The New Enola Gay Controversy: Pro and Con (2022)

Earlier this month a group of historians--the Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Current Policy--protested the plan of the Smithsonian to display the Enola Gay in a new exhibit. (See "The New Enola Gay Controversy.") Below is the Smithsonian's response (which was posted on the institution's website) followed by the historians' response.

Smithsonian's Response to the Historian's Protest

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has received and reviewed the petition from the Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Current Policy concerning its new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport, which opens on December 15, 2003. The new facility will ultimately display 200 airplanes and 135 spacecraft. One of the airplanes is the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan.

The petition advances the idea that the display of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, as one of the 200 airplanes in the center, should be used to “stimulate a national discussion of U.S. nuclear history and current policy.”

The National Air and Space Museum has, since opening in 1976, been committed to the mission given to it by Congress in its founding legislation, which says:

The national air and space museum shall memorialize the national development of aviation and space flight; collect, preserve, and display aeronautical and space flight equipment of historical interest and significance; serve as a repository for scientific equipment and data pertaining to the development of aviation and space flight; and provide educational material for the historical study of aviation and space flight.

The National Air and Space Museum tells the story of the development of flight and chronicles the history of the technologies that have made flight possible.

The text of the label describing the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay is as follows:

Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay

Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress was the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II, and the first bomber to house its crew in pressurized compartments. Although designed to fight in the European theater, the B-29 found its niche on the other side of the globe. In the Pacific, B-29s delivered a variety of aerial weapons: conventional bombs, incendiary bombs, mines, and two nuclear weapons.

On August 6, 1945, this Martin-built B-29-45-MO dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, Bockscar (on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio) dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Enola Gay flew as the advance weather reconnaissance aircraft that day. A third B-29, The Great Artiste, flew as an observation aircraft on both missions.

Transferred from the U.S. Air Force

Wingspan: 43 m (141 ft 3 in)
Length: 30.2 m (99 ft)
Height: 9 m (27 ft 9 in)
Weight, empty: 32,580 kg (71,826 lb)
Weight, gross: 63,504 kg (140,000 lb)
Top speed: 546 km/h (339 mph)
Engines: 4 Wright R-3350-57 Cyclone turbo-supercharged radials, 2,200 hp
Crew: 12 (Hiroshima mission)
Armament: two .50 caliber machine guns
Ordnance: “Little Boy” atomic bomb
Manufacturer: Martin Co., Omaha, Nebr., 1945

The New Enola Gay Controversy: Pro and Con (1)This type of label 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. Over the 27 years of its existence, the museum has carefully followed an approach which offers accurate descriptive data, allowing visitors to evaluate what they encounter in the context of their own points of view.

Frequently Asked Questions About Exhibition of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay

Q. How will the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay be exhibited?
A. The exhibition plan for the Udvar-Hazy Center is unique, best described as enhanced open storage. Each large artifact will be displayed with an individual label and grouped into sections providing historical context. The Enola Gay will rest on three eight-foot-high stands to enable viewing from various levels.

Q. Why is this particular aircraft representing B-29s in the national collection?
A. Our goal is to collect artifacts that have maximum exhibition potential by virtue of their rich histories. The Enola Gay was used to carry out the first atomic bomb mission and is perhaps the best-known aircraft from World War II. The B-29 is an extraordinarily important aircraft from a design and manufacturing point of view, and from a general combat operational perspective in World War II. There is no story about the B-29 or World War II that you cannot tell with this particular airplane. The Enola Gay has been in the Smithsonian collection since 1949. Only 30 B-29s still exist and 25 of those are in museums. Of the 15 B-29s built for atomic bombing missions, only two exist--Enola Gay and Bockscar.

Q. Why did the National Air and Space Museum restore the Enola Gay ?
A. The primary responsibility of a museum is to care for its collection. Although this artifact is 99% original, it had to be disassembled and was in very poor condition after being stored outdoors for several years. Therefore, a decision was made to restore it as fully as possible. This was completed in house over ten years as resources were made available. Other museum aircraft have also been restored for the Udvar-Hazy Center, including the Aichi Seiran, the 707 Prototype Dash-80 and the 307 Stratoliner, which were restored to flying condition by the original manufacturer, Boeing.

Q. How will the Enola Gay be treated in education programs for youngsters?
A. In describing the artifact, the museum’s education staff will provide background surrounding the aircraft and its role in World War II that will be age appropriate.

