"ANATOMY OF A CONTROVERSY"
EDWARD T. LINENTHAL
Part 3
 
 


Endgame

The exhibit now had been subjected, in the words of one NASM curator, to "death by a thousand cuts." Negotiations with the American Legion were Heyman's desperate attempt to salvage some shred of the former exhibit, satisfactory to veterans' groups and angry funders in Congress. Clearly, the Smithsonian's managers entered into deliberations with the legion because of threats of budget cuts unless they came up with a more "acceptable" script. For his part, the legion's Hubert Dagley felt his group's purpose in the meetings was "to achieve an exhibit that was historically accurate, with sufficient context in which the use of atomic weapons could be evaluated from all perspectives, including those who believed it saved their lives." However, argued Michael Neufeld, in the October script there was already little evidence of "all perspectives," and "the political pressure to have an exhibit that celebrated the dropping of the bomb was overwhelming." Perhaps, as Dagley would claim, the legion exercised no censorship over the exhibit, but whether or not the exhibit "lived" rested on its acceptance of the final product. The endgame demonstrated clearly just how fragile -- indeed, illusory -- was Martin Harwit's hope that seemingly endless compromise with powerful critics would result in a historically responsible and politically acceptable exhibit. (67)

The American Legion's national commander, William M. Detweller, declared in November, "More than anything else, our disagreements center on the estimate of numbers of lives saved by the use of atomic weapons in 1945. . . . Does it matter? To the museum and historians, it seems to be of great importance In determining the morality of President Truman's decision. To the American Legion, it matters less, if at all." In truth, to all concerned, it mattered a great deal. (68)

In their postwar memoirs, both President Truman and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had spoken of horrendously high numbers -- hundreds of thousands, even one million casualties -- in any invasion of Japan. Yet as military historian John Ray Skates notes in his book The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb, "the source of the large numbers used after the war by Truman, Stimson, and Churchill to justify the use of the atomic bomb has yet to be discovered. Nor is there any record that Truman, [or] Stimson, or Churchill used such large casualty estimates in the weeks before or following the use of the bombs against Japan. The large estimates first appeared in their postwar memoirs." These numbers, however -- particularly the one million figure -- took on iconic significance over the years, much like the six million figure for the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Any attempt to question these numbers came to be construed as an attempt to belittle the horrendous reality that an invasion of Japan might have been, just as any attempt to adjust downward the six million of the Holocaust -- even by several hundred thousand -- was perceived as a murder of memory, akin to Holocaust denial. (69)

High projected casualty figures were useful for those who argued, as the American Legion did, that President Truman was concerned solely about American lives, and that the use of atomic weapons saved many of them. On any scale of suffering, these high numbers meant that the potential dead far outweighed the actual dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus justifying the use of the weapons. On the other hand, historians who called into question the numbers, on the grounds that they were not the ones Truman and his advisers operated from, believed lower numbers would provide additional support for the idea that atomic weapons were used for reasons other than, or in addition to, the desire to save lives. The museum's exhibit waded into these perilous waters from the beginning.

Under the label "Half a Million American Dead?" a text in the first script read: "After the war, estimates of the number of casualties to be expected in an invasion of Japan were as high as half a million or more American dead. . . . In fact, military staff studies in the spring of 1945 estimated thirty to fifty thousand casualties -- dead and wounded -- in 'Olympic,' the invasion of Kyushu. Based on the Okinawa campaign, that would have meant perhaps ten thousand American dead. Military planners made no firm estimates for 'Coronet,' the second invasion, but losses would clearly have been higher . . . . Early U.S. studies . . . underestimated Japanese defenses . . . . On June 18, 1945, Admiral Leahy pointed out that, if the 'Olympic' invasion force took casualties at the same rate as Okinawa [about 35 percent] that could mean 268,000 casualties (about 50,000 dead) on Kyushu. It nonetheless appears likely that post-war estimates of a half million American deaths were too high, but many tens of thousands of dead were a real possibility." The May 1994 revised script added information that a "June 1945 Joint Chiefs of Staff study also estimated about 40,000 American dead for the invasions of both Kyushu and Honshu," and added that tens of thousands of deaths were not only a real but a "frightening possibility." In a letter to Wayne Dzwonchyk of the History Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael Neufeld said that he "looked for ways to . . . underline that casualties and a quicker end to the war were central to Truman's thinking. . . . I think that Truman would have been justified in making the same decision if he was confronted with 50,000 dead instead of 500,000 dead as his only alternative." (70)

