Martin J. Sherwin


"Forgetting the Bomb: The Assault on History"


The Nation (May 15, 1995)


On January 30, I. Michael Heyman, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, bowing to pressure from veterans' organizations and Congressional critics, announced the drastic revision of a controversial exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II." Perhaps no other public controversy in recent times demonstrates so clearly how much influence the sensibilities of 1945 still have on the politics of 1995, and how fifty years of the cold war have kept the need alive for Americans to be defined by World War II and, in turn, to protect its reputation.

           To Americans, the defining characteristic of World War II was its lack of ambiguity. It was not just "the good war," it was the model war, the ideal war, the unifying war. Most Americans, public opinions conclusively demonstrated, were happy about how it ended. The atomic destruction of Hiroshiman and Nagasaki seemed an appropriate and just finale to a war against a vicious enemy that had launched a surprise attack on American territory.

           But that atomic ending soon raised troubling questions. John Hershey's Hiroshima created sympathy for the victims. Reports that the Japanese had been seeking ways to surrender created doubts about the necessity of using atomic bombs. Hanson Baldwin, military editor of The New York Times, Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and David Lawrence, editor of U.S. News, discussed alternatives to both the atomic bombings and an invasion.

           By the fall of 1946 questions about the atomic bombings had become so prevalent that James Conant, the president of Harvard University and the former senior science administrator of the Manhattan Project, urged former Secretary of War Henry Stimson to write an article explaining why the atomic bombings were both justified and necessary. Stimson's article, "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb," was published in the February 1947 issue of Harper's Magazine. Arguing that the bomb was used to end the war quickly in order to save American lives, Stimson neglected to make reference to the many notations in his diary--which he otherwise relied upon--that suggested the advantages of using the atomic bomb during the war in order to deal more effectively with the Soviet Union afterward. Nor did he comment in this article--as he did in his autobiography published a year later--on the option of ending the war just as quickly, without using the atomic bomb, by modifying the demand for unconditional surrender. "It is possible, in the light of the final surrender," Stimson wrote in On Active Service in Peace and War, "that a clearer and earlier exposition of American willingness to retain the Emperor would have produced an earlier ending to the war." [Emphasis added.] The suggestion that the war could have ended earlier, without the use of the atomic bomb, was as upsetting in 1947 as it is in 1995.

           The ambiguities introduced into the discussion of the atomic bomb in 1946 by Hershey, Baldwin, Cousins, Lawrence and Stimson, among others, were quickly submerged by the rising tide of the cold war, McCarthyism and the Korean War. The cold war forced everything that questioned "the good war" into the far left corner of our political basement. The critical histories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were written were either ignored by the mainstream press or tainted as leftist and revisionist. The natural discussion of this important issue was stifled. Thus the battle over the Enola Gay exhibit was not a debate over interpretations of history. It was, as Edward Lithenthal has written, a struggle between popular memory and history, between the commemorative and the historical, cut off by fifty years of the cold war.

           I was a member of the historical advisory board for the Enola Gay exhibit. My strong impression of the first draft of the script for the exhibition, which I shared with the other advisers, was that its historical section was inadequate. No one taking the trouble to study carefully the documents that were to be displayed would understand why so many historians challenge what President Truman and Secretary of War Stimson told the public about why the atomic bombs were used. The draft script offered only a glimpse into the declassified top-secret documents that have compelled historians to rewrite the wartime history of the atomic bomb project. To those of us familiar with those documents it appeared as if the curators were giving undue attention to established myths at the expense of historical research. In a word, the draft script was cautious, which explains why the Air Force historians on the committee inquiry praised it as "a most impressive piece of work."

           This view of the exhibit was not shared by John Correll, the editor of Air Force Magazine. Furious at director Martin Harwit for presumably masterminding the transformation of the Air and Space Museum from an Air Force showcase into something more serious, he published a critical review of the exhibit, "War Stories at Air and Space," in the April 1994 issue of AFM. Counting pictures of dead Japanese versus dead Americans, and affirming that veterans believed that the museum had become "an unpatriotic institution," Correll condemned the exhibit as pro-Japanese. Editorialists for The Washington Star and, astonishingly, for The Washington Post as well, swallowed Correll's bait, encouraging politicians running for re-election to join the attack.

           By means of a Senate resolution, and a threatening letter from the relevant committee chairman and his colleagues, the two houses of Congress joined forces to threaten the curators' jobs and the museum's funding. In taking this action, Representative Peter Blute of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, Senator Nancy Kassebaum and the other Congressional critics of the Enola Gay historical exhibit laid the foundations for a post-cold war form of McCarthyism in which the Japanese were substituted for the Soviets. Old McCarthyite smears such as "unpatriotic," "left wing" and "anti-American" were recycled in this deceitful campaign to decree an official history of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

           To say that this assault on a cautious presentation of the history of the debate over the atomic bombings is part of the turmoil within our political culture, or part of the "culture wars" that are raging through America, is to state the obvious. It is one with the general attack by the right on the news media, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National History Standards report. It is an assault on the professional standards of a new generation of curators, whose training (not their politics) in history and curatorial science obliges them to present new and competing scholarly perspectives along with the expected and familiar. Conservatives have been attacking the Smithsonian's museums regularly since 1988, arguing that the museums are merely "the nation's attic," where artifacts should be displayed but not evaluated, interpreted or contextualized. Those who have followed this campaign will recall, perhaps with a touch of irony, that the first target was the 1988 exhibit, "Toward a More Perfect Union," which documented the forced removal of Japanese-Americans to relocation camps during World War II. Thus another objection of the museum's critics is the subjects themselves: America's dirty laundry should not be hung in Washington, they insist.

           In light of the events surrounding the Enola Gay exhibit, we might want to consider revising Santayana's famous aphorism: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." A more appropriate formulation for the current state of affairs might read: "Those who insist only on their memories of the past are condemning the rest of us to avoid it." Of course, that is exactly the objective of the 1995 attacks on the history of 1945.