Q. Why isn’t the B-29 being exhibited in the museum’s flagship building on the National Mall?
A. A B-29 is too large to be displayed fully assembled at the Mall building. Portions of the aircraft were displayed downtown in the 1990s but the aircraft could only be reassembled in the kind of space provided by the Udvar-Hazy Center aviation hangar.

Q. Will there be films, video presentations or publications specifically related to this artifact at the Udvar-Hazy Center?
A. Over time, the museum plans to add interactive components to major artifact displays at the Udvar-Hazy Center. This feature will not be available for the opening in December and content has not been finalized. Smithsonian Books is publishing a new book, “The Enola Gay : The B-29 That Dropped the First Atomic Bomb,” which discusses the aircraft and its mission for the general reader. It is scheduled to come out in December 2003.

Q. As one of the most famous artifacts in the museum’s collection, will there be any special programs in the near future?
A. Our major priority for the Udvar-Hazy Center at this point is installation of the artifacts to make our Dec. 15 opening deadline. We hope to have some lectures and other types of programs scheduled by spring. Since all of our programs relate to the collection, it is likely we will focus on this aircraft, as well as the many other air and space vehicles on display.

Q. What do you say to those who believe this display of the aircraft glorifies nuclear war?
A. The exhibit plan at the Udvar-Hazy Center, including the Enola Gay label and text in its section, does not glorify or vilify the role this aircraft played in history.
We invite the public to come and see the exhibition and share their impressions with us. Many aircraft associated with major military actions are in our collection and can be found in galleries on World War I, World War II, etc. We regularly seek visitor feedback and, despite welcoming more than 9 million people a year, have not documented this concern.

Q. What was the total cost to restore the Enola Gay ?
A. It is impossible to calculate this because restoration occurred as time and labor
were available. Many of the more than 300,000 estimated man-hours were volunteered.

The New Enola Gay Controversy: Pro and Con (2)Q. What is the legacy of the B-29 Enola Gay ?
A. In the end, the Enola Gay played a decisive role in World War II. It helped bring the war to an end in that after the bombing of Nagasaki, shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, surrendered unconditionally. But perhaps more critically, it profoundly affected our concept of major conflict and the importance of maintaining global peace. In addition, the Enola Gay , as a B-29, was the most technically advanced aircraft ever flown for its time. The crew was protected by pressurized environments, and the craft carried enormous bomb loads over a tremendous range. The B-29 was the mainstay of American nuclear deterrent capability early in the Cold War.

Response by the Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Current Policy (By Peter Kuznick, on behalf of the Commitee)

Thank you for the response, posted on the National Air and Space Museum's website, to the Statement of Principles that accompanied my letter of November 5. I am disappointed to see that you interpret the Museum's mission so narrowly. By doing so, you are passing up an excellent opportunity to educate visitors about the atomic bombings of 1945, which a panel of experts assembled by the Newseum identified as the most important news event of the twentieth century. In defense of your decision, you cite the Museum's Congressional mandate, which assigns the responsibility to "provide educational material for the historical study of aviation..." One could certainly interpret that phrase in a way that justifies inclusion of far more extensive and more pertinent background information about the bombings than the exhibit plans currently provide and that sanctions discussion of the unabated 58-year-long controversy surrounding these bombings.

Clearly your predecessors at the Museum have, at times, understood the Museum's mandate differently and have attempted to present historically contextualized exhibits that confronted important issues of interpretation. Many of us feel that the Museum is abdicating its responsibility and abandoning its educational role by failing even to inform the public that a longstanding scholarly controversy about the atomic bombings exists. Indeed, by removing the Enola Gay from this controversy, by publicly stating this past August that you are exhibiting the plane "in all of its glory as a magnificent technological achievement," and by displaying it and only it in conjunction with an invitation to a "festive open house" on your "Salute to Military Aviation Veterans" webpage, you and the museum are promoting a one-sided view of the plane and its history. The treatment of the plane, as it now stands, could easily lend itself to a celebratory view of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Admiral Noel Gayler, former Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, and former Director of the National Security Agency, said of the Enola Gay at a 1987 Smithsonian Research Advisory Committee meeting, "[I]f we put that thing on exhibit, we cannot fail to give the impression that we somehow are glorifying that mission or taking pride in it."

I also take note that the response posted on your website states that the type of label being used for 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. Over the 26 years of its existence, the museum has carefully followed an approach which offers accurate descriptive data, allowing visitors to evaluate what they encounter in the context of their own points of view."