The August 1994 revised script offered a new label, "Invasion of Japan -- At What Cost?" and tried to balance lower and higher estimates ("from 30,000 to 500,000"). It noted that 40,000 Americans were killed during the Normandy invasion, and that the total killed in the Pacific theater was "about 90,000." It raised the figure of dead in the Leahy estimate from 50,000 to 67,000 and characterized estimates of expected American deaths as "horrendous." It said that "Japanese deaths, military and civilian, would have been many times greater, as they had been throughout the war." The October revised script reflected the results of the negotiated settlement with the American Legion. While it still noted that estimates "varied greatly," it said that casualties "conceivably could have risen to as many as a million (including up to a quarter of a million deaths)." The script declared that the Japanese would have suffered "five times" as many casualties. (In this formula, American and Japanese casualties came to six million, suggesting, perhaps, an unconscious reaching for an invasion-of-Japan "Holocaust.") The exhibit now endorsed -- somewhat conditionally -- the "worst case" casualty figures, and the labels had been written by the public relations director and an exhibit editor, not the curators.

After hearing complaints by historian Barton Bernstein and other critics of the museum's script revisions in November, Martin Harwit asked Michael Neufeld if there were factual criticisms that the museum could respond to. Neufeld replied that Bernstein had discovered the following sentence in Admiral Leahy's diary: "[Army chief of staff George] Marshall is of the opinion that such an effort [Operation Olympic] will not cost us in casualties more than 63,000 of the 190,000 troops estimated as necessary for the operation." Bernstein made the argument that when Leahy used the 35 percent casualty figure based on Okinawa casualty rates, it was not from the whole invasion force but from the combat force. Aware that lowering the figures was politically dangerous, Neufeld recommended a modest change in the label: "Admiral Leahy pointed out that the huge invasion force could sustain losses proportional to those on Okinawa -- about 35 percent -- which would make the operation much more costly than Marshall estimated." (71)

In mid-December, Neufeld was "stunned" to learn that Martin Harwit and Steven Soter had once again changed the second half of the invasion casualties text. "Although Martin later denied it," Neufeld said, I remember him explicitly saying that we had to get away from us endorsing a potential worse-case scenario of a million American and five million Japanese dead . . . and put the responsibility back on Truman. . . . Martin later claimed that the 63,000 number had undermined his faith in the ultimate high numbers. I pushed him a little . . . by pointing out to him how politically dangerous this label was and I asked him whether he needed to clear this with the A.L. [American Legion] or others first. He said no." Neufeld later told colleagues, "This is suicidal." (72)

On January 9, 1995, Harwit wrote the legion's Hubert Dagley, informing him that as a result of the new interpretation of the Leahy diary entry, he had come to realize that the earlier text was based on a "misapprehension." Harwit enclosed the new text, which, he said, "does not alter the figures Truman cited after the war, but gives a different interpretation of what he might have had in mind." The label no longer was to say that Leahy estimated a "quarter of a million casualties," and "at least 50,000 dead," nor did it mention "perhaps five million" Japanese casualties. Rather it said, "Japan would also have lost many additional lives." It pointed out that Truman's high figures were made after the war," and that "the origins of these figures is uncertain." Backing away from explicit endorsement of worst-case casualty figures, the text ended with an orthodox reading of Truman's motivation for using atomic weapons. "For Truman, even the lowest of the casualty estimates was unacceptable. To prevent an invasion and to save as many lives as possible, he chose to use the atomic bomb." Harwit asked Dagley to send any "concerns or comments." (73)

The legion reacted angrily. For them, Harwit's letter not only once again revised iconic numbers but reinforced a suspicion that, according to Dagley, "we could not rely on the assurances of either Smithsonian or [NASM] officials; in other words, we had no certainty that the exhibit to which we might attach our agreement would be the same exhibit finally mounted in May 1995. (74)

Harwit read the endgame differently, arguing that well before his letter to Dagley, the legion was looking for a way out of their relationship. Indeed, on January 4, 1995, five days before Harwit's letter to Dagley, National Commander William M. Detweller informed his advisory committee that he believed the legion should "actively oppose" the exhibit, that Congress should investigate the museum's "role and intent in the controversy," and that the "Enola Gay . . . be immediately re-assembled and loaned, or ownership transferred, to an entity willing and able to display it without controversy." Detweller specified the form of opposition, including meetings with members of Congress, a press conference in Washington, and "continued maximum exposure of the Legion's position in the public media.""

