Bowing to pressure from veteran's organizations and members of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution agreed yesterday to junk its upcoming exhibit on the atomic bombings of Japan and instead mount a simple display of the B-29 Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum.
Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman said in a news conference in Washington that "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." Mr. Heyman, who was not in charge of the Smithsonian when curators began writing the script 18 months ago, said museum officials failed to anticipate fully the strong reaction of World War II veterans, many of whom believe the atomic bombings saved their lives by shortening the war.
"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," Mr. Heyman said, reading from a statement as 14 members of the Board of Regents stood behind him. "They were not looking for analysis, and, frankly, we did not give enough thought to the intense feelings such an analysis would evoke."
The American Legion had demanded that the show be canceled, and 81 members of Congress signed a letter calling for the dismissal of Air and Space Museum director Martin Harwit. Mr. Heyman, who has been Smithsonian secretary four months, announced no changes in the museum hierarchy, but said "we will look with great care at the management of the Air and Space Museum." He would not elaborate.
Board of Regents member Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican, said members of the board were unanimous in agreeing with Mr. Heyman's decision to scuttle the old exhibit plan. He said board members discussed the exhibit for at least an hour and considered the option of canceling the show. They decided not to do that because "the Enola Gay is a historic artifact that was given to the museum to be displayed" and the portion for the exhibit has already been restored and moved to the museum.
Veterans organizations vehemently criticized the show as "revisionist history": too light on the Japanese role in starting World War II and on that country's war atrocities, too heavy on analysis of President Harry S. Truman's decision to use the atomic bombs. Despite several attempts to "balance" the show, Mr. Heyman said curators could not overcome "a fundamental flaw in the concept of the exhibition."
Mr. Heyman's news conference followed a nearly three-hour meeting of the Board of Regents, during which Mr. Heyman presented his decision to replace "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II" with a scaled-down display. He said the new show, expected to open in May or June, would include only the restored forward section of the Enola Gay fuselage, plaques explaining the plane's role in ending World War II, and a video about the crew.
Mr. Heyman said the Smithsonian has already spent $296,000 preparing the exhibition script, which was in its fifth draft. The show was expected to cost about $600,000 to produce. That does not include the $1 million restoration of the Enola Gay, which has been going on for years at a warehouse in Suitland.
Unlike the previous exhibition, Mr. Heyman said, the new show would probably not include artifacts on loan from either of the commemorative museums in Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945, or Nagasaki, which was devastated by an atomic bomb dropped by the B-29 Bockscar on Aug. 9, 1945. Ms. St. Thomas said she believes there will also be no graphic photographs of bomb destruction or injured people, which the "Last Act" script did include.
In its simpler form, the Smithsonian display will resemble the permanent exhibit of the Bockscar at the U.S. Air Force Museum outside Dayton, Ohio, which also includes little historical context, graphic photographs or analysis of the decision to use the atomic bombs.
Critics of "Last Act" welcomed the Smithsonian decision with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
William M. Detweiler, national commander of the 3.2 million-member American Legion, the nation's largest veteran's group, called it "a significant first step in the right direction." He went on to criticize Air and Space Museum curators, whose actions "had all the appearance of those driven by a fervent ideology."
Jack Giese, spokesman for the Air Force Association, a group of 180,000 members, said "we are encouraged but we are extremely cautious. . . . Until the doors open and we see the exhibit we're taking a wait-and-see attitude."
W. Burr Bennett, a member of a group of B-29 veterans petitioning for what it calls "proper display of the Enola Gay" said the simpler display is "what we've been asking for all along. No glorification, no nonsense that they were trying to do before."
Rep. Peter Blute, the Massachusetts Republican who helped lead the congressional call for Mr. Harwit's removal, said Mr. Heyman "has made a sound decision" in scuttling an exhibition he called a "politically correct diatribe."
Spokesman Rob Gray said the congressman would confer with the chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee before deciding whether to continue to press for hearings on the process by which the exhibit was created. Mr. Blute is a member of that committee, which has jurisdiction over the Smithsonian Institution, supported chiefly by federal money.
Mr. Detweiler said the American Legion will urge Congress to go ahead with the hearings.
Robert K. Musil, director of policy and programs for Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear group based in Washington, criticized the Smithsonian decision. The scaled-down display he said will not tell "the full story" of the atomic bomb, including the horrors of nuclear war as experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"My uncle fought in Guadalcanal. He was glad he didn't have to invade Japan," said Mr. Musil. But "we've missed an opportunity to educate Americans, and everyone." He called the months-long dispute over the Enola Gay exhibit "an American debate over who will interpret our history. Right now, a group of veterans and conservative congressmen has won that battle."