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Museum's Display of Plane that Dropped A-bomb Stirs Debate - 2004-01-21

On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, the second destroyed Nagasaki. Soon after, Japan surrendered unconditionally. President Harry Truman’s decision to use the A-bomb has been the subject of intense debate ever since. It recently flared up again when the plane that delivered the Hiroshima bomb went on display at the National Air and Space Museum outside Washington. VOA’s Serena Parker recently visited the exhibit and reports on the controversy.

At the end of World War Two, with the Germans and Italians defeated, the Allies turned their attention to the Pacific, where Japan still was fighting fiercely. Fearful of the casualties a land invasion would entail, President Harry Truman ordered the U.S. Air Force to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and on August 15, Japan surrendered unconditionally. More than 230,000 people would lose their lives either directly or indirectly as a result of the two attacks.

Now the plane that dropped the first ever atomic bomb, the Enola Gay, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s new center in Chantilly, Virginia. It is one among 81 aircraft in an aviation hanger 10-stories high that has room for even the largest, such as an Air France Concorde Jet and the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

The Enola Gay, named after the mother of mission pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets, shares the main floor with other World War II aircraft. In recent years, the plane has been restored, the outer aluminum skin polished to a brilliant shine.

Lou Langone, a retired history teacher and a U.S. veteran of the Korean War, was touring the museum with his son. “I think the exhibit here is excellent,” he says. “I think it is first class, especially being a veteran of the Korean War. I know quite a few of these planes since I grew up during World War II, and this was one of the last big bombers of World War II, and I’m very impressed with the Enola Gay.”

As the two men stood on the elevated catwalk in front of the plane, the lighted cockpit that housed the crew of 12 men was close enough to touch. However, a clear plexi-glass panel in front of the plane prevented them from doing so.

The panel was installed to protect the plane after the center’s opening on December 15. That day, an anti-nuclear peace activist threw a glass container of red paint at the aircraft, denting it. Police arrested the protestor who was one of several dozen demanding a full accounting of the damage done by the atomic bomb.

There is only a small plaque next to the plane describing it as “the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II, and the first bomber to house its crew in pressurized compartments.” The plaque notes that the plane dropped the first atomic weapon ever used, but has nothing more to say.

Lou Langone thinks that is sufficient. “I used to teach high school history,” he says, “and my opinion is that the dropping of the first atomic bomb shortened the war. And the reason why President Truman was influenced to drop it was because he had been informed that probably one million lives would have been lost if it had not been dropped. So I feel that it was the right thing to do because in the long run it saved lives. Unfortunately, many Japanese died.”

The National Air and Space Museum issued a statement regarding the display. It says the museum “tells the story of the development of flight and chronicles the history of the technologies that have made flight possible.” The description of the Enola Gay is “precisely the same kind used for the other airplanes and spacecraft in the museum. Its intent is to tell visitors what the object is and the basic facts concerning its history.” The Museum goes on to say this “allows visitors to evaluate what they encounter in the context of their own points of view.”

Joseph Gerson is program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization founded during World War I. As an organizer of Enola Gay protests, he says the museum should tell the whole story of the atom bomb.

“If you go there, what you will see is that it essentially is celebrated,” he says. “It tells us that it dropped the atomic bomb as if that’s something normal. And what it doesn’t give is the context: what it did to human beings. And it’s interesting to watch young children going there on their class field trips. They go and they look at this as something normal – not looking at the context of how this killed a couple hundred thousand people, how this launched us into a disastrous nuclear age and how the bombing actually wasn’t necessary.”

Mr. Gerson says the Enola Gay exhibit should provide a history of the war and include photos of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“I’m Jewish. The Holocaust is central to my identity,” he says. “In the United States, in Germany, in other countries, you have museums that memorialize the so-called Final Solution. They don’t celebrate the Zyklon B, the gas used in the Nazi gas chambers. They don’t just show the exhibit with no context. Those exhibits are put in context and this should be the same with the Enola Gay.”

Mr. Gerson believes the display will serve as a magnet, drawing people from across the country and around the world to protest nuclear weapons.

John Correll, former editor-in-chief of Air Force Magazine, also expects the protestors to keep protesting. He says the Air Force Association has no problem with listing the death toll from the atomic bombs, but that must be put in perspective. The caption should include something to the effect that the atomic bombs ended a war in which 17 million people died at the hands of the Japanese Empire from 1931 to 1945.

“The whole issue of Hiroshima is a controversial issue,” he says, “and it’s going to be debated and it should be debated and remembered. We have never had a problem with that. All that we have ever said is that it should be debated in context and not just focus on the last six months of the war when the people that the Japanese had attacked were closing in and striking back.”

Peace activists acknowledge the Japanese Imperial Army fought brutally with little respect for the lives of prisoners of war or civilians. However, they say that does not excuse the U.S. decision to drop A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two cities they contend were chosen because of their large civilian populations. That, in their opinion, constitutes a war crime.

“I don’t know how you can call it a war crime in the context of the practices of World War II,” says Ronald Spector, professor of history at George Washington University. Mr. Spector is also the author of the highly acclaimed book Eagle Against the Sun, an account of the war in the Pacific. He says the atomic bomb attacks only differed in magnitude from other routine bombings of civilians in the course of the war.

“All of the great powers in World War II conducted extensive aerial warfare against cities,” he says, “which resulted in very large civilian casualties. Unless you want to say, and there are some people who argue that this is the case, that every use of air power against primarily civilian targets, or where civilian targets are likely to be struck, that all those things are war crimes, I don’t see how you’re going to single out the use of the atomic bomb as a war crime.”

Still, as peace activists say, the atomic bomb is like no other, and if an explanation is lacking at the museum, the very presence of the Enola Gay is sure to keep the issue alive.