Moral Ambivalence Didn't Fit in the Display Case

A Smithsonian exhibit and an essay stir debate on American chauvinism

The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past
Edited by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt
Metropolitan; 293 pages; $30
Debating the Limits of Patriotism
By Martha C. Nussbaum and Respondents
Beacon; 153 pages; $15 paperback


In January 1995, the Smithsonian Institution announced that it had scrapped plans for a large exhibition at its National Air and Space Museum to mark the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Relentless opposition to the planned event by military spokesmen, veterans groups and their legislative allies, culminating in congressional threats to defund the Smithsonian, had finally forced cancellation of the show and the resignation of NASM director Martin Harwit.

The original exhibit would be replaced by the display of a restored fuselage section of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that delivered the bombs, and a few supporting objects, texts and images.

The exhibition originally planned would have been a far more complex business, intended to evoke the moral and strategic momentousness of the atomic bombings and to plot the social and political shock waves they sent through the postwar world. Its lengthy text was rewritten four times in futile efforts to placate the Smithsonian's critics, who wanted an exhibition that would only celebrate American victory over Japan.

"History Wars" is a fascinating and necessary book in which historians detail the Enola Gay affair and its ominous implications for American culture. Its contributors include Michael Sherry, Paul Boyer, Marilyn Young and Mike Wallace (history professor at John Jay College, not CBS's man).

"Although the uneasiness about the Enola Gay and its mission would often be called a product of a disaffected Vietnam generation, left-wing historians, or the politically correct" co editor Edward Linenthal writes, "its roots are half a century old. In the spring and summer of 1945 for example, the American press engaged in lively debate over alternatives to unconditional Japanese surrender. There was vigorous disagreement among Manhattan Project scientists who made the atomic bomb about the wisdom of the decision to use it."

The Smithsonian's critics saw in the planned commemorative exhibition an implicit challenge to the "patriotic orthodoxy," as Michael Sherry calls it, that views the atomic bombings as a virtuous inevitability, sparing the innumerable American casualties a land invasion of Japan might have cost.

"The problem with an exhibit that set the Enola Gay»s mission in historical context," Marilyn Young notes, "was that it risked revealing that events that once appeared inevitable were actually matters of decision. The bomb might not have been dropped, thus perhaps should not have been dropped.... The exhibit turned the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into acts of choice and so open to moral question."

"If the motives for dropping the atomic bomb could be probed and problematized by historians," as Paul Boyer interprets the Smithsonian critics' anxiety, "what part of the American past was safe from skeptical critical scrutiny?"

The contributors to "History Wars" offer a variety of perspectives on the Smithsonian affair, but with one exception, military historian Richard Kohn, they view it as a sadly successful exercise in official thought control.

Answering right wing accusations that "political correctness" motivated the Smithsonian project, Mike Wallace notes that '`the only political correctness displayed in the Enola Gay affair was the censorship that shut down the real exhibition and barred people from judging it for themselves."

But, in Wallace's view, the most troubling aspect of the campaign to close the Smithsonian show is that "no one, right or left, took issue with the assumption underlying such initiatives --- that the federal government had the right to mandate historical interpretations."

The meaning of patriotism is a minor theme of "History Wars," which makes "For Love of Country" a timely sidelight to it.

University of Chicago law and philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum sparked a fusillade of response from other prominent intellectuals with an essay titled "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism," published in the Boston Review. "For Love of Country" reprints Nussbaum's essay, 15 responses from colleagues and her rejoinder to them. The respondents include Anthony Appiah, Charles Taylor, Sissela Bok, Elaine Scarry, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Nathan Glazer.

Nussbaum proposes that educators ought to inspire students to think of themselves primarily as citizens of the world with duties to humanity as a whole and only contingently as citizens of a particular nation. No matter that she and the book's other contributors often seem to talk past each other, their debate sharpens the questions that any proponent of patriotism or cosmopolitanism must answer.

Kenneth Baker is The Chronicle's art critic.

This review originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Sept. 8, 1996.