Given the evident importance of the politics of numbers, there was simply no way for the museum to satisfy all concerned parties except through the vaguest of formulations. Wilcomb Washburn, the director of American studies at the Smithsonian, wondered, in retrospect, if the curators could have indicated the "uncertainty" of casualties by plastering a wall "with such numbers, each with a question mark after it." Former chief of air force history Richard Kohn presented an even more common sense solution and cautionary note to Martin Harwit In June 1994. "I've always thought," he wrote, "the casualty argument . . . simple-minded and lacking in context. The real issue was the campaign, not just the invasion. With Japan prepared to fight all-out indefinitely, and having stockpiled 9,000 aircraft, most for kamikaze use, the casualties would have been just tremendous on both sides, and everybody at the time knew it. That should be explained; planners put in numbers because that is necessary for logistical and other reasons, but to argue about them is utterly to miss the point, and that is what scholars have done. The controversy over numbers trivializes the business. If one were to project Iwo Jima and Okinawa onto Japan, the numbers are horrendous -- and this whole dispute is in my judgment an embarrassment to the historical profession." (76)

Even before Heyman announced on January 30, 1995, that the exhibit would be canceled and replaced by a drastically scaled back one, members of Congress had called for Harwit's resignation, and the AFA had Joined with the American Legion in calling for a congressional investigation. Harwit resigned on May 2, writing Heyman, I believe that nothing less than my stepping down from the directorship will satisfy the Museum's critics and allow the Museum to move forward ." (77)

A Controversy for All Purposes

In the end, everyone believed that memory and history had been abused, and the controversy over the Enola Gay exhibit became a useful symbol for all sides in the history wars going on in America. For U.S. News & World Report's John Leo, the proposed exhibit had been part of the "same dark vision of America as arrogant, oppressive, racist and destructive [that] increasingly runs through the Smithsonian complex." For presidential hopeful Patrick Buchanan, the conspiracy was wider than a "dark vision" at the Smithsonian. It was the result of a "sleepless campaign to inculcate in American youth a revulsion toward America's past. The Left's long march through our Institutions is now complete. . . . They are now serving up, in our museums and colleges, a constant diet of the same poison of anti-Americanism upon which they themselves were fed." For Representative Sam Johnson, a Republican from Texas and air force veteran who was appointed to the Smithsonian Board of Regents by new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the outpouring of anger at the Smithsonian indicated that "people" were taking back their history from elites. "We've got to get patriotism back into the Smithsonian," he declared. "We want the Smithsonian to reflect real America and not some thing that a historian dreamed Up." (78)

For others, the opposition to and cancellation of the exhibition pointed to a poisonous reactionary populism, the heavy hand of governmental censorship, and a future in which controversial historical issues could not be addressed in public museums. Alfred F. Young, senior research fellow at the Newberry Library and a member of the executive board of the Organization of American Historians, warned that the "museum horrors of the previous few years raise questions that go to the heart of the enterprise of historical museums in the United States; their function in American society; the role of historians in museums; the role of interpretation and authorial responsibility in exhibits; scholarly peer review; and how museums should deal with those who have a

stake in their exhibits and with public controversy in general -- in short the entire decision making process." Young was not convinced that "balance" solved the problem. It could be a "recipe for blandness -- the alleged professorial 'on the one hand' and 'on the other hand.' Curators should be free to take alternative paths to confront controversy . . . to question myths . . . to stir a passion for Justice . . . to create empathy . . . or to challenge sacred cows." Many museum professionals both deplored the political pressures that led to the cancellation and spoke of a renewed conviction that historians involved in museum projects needed a much greater appreciation of the difference between an exhibit and a book. "Not everything you can write in a book is fair game for a museum exhibition," one Smithsonian curator told me. "The reality is, we must pay attention to those with political power as we plan exhibits. I'm not sure that Martin Harwit appreciated this enough with regard to this exhibition, nor do I think that the historians involved in the project appreciated enough what the political cost would be, given that they were so familiar and comfortable with these arguments." (79)

