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.
Why should I say that up front? Because when studying history we learn that everyone is biased. We can work to be ‘fair and balanced’ but, in the end everyone has opinions and agendas that creeps into their work. Unless we recognize our own bias we will miss other peoples bias, and those that agree with ours are the easiest to miss. While reading “History Wars” I tried to keep in mind both my and the author’s bias.
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 began to 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 stakeholder were American veterans, the aerospace branch of Eisenhower’s military industrial complex, and, later, conservative politicians.
John Dower’s essay looks at how Japan, the aggressor in the Pacific war had refused to examine their own record of disregard for civilian life. Only when China insisted on acknowledgement of those atrocities did Japan reluctantly begin to examine the dark side of their history. Americans have never been able to freely and openly examine slavery. Astrophysicists might not have known this but historians do, public historians intimately understand this. Unfortunately instead of chastising the Smithsonian for failing to see this historical evidence of how difficult it would be for US citizens to look at the immorality if incinerating the civilian population on entire cities full of he seems upset that Americans are no more able than the Japanese to examine the dark side of their history.
Paul Boyer came close to discussing one problem the Enola Gay controversy highlighted. The general public misunderstands just what it is that historians do. Revisionist is not a pejorative, it is the job description. But they are not “Winston Smith” revisionists, working to make the past conform to what we want it to be today. Instead they look at the past as it was, reading documents from the time in question or written by the people involved in the events being examined, reading records made at the time of the event, and examining artifacts from the event. Then they revise the story to correct errors that were created when the days events turn into yesterday’s news.
One of the more promising essays was by Mike Wallace. He looked at the economic and political interests behind the opposition to the Enola Gay display. Unfortunately he wandered off into speculation about a slippery slope of government sanctioned history, as in “1984”, and attempts to offer prescriptions to avoid the problem even though he acknowledges that the controversy was the product of a unique event intersecting with several unique factors, the anniversary of the end of WWII interacting with economic and political interests threatened by the end of the Cold War.
Tom Engelhardt’s essay, “The Victors and the Vanquished” is a very interesting look at how we Americans have remembered the mission credited with ending the war in the Pacific. In fact we have tried to forget it. Only two movies were made about the mission and the crews, both were government sponsored. For the Japanese the mission marks a beginning and an end. It is a principal moment in the lives of every Japanese citizen who lived through it, regardless how far they were from Ground Zero. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. Americans remember hearing about the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger disaster, or 9/11 but none of those events changed our lives as the bombs of August 1945 changed the lives of the Japanese.
Engelhardt raises the possibility that the bombs of August changes us as much as they did the Japanese. Before Hiroshima America’s story was told as one inevitable victory after another but Americans soon came to see the nuclear fires that engulfed Hiroshima and Nagasaki as capable of consuming the United States.
I believe he got that right, the bombs of August 1945 were a victory we chose not to speak of. In 1946 author Pat Frank published “Mr. Adam” a farce about a nuclear disaster that sterilized all the men on the planet except for one. That same year John Hersey published “Hiroshima”, a look under the mushroom cloud. Soon Americans were seeing themselves under the mushroom cloud, Pat Frank took another look at atomic disaster in 1959 with his book “Alas, Babylon” in it the Soviet Union slices the United States into digestible bits with tactical nuclear weapons. Three years later Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler published “Fail-Safe” which has the President of the United States dropping a nuclear bomb on New York City after one of our strategic bombers slips from control and targets Moscow. Fear of the cloud was international, Australian Nevil Shute wrote “On the Beach” in 1957, showing Earths last people waiting in Southern beeches for the the radiation from a northern hemisphere war of annihilation to drift south and kill them. France’s Robert Merle published “Malevil” in 1972, nuclear weaponry had advanced to where a character could say it was a simple math problem to calculate how many megatons at what altitude was necessary to erase France.
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 this book my opinion quickly changed. I looked at other reviews before reading “History Wars” 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 fairly 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”hope that such a ludicrous idea would not get past a serious review. If you are going to make unsupported claims why not just go all the way and claim that the idea of presenting the bare fuselage of the Enola Gay was overly phallic for conservative, 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.