the Air Force Association, veterans associations, on-air commentators and politicians. Under much political pressure, the exhibits were eventually canceled.

The book is an anthology of essays about what happened. It is from the point of view of the historians, who believed that the protestors reacted emotionally, seeing the exhibits as a slur on the efforts of World War Two servicemen. The essays explain that the exhibit was an effort at a balanced view of the events expressing a variety of points of view.

The essays are historiography, writing about the history of history. All the essays are rather similar with a similar view of the topic. If you read a couple of the essays you will know what all of them are about. All of them have one thing in common. They try to explain what the exhibitors had in mind and why. They also show a fair amount of irritation with the non-historians. ( )
  xenchu | Feb 6, 2010 |
This is a slanted view of the the controversy over the Enola Gay display at the Air & Space Museum. It purports to be balanced, but each author has the exact point of view.

If you disagree with the authors you are a Republican, Rush Limbaugh listening, racist, overly patriotic, narrow-minded, stupid...

Typical liberal trash-America, self-loathing, guilt-ridden garbage. ( )
  w_bishop | Nov 26, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080504387X, Paperback)

From the “taming of the West” to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the portrayal of the past has become a battleground at the heart of American politics. What kind of history Americans should read, see, or fund is no longer merely a matter of professional interest to teachers, historians, and museum curators. Everywhere now, history is increasingly being held hostage, but to what end and why? In History Wars, eight prominent historians consider the angry swirl of emotions that now surrounds public memory. Included are trenchant essays by Paul Boyer, John W. Dower, Tom Engelhardt, Richard H. Kohn, Edward Linenthal, Micahel S. Sherry, Marilyn B. Young, and Mike Wallace.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:36 -0400)

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