AMERICA'S wars tend to leave their traumas behind, some of them long-lasting. Raise a Confederate flag in Virginia, and you will find that the Civil War is still with us. The wounds of the Vietnam War have only recently begun to be healed with the symbol of the Vietnam War memorial. World War II, a war against Nazi and Japanese aggressors, was more a consensus war for Americans. But one feature of that remains deeply controversial, as the Smithsonian Institute has found.
The Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum displays famous planes dating back to Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and the Wright Brothers' plane of 1903. It seemed natural enough to include a section of the famous B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay, which, on Aug. 6, 1945, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing more than 100,000 Japanese. (The figure is still in dispute.) A script, drafted for the display, reflected an effort at a detached, scholarly perspective, perhaps influenced by the viewpoint of museum director Martin Harwit. As an Army physicist, he had evaluated hydrogen bomb tests in the 1950s.
The script he produced may have seemed evenhanded to him, but there are many Americans, especially those who experienced the war with Japan, who are not disposed to be evenhanded. To many of them the horror of the first, and only, nuclear bombs dropped in anger was not too high a price to pay to bring Japan to its knees and obviate an invasion that may have cost, by President Truman's estimate, a quarter-million American lives.
Mr. Harwit was apparently not aware of how some Americans might react to lines in the draft, such as, ``For most Americans this was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.''
The confidential draft didn't stay confidential. Circulated to a board of advisers, it was leaked to veterans' organizations and precipitated an explosion that was the verbal equivalent of the atomic bomb. The Smithsonian was inundated with letters, faxes, and phone calls of protest. One protest bore the signatures of 24 members of Congress. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas got a resolution of protest through the Senate. No veteran reacted with more outrage than Grayford Payne of Annandale, Va., a soldier who endured three years in Japanese prison camps. He recalls the note posted by the Japanese camp commander in June 1945, saying all prisoners would be shot the moment the first American soldier landed in Japan. The atom bomb may have saved his life.
MUSEUM officials had long meetings with veterans' organizations, and four or five drafts later, it is a very different script. A picture of Japanese war prisoners hearing Emperor Hirohito's surrender announcement is replaced by a picture of American POWs. Deleted is a long section on ``the legacy'' of the atomic bomb and a final section on the nuclear arms race. More attention is given to President Truman's statement that he authorized the dropping of the bomb to save a quarter-million American lives.
Still, the script will not be final until it is approved by the American Legion, whose recent national convention Harwit attended in a sort of surrender ceremony.
Now the script is running into trouble in Japan. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which has received the latest version, threatens to withdraw 30 artifacts it was lending. The exhibit no longer reflects the feelings of the people of Hiroshima, it says.
Next April, maybe, you will be able to see the Enola Gay, the plane that may have helped to end the war with Japan but now has started a new war of words and unresolved feelings.
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