How Lobbying Changed the History of Enola Gay

Martin Harwit. Japan Quarterly. Volume 44, Issue 3. Jul-Sep 1997.

The reader should be forewarned. I make three assumptions that I will not seek to justify: First, that democracy is predicated on an informed citizenry. Second, that a nation’s history is its best guide to help it shape its future. And third, that in seeking to exhibit the Enola Gay and describe its mission to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the National Air and Space Museum attempted to depict what is arguably the most pivotal event in 20th-century history.

I will describe a debate between the museum, which felt that democracy is best defended by an informed public solving its major national problems, and others who insisted that our nation’s best defense is military and worried that an explicit history might weaken the military establishment by tarnishing its image. I will recall for you, from my own admittedly biased perspective as the museum’s director at the time, this controversy which raged through the American media in 1994 and 1995.

At the end of World War II, the Army Air Forces of the United States were engaged in a struggle to create a new United States Air Force independent from the U.S. Army. Chief strategist in this political battle was General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, who had commanded the Army Air Forces throughout the war. In 1946 he took two steps to assure the future of American air power. He masterminded the establishment of an Air Force Association, a conglomerate of individuals and industries dedicated to military aviation. He also persuaded these enthusiasts to lobby the Congress of the United States to establish a national museum dedicated to flight. In response to these efforts, Congress authorized the creation of a National Air Museum to be administered by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

For many years, the museum that was eventually built celebrated aviation with stories of heroic efforts by inspired pioneers. These stories were true, but they were only part of a larger account. Aviation, and later space flight, had changed the ways in which we traveled, traded, fought wars, predicted weather, came to understand our globe and gained insight into the nature of our universe. Quite literally, aviation and space flight had transformed life in the 20th century, though the museum did not say so to its public. And yet, what more important message could the museum provide to testify to the importance of the machines it displayed?

One issue that was most apparent when I accepted the National Air and Space Museum’s directorship in 1987 was the need to portray the influence that aviation and space flight have had on 20th-century warfare. While this was only one aspect of our work, it was to become the most contested. To understand the problem, we need to return to the museum’s origins.

Even before the new museum could be planned, General Arnold had made sure it would have the world’s finest collection of military aircraft for display. He directed the Air Force to set aside its most celebrated airplanes and to transfer them to the Smithsonian. Preeminent among these was the Enola Gay, which had dropped history s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, destroying the city in the most devastating explosion ever witnessed in war.

With a wingspan of 141 feet and a fuselage 99 feet long, the Enola Gay posed a severe storage problem. After a complex series of moves, the Air Force finally flew the airplane to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., landing it at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, in 1952.

Andrews is a base with restricted access, particularly since the aircraft assigned to the president of the United States are kept in hangars there. The Smithsonian relied on the Air Force to guard the aircraft just as it guarded its own. But the Air Force apparently had no available hangar space and kept the Enola Gay outdoors, unguarded, at a remote site on the airfield. Curiosity seekers broke in and took out a number of small, readily removed parts as souvenirs. Where they had gained entrance, birds followed, tore apart webbing to build their nests, and left their corrosive droppings.

Smithsonian Curator of Aviation Paul Garber became increasingly concerned. To guard against further deterioration, he decided to take apart the entire aircraft, transport it along available roads, and bring it to safety at the museum’s storage facility in Suitland, Maryland, just outside Washington’s city limits. This complex process, begun August 10, 1960, required nearly a year to complete. Finally, on July 21, 1961, the disassembled components were moved to Suitland. Here at least they would deteriorate no further. For the next 20 years they were also largely ignored.

Then, in the early 1980s, the museum began to receive mail from aging World War II veterans asking for the display of the Enola Gay. They wrote that the atomic bomb had obviated an invasion of Japan, in which they surely would have died. They wanted to see the airplane one more time before it was too late. Other citizens, equally concerned about the Enola Gay, were writing at the same time to implore the museum never to exhibit the aircraft. They feared that such a display would be interpreted as a celebration of raw power, unbecoming to a nation dedicated first and foremost to freedom and democracy and reluctant to use military might except in defense of those ideals.

