The Smithsonian vs. Enola Gay

Article excerpt

It was an "exhibition that never took place, never was seen by anyone, and yet gave rise to the most violent dispute ever witnessed by a museum." That's how Martin Harwit, former director of the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum, describes the proposed Enola Gay exhibit.

Mr. Harwit is the former Cornell University astronomer who resigned over the Enola Gay affair -the Smithsonian's embattled attempt to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. Now he has responded with what is likely the first book ever written about a museum dispute.

Those who followed the dispute, particularly veterans of World War II, will find "An Exhibit Denied" a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of a furious historical battle. Along with the blow-by-blow coverage, the author also provides insight into the changing world of museums. For the uninitiated, "An Exhibit Denied" will serve as both an introduction to the atomic bombings and to the ongoing historical debates surrounding them. But here Mr. Harwit is not exactly neutral. His experiences witnessing the fearsome power of the early nuclear tests clearly colored the way he wanted the events to be portrayed in the exhibit.

"I cannot expect readers to trust my personal account of our efforts," he writes, acknowledging that "every author brings prejudices to his work." He therefore includes several exchanges between "the principals," including Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, John Detweiler of the American Legion, Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets and a host of other notables and organization officials. The full roster covers three pages and the players break down into two camps.

On one side stand Mr. Harwit and his allies, an elite group of curators and Smithsonian officials entrusted with the nation's historical artifacts and a mandate to "research the nation's history and recount it faithfully." Deployed against them is a "military coalition" and its allies, a group the author portrays as bent on presenting one version only - that the atomic bomb was the "only alternative to a full-blown invasion."

Mr. Harwit, who was involved with the project from 1987, portrays himself as a seeker of truth operating between the two sides, concerned only with the best and most accurate portrayal. But in many places he tips his hand.

In the spring of 1994, he says, "an increasingly vocal post-Cold War conservative mood swept over the country and media." One chapter is titled "The Air Force Association lobbies for its own version of history." Win or lose, "the soldiering lobbyists keep their tactics under wraps to be honed and reused in the next campaign."

He would have the reader believe that no decent American scholar could be found to oversee the exhibit. …