Bowing to pressure, Smithsonian rewrites its history of World War ll Wrestling with History


During 22 hours of talks at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, negotiators agreed that seven atomic mushroom cloud photographs were too many. Four would do: two from Hiroshima, two from Nagasaki.

And the photograph of a badly burned Japanese woman being treated at a Red Cross hospital would be deleted because it was considered too graphic. And the figure of 31,000 Allied troop casualties anticipated in an invasion of Japan would have to be bumped way up, 10 times or more, to accurately reflect the historical record for an exhibit called "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II," expected to open next May.

The first and only wartime use of atomic weapons had occurred 49 years before, but in a windowless room on the Washington Mall the history was taking shape again.

Historians, museum officials and representatives of the American Legion sat together for two days late last month wrestling with a heap of images, reams of words, and a question that inevitably colors any dispute over public historical exhibits: Whose story will be told?

It's one thing for historians to argue controversial theories in scholarly journals and books. It's another to do it in such a place as the National Air and Space Museum, a two-block-long marble and glass behemoth on the Washington Mall. Visited by 8.2 million people a year, it is one of the most popular museums in the world.

"The public historian faces obstacles that the academic historian does not face," says James O. Horton, a professor of history and American civilization at George Washington University and a speaker at a forum tomorrow night at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History titled "Who Owns History?"

Historian James McPherson of Princeton University expresses the public historian's peril this way: "The more people you reach, the more you're going to offend." That's especially true, he says, when many of the people who were directly involved in the history are still living.

Mr. McPherson is a member of Protect Historic America, the group that opposed the Walt Disney Co.'s recently abandoned plan for a $650 million historic theme park near Manassas, Va. The group's chief objection was the proposed site near a major Civil War battlefield. But some members, including Civil War historian Shelby Foote, also feared Disney would distort history.

That's exactly what veterans' groups accused the Smithsonian of doing with its World War II exhibit. The show was condemned as too soft on Japanese aggression during the war and too fixated on the horrors of the bombing.

In Hiroshima, the bomb is believed to have killed about 70,000 people in seconds, ultimately perhaps twice that number. The death toll in Nagasaki, where the bomb was dropped on Aug. 9, 1945, has been put at about 50,000.

Even before the first photograph was hung, the Air and Space Museum was trying to mollify veterans by reviewing the exhibit's 500-page script line by line with representatives of the American Legion.

On Sept. 21 and 28, about a dozen representatives of the Smithsonian met with Hugh Dagley, the American Legion's director of internal affairs, and Herm Harrington, representative of the Legion's national commander.

Major changes

As a result of those meetings, the Smithsonian agreed to major changes in the show's words and images, particularly those illustrating the destruction caused by the bomb and the Allied casualties anticipated if an invasion of Japan had been necessary to end the war.

The changes included:

* Omitting a wooden clog left behind by a Japanese woman whose body was never recovered from the rubble at Hiroshima. A water bottle carried by another woman in Hiroshima remains in the show.

* Dropping a photograph of a boy who later died of leukemia. Another photo of a badly burned child being carried by another boy in Nagasaki was also dropped. "If you see image after image of burned children," says Mr. Dagley, "you're going to get an idea the target was children."

* Deleting a photograph of a Japanese woman whose back was burned with the imprint of her dress pattern from the bomb flash.

* Replacing a photograph of Japanese prisoners of war listening to Emperor Hirohito's surrender speech on Aug. 14, 1945, with a photograph of American prisoners of war listening to the speech.

* Removing a wristwatch with its hands frozen at 8:15, the moment the bomb exploded over Hiroshima on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. An other Hiroshima wristwatch and a wall clock from Nagasaki remain.

In the original script, the casualties projected in a planned two-phase invasion of Japan's home islands were estimated at 31,000 in the first 30 days, based on the invasion of Luzon in the Philippines. The revision shows Truman had reason to fear casualties ranging from more than 200,000 to as many as 1 million, based on the casualty rate in the invasion of Okinawa.

Michael Fetters, spokesman for the Air and Space Museum, said museum officials found the American Legion's objections "reasonable," and said Smithsonian officials felt some controversy was inevitable given the subject of the show. However, Mr. Fetters said, "I don't think we expected anything like this."

The centerpiece of the show remains the same -- a portion of the restored fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. For years, the plane, which has never been displayed publicly, languished in a Prince George's County warehouse-restoration yard.

Most of the script for the exhibit -- originally covering May 1945 to the end of World War II and the Cold War nuclear arms race -- was written by museum curators Michael Neufeld and Thomas Crouch. They worked with a nine-member advisory board that includes Richard Hallion, the U.S. Air Force Historian and former curator of the Air and Space Museum.

Museum officials said the show would reflect the historical debate on dropping the bomb -- including the Japanese perspective -- and look at the event's profound impact on the second half of 20th century history.

As American veterans tell it, the Smithsonian overlooked them and wrote scripts that badly missed the mark.

Mr. Hallion said he expressed concern in the winter that the show was "unbalanced" and "portrayed Japan as a helpless victim at the hands of the remorseless Allies." But he said the revised script did not include his recommended changes.

In the winter, the Air Force Association, a 180,000-member organization based in Arlington, Va., received from the Smithsonian a copy of the first script and began circulating portions of it to its members and to other veterans' groups. They were particularly outraged by this line: "For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western Imperialism."

Drawing a line

Museum curators have said the line, since deleted, was meant to convey the perspective of the Japanese, not to suggest that the Allies were the aggressors in World War II.

But John Correll, editor of Air Force Magazine, the association's publication, says that the trouble goes beyond a line or two: "This is a problem of attitude, it goes clean through to the marrow," he says, calling the museum's approach "revisionist" history.

A committee of Air Force veterans, many of whom had been writing angry letters to the Smithsonian, began circulating petitions protesting the exhibit.

In May, the American Legion's national organization adopted a resolution condemning the exhibition.

That seems to have turned up the heat. In summer, editorials condemning the show began appearing from a range of political perspectives, from Carl Rowan to Charles Krauthammer. In August, 17 members of Congress signed a protest letter written by Republican Rep. Peter Blute of Massachusetts, followed some weeks later by a unanimous Senate protest resolution.

"That's when the Smithsonian realized they had a bigger problem than they realized," says Mr. Dagley, a Vietnam War veteran from Indianapolis. "They underestimated the extent to which the participants in this history were still kicking and screaming and were willing to kick and scream."

In August, the Smithsonian decided to make a major shift in the focus of the show, says Mr. Fetters. Rather than beginning with the victory in Europe, which Mr. Fetters describes as "a flawed concept," the exhibit will devote more attention to the roots of World War II in the Japanese expansionism of the 1930s, including atrocities in Nanking, China, aggression in Manchuria and a heavier emphasis on the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The shift in time frame, says Mr. Fetters, will place the bombing in a more meaningful historical context, which the curators had said was their purpose from the start. The section on the legacy of the atomic bomb and nuclear proliferation has been reduced to a few paragraphs.

Will that settle it? Mr. Hallion and representatives of the American Legion say they are trying to be optimistic, despite what they consider the Smithsonian's poor track record in this exhibit.

Either way, says Mr. Dagley, "the debate has been going on since the weapons were used. This is not going to end the debate."


A panel discussion, "Who Owns History," will be presented by the National Endowment for the Humanities at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Baird Auditorium in the Museum of Natural History. Speakers are Cary Carson, vice president of research at Colonial Williamsburg; Barbara Fields, professor of history at Columbia University; novelist William Styron; James O. Horton, professor of history at George Washington University. Call (202) 606-8438.

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