The die was cast in early 1985, when Walter Boyne, my immediate predecessor as the museum’s director, instructed the staff to restore the Enola Gay.

Shortly after my arrival at the museum, I discussed with the staff the possibility of exhibiting the aircraft. Opinions differed. Many thought the display would be divisive and threaten public security. Security was a real concern. During my first month at the museum, we had three or four bomb threats forcing evacuation of the building. That was an unusually high rate, but bomb threats were not uncommon. On August 6, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, a group of demonstrators would seek, each year, to produce a public disturbance at the museum. We never knew whether some group might ultimately resort to violence, particularly if as provocative an icon as the Enola Gay were to be put on display.

This had to be taken seriously. I felt we would need to work closely with security forces, but that we should go forward with an exhibition. I discussed the matter with Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, and we agreed to announce the decision in Smithsonian Magazine, a publication with 2 million subscribers, and in Air & Space/Smithsonian, with a circulation of 340,000.

Secretary Adams and I also agreed that any exhibition should be founded on the most incisive historical scholarship, and reflect and respect a wide range of attitudes. The museum could not display the EnolaGay simply as a sign of technological advance. In the minds of most people, the aircraft represented far more: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the end of World War II, the start of the nuclear age, and, for some, the onset of the Cold War. Any exhibit had to address all these views.

Timing the Display

Some curators on the staff were apprehensive about an exhibition only 50 years after the event, when so many veterans and their families still recalled the war with bitter memories. But the veterans themselves had no such reluctance. They accused the Smithsonian of deliberately hiding the aircraft to deny its history. For more than four decades, they alleged, the Smithsonian had shamefully neglected the Enola Gay, allowing it to deteriorate before it could ever be displayed.

I also wanted to display the Enola Gay before all who had participated in the mission or its planning had passed from the scene. Historical records, of course, will always be available. But their interpretation can be difficult and misleading. I felt we might be able to avoid errors by talking with men who had been in leading positions in World War II and active in the Manhattan project, in the design and construction of the B-29, in formulating the decision to drop the atomic bomb, or in planning and executing the missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Among them were Paul Tibbets, who had piloted the aircraft; Paul Nitze, who had directed the Strategic Bombing Survey at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request; General Curtis LeMay, who had commanded the 20th Air Force and conducted the fire bombing raids over Japan; and McGeorge Bundy, who had worked with Secretary of War Henry Stimson and written his biography.

All of us involved knew from the start that the display of the Enola Gay would be fraught with difficulties. But it seemed to me that the museum had no right to hide the aircraft from the public when so many were asking to see it. To those who argued against a display, I countered that our country needed to learn from its past to plan a sensible future. When the Enola Gay was fully restored, we would display it in an informative, thoroughly documented, historical exhibition.

In part to prepare ourselves for this difficult project, we undertook several simpler military displays. In the autumn of 1989, we started a 16-month-long series of talks, panel discussions, symposia and films on “Strategic Bombing in World War II.” It was designed to provide better insight on World War II bombing, but was meant also to put us in touch with the community of experts who could ultimately help us both intellectually and politically in successfully mounting an exhibition of the Enola Gay.

In the spring of 1990, we opened a revised exhibit of the museum’s V2 rocket. Initially, this German World War II missile had been displayed with a simple label, announcing it as the first operational rocket of all time. The new exhibit showed Werner von Braun with high-ranking, wartime German officers on one side, and with high-ranking, postwar, American officers on the other. In the middle, it showed the underground factories where slave labor had produced these missiles. About 5,000 people had died where the V-2s had hit. Four times as many had died working under horrible, starvation conditions in the subterranean factories, where the missiles were manufactured. In the center of the display was a photograph of the destruction a V-2 had wrought in Antwerp. A corpse lay on the ground. Among the many warplanes, military rockets and armaments on exhibit, this was the first picture of death ever shown in the entire museum.

