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Museum's Duty to History

November 22, 2003

When it comes to World War II, the Smithsonian's motto seems to be once burned, twice shy.

Beginning next month, visitors to the Smithsonian Institution's new Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia can see the Enola Gay, restored to a just-off-the-assembly-line shine. As every schoolchild learns, the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, hastening the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. From tables and photographs that will line the hall where the B-29 bomber is parked, visitors can learn about the plane's construction and capabilities and about air power's triumphs in World War II.

For the second time in 10 years, the Smithsonian will show the Enola Gay devoid of the controversy that preceded its fateful flight or the nearly 60-year-long vapor trail of debate over whether the United States should have dropped the bomb.

The Enola Gay's fuselage was last displayed from 1995 to 1998 as the centerpiece of an exhibit that Smithsonian officials had intended to depict the last, grim years of World War II. That exhibit was to include accounts from bomber pilots, documents and artifacts exploring America's decision to use nuclear weapons and the consequences for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the second city to be hit by an atomic bomb. In that last category were to be household objects found amid the Hiroshima rubble, accounts of bomb survivors and information on Japanese civilians killed and wounded in the bombing.

But after loud protests from veterans groups that such information would tarnish the heroism of U.S. pilots, the Smithsonian scrapped its plans, instead displaying the Enola Gay with minimal commentary.

Since then, the bomber has been restored and reassembled. The end of that project coincides with the opening of an annex of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the Udvar-Hazy Center, adjacent to Dulles International Airport. The script for the new Enola Gay exhibit hews closely to the plane's gee-whiz features -- its massive, 141-foot wingspan and its pressurized cabin, the first in bombers -- and celebrates its contribution to the "Arsenal of Democracy." In response, nearly 200 historians and authors, including Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates, are pressing the Smithsonian to redraft this narrow script to include a balanced discussion of the atomic bombings. Museum officials should do this.

The point is not that the plane and the brave Americans who piloted it don't still deserve commemoration; of course they do. But veneration of the Enola Gay solely as a magnificent technological achievement distorts and demeans our nation's history, doing no honor to the U.S. pilots and soldiers still risking their lives in dangerous places.

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