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Looking Back 50 Years at the Atomic Bomb

Museum exhibit is caught in the conflict between celebrating history and a more complex look at what the events of the time really meant

THE 1995 exhibition, ``The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II'' at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington is the object of fierce criticism among some who consider it unpatriotic slander. The exhibition, due to open in May, is caught in the clash between two public voices: the commemorative and the historical.

Fifty-year anniversaries of the momentous events of World War II are opportunities for veterans to say final goodbyes to long-lost comrades and to remind postwar generations of their experiences. The commemorative voice is personal, emotional, and intimately connected with the events it describes.

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The historical voice is more impersonal and studious. It seeks to discern motives, understand actions, and discuss consequences that were impossible to analyze during the era of the event itself.

Remembrances of the atomic bomb, such as the Air and Space exhibition, have brought these voices into conflict.

Most members of the advisory committee thought the original exhibition script was a fair-minded attempt to describe the complexity of the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima; the consequences of that action; and the fact that the bomb brought about the end of the war and the beginning of the nuclear age.

Critics complained that the exhibit did not honor veterans' experiences. It was perceived by some people as being ``soft'' on the Japanese, for example. Critics called for a ``balanced'' exhibit that would blend the historical and commemorative voices and honor American veterans.

Some members of Congress and veterans groups pressured the Smithsonian to remove historical material. That which celebrates the dropping of the bomb is ``history''; that which suggests more complex readings of the event is ``un-American.'' For example, quotes from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Fleet Adm. William D. Leahy - both of whom were deeply troubled by the dropping of the atomic bomb - were removed from the exhibit.

The American Legion and others want the exhibition to tell a simple story that resonates well with the commemorative voice: The bomb ended the war and saved American lives. Yet the reasons behind using the bomb were more complex. According to historian Michael S. Sherry, they included ``the precedents set by firebombing, the psychological impact of the nuclear bomb, the lives to be saved by quicker termination of the war, the desire for revenge, the assertions of Japanese fanaticism, the need to justify an enormous investment, the technicians' desire to test their creation in the most dramatic way, the alarm that might be felt by the Russians, the supremacy the bomb's use might confer on the United States, and the shock to be given to a war-mad world.''

An important context that critics have ignored is the gradual acceptance among combatants of the appropriateness of mass bombing of civilian populations. No matter what one's opinion on the wisdom or necessity of the use of the bomb, the 50th anniversary of its use is the proper occasion to join in thoughtful reflection on this troubling reality. Some critics want to sanitize the exhibition by removing graphic photographs of the bomb's effect on people and replacing them with aerial photographs of structural damage. But graphic photographs are precisely what remind us of the human cost of the Japanese bombing of China, the German bombing of Europe, and the American bombing of Japan.

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Air Force Magazine argues correctly that exhibitions in public museums ``funded mostly by public money, should be open for public review.'' There is a difference, however, between public review and an attempt to make an exhibition comply with a simplistic view of history by threatening the careers of curators or threatening the Smithsonian's funding.

Ironically, at the nearby United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, visitors learn about the role of the US in World War II as bystander as well as liberator. Visitors to the Holocaust museum are mature enough to understand the messy complexity of history in this case, and I suspect that they can do the same when they visit ``The Last Act.''

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