Nobody objected. The only media review was positive, stating that “truth in labeling” had finally come to the National Air and Space Museum.

Another exhibition in the spring of 1990 dealt with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The treaty specified that from the thousands of missiles to be destroyed, 15 could be retained by either side for “static display.” The treaty did not state whether each side could retain only its own. We decided it might be nice to try for an exchange of a U.S. Army Pershing-II missile for a Soviet SS-20. After two and a half years of intense negotiations culminating in the consent of Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov, the two missiles stood tall next to each other in the museum’s Milestones’ gallery.

To inform the public, we also shot a video on the restoration of the Enola Gay. It included footage of the atomic blasts and the devastation and suffering on the ground. For more than four years, starting in 1990, this five-minute film clip played daily in the museum, from morning to night, with neither the museum nor the institution ever getting a letter or phone call, either positive or negative, regarding this clip. Since this film displayed many of the same features that we planned to incorporate in the gallery on the Enola Gay, we saw this as a sign that the public would also calmly accept the exhibition of the aircraft.

Finally, in November 1991 we opened a gallery on World War I. It commented on the carnage of the air campaign, which saw life expectancies for newly arriving pilots at the front as short as three weeks. It also emphasized the rapid industrial expansion that produced 219,000 airplanes worldwide in only four short years, beginning just 11 years after the Wright brothers’ first precarious flight. The gallery also showed a short film on the birth of strategic bombing in World War I and its consequences for the remainder of the century-massive area bombing of cities first by the Axis powers and later by the Allies in World War II, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and finally the deployment of “smart missiles” in the Persian Gulf War. Newspapers nationwide gave us strong reviews. Again, we took this approval as a sign that the exhibition of the Enola Gay would gain wide acceptance.

We had known all along that we would need friends to mount a successful exhibition of the Enola Gay. In the summer of 1988, we started to work with a small group of veterans whose initial members all came from the 509th Composite.Group, which had dropped the two atomic bombs. The veterans complained about the slow pace of restoration. I met with two of their leaders and retired General Tibbets. We joined forces and they began soliciting contributions for the restoration. Their campaign resulted in 650 veterans sending in checks totaling more than $22,000.

I became increasingly confident that we had the veterans’ strong support but worried that Japan might object to the exhibition. In Washington, I had informally met with Asao Shinichiro, president of the Japan Foundation, who arranged for us to meet a number of key people in Japan. In the spring of 1993, I traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to meet with Mayor Hiraoka Takashi of Hiroshima and Mayor Motoshima Hitoshi of Nagasaki and the directors of the museums in their two cities, from whom we hoped to borrow bomb-damaged artifacts for display in our exhibition.

In August 1993, I returned to Japan. In Tokyo I met with Tanino Sakutaro, chief councilor for external affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office, and Sato Yukio, director-general for North American affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We discussed the exhibition to make certain that it would not inadvertently raise tensions between the United States and Japan. Other members of the museum’s staff also visited the Hiroshima and Nagasaki museums, and the Japanese museum directors and their aides later visited us in Washington. Throughout, I consulted the State Department in Washington, Ambassador Walter Mondale in Tokyo, Ambassador Kuriyama Takakazu in Washington, and their staffs.

The National Air and Space Museum was fortunate to have an official advisory board that listed among its 10 members the Air Force chief of staff and the chiefs of the other services’ air arms. They were strong supporters, and I expected that they would continue to provide advice and speak out on our behalf to keep the military services fully informed. Somewhat to my surprise, however, the relationship between the military and the military lobbyists and veterans was not close. We could have the support of the highest military officers and the secretary of the Air Force, but be opposed by the far more conservative, considerably older veterans of World War II, who initially had accused us of wishing to hide the Enola Gay and whose voices were becoming increasingly influential as the anniversary years approached.

With its huge wingspan, the Enola Gay was too massive to fit into the museum building. The only way we could foresee a display of any kind by 1995 was to undertake an exhibition of the forward fuselage only. This was 56 feet long and included the cockpit and the bomb bay. We would be able to display this section of the fuselage with its bomb bay doors open and a casing of the Little Boy uranium bomb immediately beneath.

