The Enola Gay and the Smithsonian Institution.
Perhaps no other decision of the Second World War has provoked so much controversy as the use of the atomic bombs to quickly end the war with Japan. To highlight the highly controversial nature of this issue, someone recently commented that this decision was "the abortion issue of World War II." The existing fires of controversy were stoked even higher in 1994 when the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) of the Smithsonian Institution planned an exhibit, utilizing the recently restored Enola Gay--the B--29 that dropped the first atomic bomb--along with pictures of results of the atomic attacks, to mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of the end of the war. Additionally, the exhibit's original script, The Crossroads:--The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War, portrayed "America's Pacific War [as a war] of vengeance while Japan defended itself against Western Imperialism."
Because the original exhibit portrayed the United States as the perpetrator of a war crime and the Japanese as its innocent victims, veterans of the war and other groups, such as the Air Force Association, took exception. These veterans remembered the ferocious fighting on the Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, the Kamikaze attacks against U.S. naval ships, and the brutal and inhumane conditions in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Faced with a growing storm of protest, the NASM revised the script and exhibit several times to present a more balanced depiction of the Pacific War and the role of the Enola Gay. The revised exhibit became one of the most popular in the history of the Smithsonian. This maelstrom is the focus of O'Reilly and Rooney's book.
The authors have a special interest in presenting the story and implications of the NASM exhibit. O'Reilly was a university professor and administrator and had written about research methodology, social work history, and the 1943-45 Italian campaign. Rooney served during the war as an Army Air Forces intelligence officer in India and China and as a counter-intelligence officer during the Korean conflict. He was also one of the original letter writers to the Smithsonian asking for the restoration of the Enola Gay. While the controversy over the NASM exhibit is the book's central focus, the authors also present an outstanding, well-argued critique of the revisionist historians from whom the NASM curators drew their inspiration for the original exhibit and their version of this event.
O'Reilly and Rooney begin with a thorough review of The Crossroads exhibit. They then meticulously (and generally impartially) examine the most significant issues of the use of the atomic bombs against Japan: whether or not Japanese leaders were actually on the verge of surrender in late July 1945, how the American adherence to unconditional surrender influenced Japanese leaders at that time, whether the "bomb" was dropped on Japan because of racial prejudice, and where the various casualty figures for an invasion of Japan come from. For each issue, the authors examined the positions of the more significant revisionist historians who have written on this momentous decision.
In each case, the authors convincingly argue that the conclusions of the revisionist historians about the use of the atomic bombs are based on hindsight, the particular agenda of these historians, and/or speculative reasoning that goes beyond reasonableness. For example, the revisionist historians wrote that the A--bombs were unnecessary as Japan was on the verge of capitulating, that aerial bombing and the submarine blockade had virtually eliminated Japan's ability to continue fighting, and that the Japanese leaders had sent out tentative "surrender" feelers which Truman ignored. The authors adequately demonstrate that the Japanese military still had sufficient strength to inflict hundreds of thousands of casualties and that these "surrender" feelers were actually attempts to negotiate an end to the war on Japan's terms. Similarly, the authors provide an excellent discussion of Truman's great concern about the large numbers of casualties (American, Allied, and Japanese) that would probably result from an invasion of Japan and the continuance of the war beyond November 1945, and the domestic political context of July 1945 that made ending the war imperative.
This book is about not only the NASM exhibit itself but also, and perhaps more importantly, the revisionist historians who inspired the original exhibit and the way they practice their craft. Many people, and especially some historians, look at past decisions in terms of their own background--and agendas. They fail to realize or, more importantly, ignore that people make decisions based on the information at hand, filtered through their own biases, in a specific historical context. O'Reilly and Rooney well demonstrate the historical context in which Truman had to decide whether or not to use the atomic bombs as the means to quickly end the war with Japan. In doing so, they also demonstrate the fallacies of the revisionist historians in general.
Dr. Robert B. Kane, Air Armament Center Office of History, Eglin AFB Fla.