The former director of the National Air & Space Museum seems at peace with the memory of his own head on a platter. Martin Harwit served it at his boss' request, resigning after a long dispute over a planned exhibit about the atomic bombings of Japan.
Some of his adversaries publicly applauded his downfall, others were content to claim a customary spoil of victory: the power to have history told their way.
Harwit, an astrophysicist by profession, went home to Washington, disappointed but not bitter. Not then or now, says Harwit, 65, who holds a doctorate in physics. Still, in a new book called "An Exhibit Denied," he doesn't hesitate to criticize the Smithsonian Institution's leadership for sacrificing "academic integrity" in the interest of raising money.
He writes that the protest and eventual cancellation of the original atomic bomb exhibit demonstrates that "whatever it costs to buy influence, you can now have your own version of our nation's history displayed and opposing views suppressed at the Smithsonian Institution."
Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman and Undersecretary Constance Newman declined to comment because they have not seen advance copies of the book, which is expected to appear in bookstores later this month.
Harwit is a slim man with penetrating brown eyes and graying hair. He smiles readily and speaks softly with a slight Czechoslovakian accent. He betrays no personal resentment about the events that made it necessary for him to leave the helm of the most visited museum in the world, a position he'd held since 1987 and clearly enjoyed.
"There are two things about me," he says. "One is I'm very thick-skinned. The other is I have profound respect for the people who work in that museum. ... The extent to which people's hearts are wrapped up in their work in that museum is incredible."
Critics of the museum's aborted exhibit featuring part of the B-29 Enola Gay -- the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 -- came to wonder what was in the hearts and minds of Harwit and his curators.
Members of the American Legion, the Air Force Association and a smaller group of B-29 veterans argued that the museum was concocting an anti-American show, playing up Japan's suffering while glossing over its brutality and aggression in World War II. Some critics said the exhibit focused too much attention on the nuance and politics of the decision to drop the bomb. Wasn't it enough, they argued, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event by saying that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and thus saved American and Japanese lives?
Harwit acknowledges that the first draft of the script presented a distorted picture. He told his staff so in a memo in April 1994. But first drafts, he says, always need work. They also are not meant for public consumption. Unfortunately, portions of this one leaked out and created a public image of "political correctness" and "revisionism" that never really improved.
Harwit calls his book "An Exhibit Denied." He might have also called it "The Bonfire of the Humanities," as it reports in 456 pages of minute detail on a conflagration of history, language, images of war and official rhetoric fanned by shifting political winds.
Harwit's book tells the tale from an insider's perspective minus the passion of one who stood in the fire. In his book and in an interview conducted last week at the Johns Hopkins University, Harwit remains the detached observer.
"I think it's the only way you can do a book like this," he says.
He didn't start working on the book until last November, about six months after he resigned, giving himself some distance from the events. Harwit relied for most of his information on letters, memos and personal recollection rather than interviews. He says he interviewed fewer than a dozen people.
Some veterans complained of Harwit's arrogance, of his staff's failure to respond to their concerns about the script. But nowhere in the book does Harwit acknowledge any missteps of his own that might have changed the outcome of the dispute.
"One can always do things differently here and there. It may change the details," he says. He does not believe there was anything he could have done as museum director to rescue the original concept of a historical exhibit about events leading to the atomic bombings and their impact on 20th-century history. Forces beyond his control, he says, were working against this plan.
By mid-1994, he says members of the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents had become increasingly concerned about the prospect of federaL budget cuts. More emphasis was being placed on raising money. Heyman told Harwit in a meeting in July 1994, two months after he was confirmed as secretary, that he felt his chief mission was to raise money.
Board of Regents members U.S. Rep. Samuel Johnson, a Texas Republican, and Manuel L. Ibanez, president of Texas A&M; University-Kingsville, acknowledge that board members were concerned about federal support. But they dispute Harwit's claim that fund-raising somehow became more important than mounting quality exhibits.
Mr. Johnson, who was appointed to the board by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, says the trouble with the show was Harwit and his curators who "leaned on the Japanese interpretation" of World War II.
The conservative turn in Congress in the November 1994 elections enhanced the influence of the exhibit's chief critics. It also exacerbated the Smithsonian's anxiety about federal cutbacks. The combination of the two events, Harwit says, eroded support for the show, which by late January was in its fifth draft.
By then, the American Legion had demanded that the exhibit be canceled. Eighty-one members of the new Congress, almost all of them Republicans, called for Harwit's removal as museum director.
On Jan. 30, Heyman announced that the original exhibit plan would be dumped in favor of a simpler, less analytical show focusing on the technology of the B-29 and the crew of the Enola Gay. The show opened in June 1995 and will continue indefinitely. Heyman told several hundred reporters in a press conference that the museum erred in trying to couple a 50th anniversary commemoration with historical analysis.
Harwit sees no mistake. In his view, the museum was acting in the spirit of the 1846 act of Congress that established the Smithsonian Institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."
Had Heyman withstood the criticism and allowed the original exhibit to open, Harwit says, there is reason to believe it would have been well-received, even by veterans' organizations. During congressional hearings in the spring of 1995, Col. Charles D. Cooper of the Retired Officers Association and Robert Manhan of the Veterans of Foreign Wars testified that they felt most veterans would have liked the show.
Cooper told the hearing "There was a growing consensus, at least among reviewers of the Air Force Association, the Retired Officers Association, and the VFW, that the exhibit would have been found acceptable by most veterans."
Manhan testified that the exhibit cancellation "in the VFW's opinion was not justified."
That was May 1995. By then it was too late. The original show was history and so was Harwit, who says he suspected soon after Heyman's arrival that they would have difficulty working together. By the time Harwit was called into Newman's office on April 20 and asked for his resignation, he was already scouting around for other work. On May 2 he resigned.
"The real losers in this were the American public," says Harwit, "who were denied the opportunity to decide if this was a good exhibit or not."
Harwit spends his time these days looking for steady work, writing a third edition of a college astrophysics textbook and advising space satellite projects in Europe and the United States. He takes a philosophical view of his fall from one of the most prestigious positions in the museum world.
"I've had a lot of setbacks in my life," he says. "Every scientist does."
Pub Date: 9/04/96