Again, the veterans protested. They were now convinced that we intended to mount a display but felt that we would be showing an amputated cripple in place of their once-proud Enola Gay. They seemingly could not imagine the overwhelming impact that the towering, brilliantly polished, brightly illuminated forward fuselage would have.

Others-admittedly a small minority-could visualize this display and were appalled. They claimed that it would inescapably signal a glorification of military power and overwhelming force. We answered that the aircraft would be displayed in the context of history and of the destruction it had caused. There would be no mistaking the display for a celebration or glorification.

Both groups of adversaries remained skeptical. The structure of the exhibition, as it eventually evolved from the first draft submitted to me by the curators in February 1991, included artifacts and photographs, newsreel footage of the war in the Pacific and a final video the museum had produced to be shown in a small theater at the exhibition’s exit. In simple but powerful words it conveyed the recollections of three members of the crew of the Enola Gays mission to Hiroshima and those of one member of Bock’s Car’s crew of the mission to Nagasaki. They recalled their preparations, their thoughts during the actual mission, and their thoughts now, looking back 50 years later. Every veteran and every military person who saw this film thought it tremendously powerful. These men had been there. Their recollections contributed an essential human dimension to the exhibition.

Every major exhibition mounted by the National Air and Space Museum had an advisory group of distinguished experts. Early in February 1994, the advisory group on the exhibition of the Enola Gay met and provided the museum with both verbal and written comments and advice. They felt we had done a good job. Among the advisers were Richard Hallion, chief historian of the U.S. Air Force; Edwin Bearss, chief historian of the National Park Service and a wounded veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign, who had mounted an exhibition on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii; Harvard historian Iriye Akira, arguably the foremost authority on Japan-U.S. relations; Victor Bond, a leading radiation physiologist from Brookhaven National Laboratory; and historians Martin Sherwin from Dartmouth, Barton Bernstein from Stanford, Edward Linenthal from the University of Wisconsin and Stanley Goldberg from the Smithsonian, all of whom were familiar with public reactions to the display of national icons. The entire group felt that our plans were well conceived and that the exhibition would be rewarding.

This atmosphere of unity soon vanished. It began with an attack on the exhibition by the Air Force Association, which General Arnold had originally set up to speak for aviation much as the museum did. To our surprise, the Air Force Association was joined by the Air Force historian: Hallion had initially complimented us on our plans, but now he became the exhibition’s most bitter opponent. He and the Air Force Association called on a new team of like-minded historians attached to the other military services to provide them with backing. Initially, these military historians also were highly critical, but as we took their advice they became satisfied that we had a sound exhibition. Only the Air Force historian and the Air Force Association continued to hammer away at us.

Proudly keeping track of the congressional and media storm they had set in motion, the Air Force Association would later claim that in the 14 months from March 1994 to May 1995, they had garnered 38 television interviews, 40 radio interviews, and 517 separate articles in newspapers and magazines. To this they added a record of correspondence with Congress to show their influence on the government.

These were not idle boasts. The media largely spoke with one voice. It seemed that hardly any of the journalists had read the 500-page exhibition script that the museum had completed in January 1994. They preferred instead to take their cue from Air Force Association press releases.

To justify their opposition to the exhibit, the Air Force Association, the veterans, and the media reproduced out of context, wording and phrases from the script’s first draft. They vehemently denied that the atomic bombings should be considered “one of the starting points of the nuclear age and Cold War.” They wanted us to end the exhibition with the war’s end. They questioned why a U.S. national museum should want to display “bomb-damaged artifacts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Let the Japanese do that if they wished.

In the view of the veterans and the media, the museum was confusing the 50th anniversary of the end of the war with the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The museum must desist!

