THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Tuesday, January 31, 1995 TAG: 9501310297 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: STAFF AND WIRE REPORT DATELINE: WASHINGTON LENGTH: Long : 110 lines
In a move that drew guarded praise from veterans groups, the Smithsonian Institution decided on Monday to radically scale back a major exhibit on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
What was once conceived as a major show on the last months of the war in the Pacific and its aftermath will now consist of a simple display of a segment of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The fuselage will be accompanied by a plaque and perhaps a film of the airplane's crew.
Materials that were at the heart of a long-running controversy, such as photographs of the destruction of the city, relics of civilian casualties and a text that questioned the necessity of dropping the bomb, will be eliminated from the exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
``We made a basic error in attempting to couple an historical treatment of the use of atomic weapons with the 50th anniversary commemoration of the end of the war,'' Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman said in announcing that the institution's regents had concurred with his recommendation to recast the exhibit.
Veterans groups and many members of Congress had complained that the planned exhibit was biased. They said it would show America as the aggressor in the Pacific war and would put too much stress on the enormous toll suffered by Japan. They also said the exhibit underestimated the number of American soldiers who would have perished if the bomb had not been dropped and an invasion of Japan had been necessary.
Last week, 81 members of Congress, which provides much of the Smithsonian's money, deplored the way the institution was handling the exhibit and called for the removal of Martin Harwit, director of the National Air and Space Museum.
``In this important anniversary year, veterans and their families were expecting, and rightly so, that the nation would honor and commemorate their valor and sacrifice,'' Heyman said. ``They were not looking for analysis, and, frankly, we did not give enough thought to the intense feelings such an analysis would evoke.''
White House press secretary Mike McCurry said President Clinton supported the decision. He said Clinton believes that academic freedom was an issue but that some of the concerns expressed by veterans groups ``had merit.''
``The winners, just as they were 50 years ago, are the American people,'' said William Detweiler, national commander of the American Legion, one of the groups that have pressed for months for the changes. ``Visitors to this display will not be force-fed one version of history or another. They will be free to contemplate this historic aircraft and the meaning of its pivotal mission.''
Military history experts in Hampton Roads, while reluctant to criticize the Smithsonian directly, said the decision represents a failure of a museum's primary mission: teaching the lessons of history.
``I don't think any exhibit is too hot to handle,'' said John Quarstein, director of the War Memorial Museum in Newport News. ``It's a message of history, and that's what museums are supposed to give. . . . As painful as it may be, it's necessary.''
Retired Army Col. Lyman Hammond, acting director of the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, said: ``This was a major event in the history of the world. . . . Show people what happened and let them make up their own minds. I would say that they knuckled under to pressure.''
Carl Boyd, a professor of military history at Old Dominion University, said: ``As a military historian I'm the first to admit that war is hell. And I think we can avoid some mistakes in the future . . . if we remember our past - including the unpleasant portions of our past.''
Boyd, whose academic specialty is the World War II period, is a consultant on an upcoming naval exhibit at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News. Part of the reason he was asked to participate, he said, was to help the museum avoid the kind of pitfalls encountered by the Smithsonian.
Rep. Peter Blute, R-Mass., one of the planned exhibit's sharpest congressional critics, said the National Air and Space Museum had planned to turn the display into ``a politically correct diatribe on the nuclear age.''
But Bob Volckhausen of Hampton, who edits a newsletter for the Peninsula Peace Education Center, said, ``Basically, the United States is unwilling to face the damage that the bomb caused.''
Volckhausen contrasted the Enola Gay furor to Americans' sympathetic reaction to the devastation caused in Japan by the Kobe earthquake earlier this month. The Hiroshima bombing, he said, was ``a disaster that was 20 times as great, and we're not going to face it.''
The Hiroshima bomb killed 70,000 to 100,000 Japanese. A second bomb dropped three days later on Nagasaki killed 40,000 more.
Some historians think the Smithsonian acted too hastily in trying to make any historical commentary on the bombing.
``I know a gentleman in his early 70s who was waiting off the coast ready to go in and do house-to-house fighting,'' said Jack Hurley of the University of Memphis in Tennessee. ``Try telling that guy that it was a big ethical mistake.
``If I had been director (of the museum), I would have said, `Let's wait another generation before we put that plane out there.' ''
Another historian, Kirk Jeffrey of Carleton College in Minnesota, noted that the issue has always been emotional. In a poll in 1945, he said, a sizable minority of Americans said they favored postponing the official surrender of Japan so more atomic bombs could be detonated over the islands.
``Harry Truman would have been crucified if it had come out later that he possessed a weapon of this kind and did not use it to save American lives, regardless of the argument over how many American lives that might have been,'' Jeffrey said. ILLUSTRATION: Photos
ASSOCIATED PRESS (above) and BETTMANN (left)
ABOVE: In a World War II-era photograph, Col. Paul W. Tibbets stands
next to Enola Gay, which he piloted on a mission to drop an atomic
bomb on Hiroshima. LEFT: A child who survived the bombing sits in a