WASHINGTON -- The Smithsonian Institution's exhibit on the Enola Gay opened to the public last week, and within hours protesters were doing their best to shut it down. As hundreds of visitors waited in line to see the B-29 that delivered the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, a handful of demonstrators waving anti-nuclear placards kneeled at the entrance to the exhibit, shouting slogans and singing songs, refusing to move until the police finally hauled them off.
Three weeks earlier, vandals had splattered the gallery with red paint. This past Sunday three more protesters hurled ashes and what they claimed was human blood on the fuselage of the aircraft.
The protesters are angry because the Enola Gay is being displayed the way everything else in the National Air and Space Museum is displayed: simply. The airplane, painstakingly restored, is presented chiefly as an important artifact in the history of aviation and air power. The exhibit neither hides nor harps on the Enola Gay's role in helping to end World War II and begin the Atomic Age. It just describes it.
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, relates a wall panel, "destroyed much of the two cities and caused many tens of thousands of deaths. However, the use of the bombs led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. Such an invasion, especially if undertaken for both main islands, would have led to very heavy casualties among American, Allied, and Japanese armed forces and Japanese civilians."
Pretty straightforward history. But not good enough, or emotional enough, for the protesters. They wanted the exhibit to castigate the United States for dropping the bomb, to dwell on the horrors of radiation sickness, to portray the Japanese as the prime victims of the Pacific War. Such crude and unbalanced revisionism, in fact, was exactly what the Smithsonian's curators originally envisioned for the show. It took a wave of nationwide outrage and angry rumblings from Congress before the museum finally scrapped its plans for a politically correct harangue and assembled instead the Spartan exhibit now on display.
But as the obnoxious behavior of the protesters suggests, that isn't the end of it. They and their supporters are intent on making sure the Enola Gay controversy is recorded as a case of strangled dissent, of the Smithsonian knuckling under to pressure from reactionary jingoists. Already a book is in the works (Judgement at the Smithsonian by Philip Nobile) that accuses the institution of having "been complicit in an act of censorship" and describes the change in the exhibit's focus as a "surrender to the military lobby."
Then there's Edward Linenthal, a member of the Smithsonian's exhibition advisory board, who attacks critics of the original Enola Gay script as -- what else? -- "McCarthyite." Members of Congress acted "as if they were commissars in a totalitarian state," he barks -- "a precedent that will come back to haunt the integrity of history and memory in this country for a long time."
On the contrary. "The integrity of history and memory" are shown far more respect in the exhibit now open to the public than in the propaganda barrage the Smithsonian first planned. What appalled so many veterans and commentators was not the museum's desire to set the Enola Gay in the larger context of the end of World War II, or to portray the awfulness of what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the relentlessly prosecutorial tone of the script, the lopsided presentation of Americans as racist brutes, the depiction of the Japanese as martyrs who yearned only for peace.
The curators had planned to subject visitors to a cataract of "America bad/Japan good" messages from the moment they walked in the door. The theme was set forth at the start:
"For most Americans, this war was fundamentally different than the one waged against Germany and Italy -- it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism."
The original script quoted nearly a dozen American statements dripping with anti-Japanese hatred. But it managed to include only one anti-American polemic from a Japanese source. To convey the bomb's horrific effects, scores of heart-rending photographs from Ground Zero were to be mounted. To convey the unspeakable cruelties the Japanese inflicted on civilians from Nanking to Pearl Harbor -- virtually nothing. In sketching the two "home fronts," the Smithsonian rendered America as a land of high wages, Frank Sinatra, and entrenched racism. Japan, by contrast, was a place of drastic shortages, hungry children, stirringly romantic kamikaze pilots, and imported slave labor made necessary by "severe manpower shortages."
In short, what the Smithsonian set out to do -- what the revisionists wanted it to do -- was to tell the story of 1945 in a spirit of deep empathy for Japan, and resentful suspicion of the United States. Small wonder so many citizens objected. Japan was not the victim in the Pacific War, it was the aggressor. Those who preach otherwise are vandals of history. That some of them also vandalize museums somehow doesn't surprise.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)