On behalf of the Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Current Policy, I would like to raise several questions with regard to this statement and several others listed under the heading "Frequently Asked Questions About Exhibition of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay":

I. Your claim that the type of label used with regard to the Enola Gay is "precisely the same kind used for the other airplanes" is not accurate. Whereas the label for the Enola Gay makes no mention of the consequences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, your discussion of the incendiary bomb attacks in "The Final Blows" section states that "These attacks, carried out by hundreds of B-29s, devastated Japanese cities." We see no reason why the section titled "Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay" should not be expanded to include a description of the devastation wrought by this plane, including an informed estimate of the casualty figures. We would hope that the label would go further to mention the controversial nature of the use of the atomic bombs and we would be willing to suggest language for your consideration.

II. You state that, over its 26 years, the Museum has restricted itself to offering "descriptive data." But the Museum's history does not bear this out. In November 1991, for example, the Museum opened an excellent exhibit titled "Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air." The highly regarded chairman of the Museum's Aeronautics Department explained that the exhibit attempted to contrast the "myths and misconceptions that have grown up around [World War I] with the reality of life and death in the air, 1914-1918." And, of course, the Museum valiantly attempted to present the exhibit titled "The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War" in 1995.

III. You state that "the Museum plans to add interactive components to major artifact displays" but that these will not be available by December 15. We respectfully request an opportunity to see and evaluate such "interactive components" for the Enola Gay before they appear in public-the same courtesy the National Air and Space Museum afforded the concerned members of the American Legion in 1994. We would be delighted to work with the Museum's talented and knowledgeable curators to insure that these components, and all facets of the exhibit, are presented in a way that respects the scholarly debates involved and the great public concern over these issues. Toward that end, it would also, of course, be appropriate for the Museum to consult scholars and others whose viewpoints differ from those of the members of our Committee.

IV. We note that the Smithsonian is publishing a book titled "The Enola Gay: The B-29 That Dropped the First Atomic Bomb." Because this is an official publication that will be part of the Museum's interpretation of the exhibit, we request an opportunity to review a copy before it is made available to the public. In light of the fact that our Committee includes many of this country's leading experts on the bomb decision as well as experts on aviation technology, we would like to help you eliminate any glaring inaccuracies and make certain that the presentation is indeed balanced and responsible. Your own answer to frequently asked questions gives us reason for concern. In describing the legacy of the Enola Gay, you state that "after the bombing of Nagasaki, shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan surrendered unconditionally." That statement is at best misleading given the fact that the U.S. acceded to Japan's continued insistence on retaining the Emperor.

V. We note that the Smithsonian hopes to schedule lectures and other types of educational programs by spring 2004. We request the opportunity to meet with you and the curators to discuss these as well. Our intent is to insure that the Museum offers to the public a balanced presentation of the conflicting viewpoints on the atomic bombings. In addition, but separately, we expect that such lectures and presentations will deal with the many scholarly and popular studies that bear upon the moral significance of the actions connected with the Enola Gay and the subsequent ongoing nuclear arms race-subjects about which, once more, there are many contending and well-established viewpoints that any balanced presentation must respect. Holding such early and frank consultations on these matters can help avoid later controversy.

VI. And, finally, you suggest on the Museum's website and have stated more explicitly elsewhere that you want visitors to draw their own conclusions about the plane's mission based on information provided and their own points of view. But studies have shown that the American public has very limited knowledge about the factors that influenced the decision to drop atomic bombs, about the strong doubts and outright opposition expressed then or later by many of America's top military leaders to the military necessity, political advisability, or moral defensibility of their use, and about the immediate and long-term human and political consequences of their use. But even limiting discussion to the original use of the bomb, we wonder how an exhibit that presents so little pertinent information can provide the basis for visitors to draw any meaningful conclusions.

We also note that some members of our Committee served on the advisory committee to the Museum's planned 1995 exhibit. When that exhibit was cancelled, the Washington Post reported that Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman expressed his interest in holding "'a series of symposia'…on the issues raised by atomic weapons and their use." The panels were to include "experts, curators, military historians, representatives of veterans and peace groups and others." This has, unfortunately, never taken place. We call upon the Museum to realize Secretary Heyman's vision and work with our Committee to insure that a series of conferences is held that offers balanced presentations and reflects the views of the nation's leading scholars on these crucial matters.

And, in closing, we call your attention to the Committee website, which contains an updated list of the most prominent signers of our statement calling on the Museum to act responsibly in this matter and will also display sobering statements by America's top military leaders disputing the orthodox view that the atomic bombs were justifiable because they were needed to bring an end to the Second World War.

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