Historian and advisory board member Martin Sherwin thought that as a result of the controversy, Santayana's famous aphorism "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" would have to be restated as, "Those who insist only on their memories of the past are condemning the rest of us to avoid it." Michael Kammen, president of the Organization of American Historians and a member of the Smithsonian Council, called attention to a "vindictive partisanship that prompts elected officials to punish (or threaten to punish) their foes by withholding public funds. . . . Historians become controversial when they do not perpetuate myths, when they do not transmit the received and conventional wisdom, when they challenge the comforting presence of a stabilized past. Members of a society, and its politicians in particular, prefer that historians be quietly irenic rather than polemical, conservators rather than innovators." (80)

It is also true, however, that certain volatile stories can be told in some cultural moments and not others. In the early 1980s, a period of high nuclear anxiety, it was possible to turn to Hiroshima and Nagasaki for cautionary lessons. In 1980, for example, Republican senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon helped bring an exhibition of artifacts and graphic photographs from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to the rotunda of the Old Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Hatfield had been in Hiroshima a month after it was destroyed and recalled, "The bomb saved my life. . . . But to see the indiscriminate devastation and to think that now the world has one million times the nuclear explosive power of that one bomb -- maybe this exhibit will give us pause." In this period, remembering the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki played a crucial role in the antinuclear fervor of the time. For increasing numbers of Americans in those years, this was the chosen narrative. (81)

The cultural climate of the 1990s, however, proved far less amenable to the telling of this darker narrative about atomic weaponry, especially in the "temple" of the National Air and Space Museum. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, as fears about global nuclear war eased, other kinds of fears about the nature of America and its global role in a world without a superenemy -- rose to the surface. In the overwhelming bitterness expressed toward the curators and historians involved in the Smithsonian show and in the invective that so often accompanied it, there were anxieties that could not be accounted for by any argument over the nature of the Enola Gay's mission, how to portray Japanese civilian victims, or what casualty figures to settle on in a projected invasion of Japan.

That darker narrative -- particularly when applied to the "Good War" -- seemed to tap into deeper fears about whether or not the United States was a righteous and innocent nation. For many, even to allow mention of the ambiguities and darknesses in our country's history appeared a dangerous activity. Representative Peter Blute of Massachusetts, one of the leading congressional opponents of the Enola Gay show, struck this note in declaring, "I don't want 16-year-olds walking out of [that museum] thinking badly about the U.S." Testifying before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, the American Legion's Herman G. Harrington intoned this new mantra of anxiety. "We believe," he said, "in passing a sense of America's unique role in world history, and a sense of its greatness, on to future generations. And we believe that the National Air and Space Museum consciously and intentionally violated every one of those principles by setting out to alter our citizens' views of themselves." Telling an "alien" story, the museum, in Harrington's eyes, "cease[d] to be an American museum and bec[ame] something else entirely." (82)

Embedded in such fear of the power of historians' words to shake the confidence of Americans was a sense that the whole nation was now in need of a dose of patriotic therapy; that history's purpose must be to bolster the self-esteem of a country of increasingly needy and vulnerable citizens. The irony that Americans have so harshly criticized other nation -- notably Japan -- for being unable to confront the complexities and ambiguities of their history was largely lost on those who opposed the Smithsonian and its exhibition. Also lost was the possibility that an American audience might be ready, willing, and able to face the complex past that the Enola Gay embodies.

Visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum just down the Mall from the National Air and Space Museum have, since 1993, had exactly that opportunity. There, they learn that Americans encountered and liberated the camps and that many Holocaust survivors found a home in the United States. They also learn, however, about official American anti-Semitism that kept thousands of European Jews from legally emigrating to this country. They find out that the SS St. Louis was turned away from American shores in 1939, resulting in the deaths of many passengers in the Holocaust. At that museum, visitors are judged to be mature enough to be able to confront a complex story. Sadly, they were not given a similar opportunity to engage the story of the end of the war and the use of the atomic bomb (as well as its various legacies) at the National Air and Space Museum.

NOTES

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