The veterans and the Air Force Association opposed the museum’s plans to include newly uncovered information-previously secret but now declassified diary entries, letters, memoranda, minutes of meetings and other documents showing the thoughts of President Harry S. Truman, Secretary of War Stimson, and their advisers in the summer of 1945. The veterans didn’t want any new information. They wanted their story to be told as they had always told it for half a century. They had fought in the war. They had been there. They had seen it all with their own eyes. The historians hadn’t. How could a historian claim to know anything that the veterans didn’t know better?

The curators and I repeatedly met with all these groups to understand their varied feelings. Some sessions lasted up to 10 hours. We replaced language the veterans considered pejorative or slanted with neutral but still informative words. We added an entire gallery on the causes and course of the Pacific War. We eliminated controversial material not absolutely needed to tell the Enola Gay’s story. All this required many months and many revisions of the script.

As our negotiations continued and the easy problems got resolved, we uncovered the most difficult task. The American Legion, whose 3 million members constitute the largest veterans’ organization in the United States, wanted not just a history of the mission of the Enola Gay but also a justification for it. The exhibition should give assurance that the only alternative open to President Truman was a massive invasion of the Japanese home islands that would have resulted in millions of American casualties and Japanese deaths-military and civilianvastly outnumbering the 200,000 who had died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This claim would not only justify Truman’s decision to drop the bombs to end the war quickly, but have it appear as almost a humanitarian act that had saved far more lives than it had taken.

The American Legion wanted to see that number of a million substantiated. This was difficult to do. Newly declassified documents showed that Truman’s chief military advisers had told him, on June 18, 1945, just seven weeks before Hiroshima, that U.S. casualties in an invasion would perhaps number around 60,000. Among these, 12,000 to 15,000 would be men who lost their lives. These are horrendous numbers, of course, but they are much lower than the million lives lost that Truman sometimes mentioned in postwar speeches. Still, by citing Truman’s own very real fears of heavy losses, we seemed to avert an impasse without sacrificing essential information.

My optimism on this count was premature. On August 10, 1994, six Congressmen, all members of the Republican Party, and four of them former military airmen, called for me to meet with them on Capitol Hill to tell me the museum had no business getting involved in important historical matters. We should stick to displaying the great technological achievements of aviation and space flight. They angrily told me to adhere to the mission Congress had assigned us. I told them this was exactly what I was doing: Our mission statement directed our “displaying,” “memorializing” and “providing educational material” on “aeronautical equipment of historical interest and significance.” The Congressmen countered that I was misinterpreting these words. A letter issued by another group of 24 Congressmen the very same day was equally indignant. Perhaps not surprisingly, the letter’s phrasing was identical to that of the Air Force Association attacks on the museum.

These moves precipitated increasing concern in Japan. Hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki asked that I come to Japan to publicly explain the changes the museum had made to the exhibition, so they could openly voice their dismay over congressional pressure. If I could not come, they were ready to send a delegation to Washington to publicize their objections. They insisted that the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both of whom were facing reelection campaigns, withhold the artifacts we had requested until their objections had been clearly heard by the U.S. Congress. I warned that such steps would certainly provoke Congress to cancel the exhibition, but the hibakusha remained adamant. We never resolved the issue; ultimately it was overtaken by events.

In the midterm elections of November 1994, American citizens overwhelmingly voted for conservative Republicans promising drastic measures and a new “Contract with America” sounding patriotic themes. This group criticized the museum’s planned exhibition as “politically correct,” pro-Japanese and anti-American. As soon as the new Congress convened, it took only a few days to get the exhibition canceled on January 30, 1995.

Later, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration on May 11, 1995, officials of the Retired Officers Association, an organization with more than 400,000 members drawn from all parts of the military, expressed regrets over the cancellation. They testified to “a growing consensus…that the exhibit would have been found acceptable by most veterans.” The Veterans of Foreign Wars testified to the same effect.

What Went Wrong?

Why, then, did Congress insist on closing the exhibition? The key to their actions was William M. Detweiler, national commander of the American Legion. On January 4, 1995, he presented his advisory committee with a nine-point plan that only came to light many months later. Its aim was cancellation of the exhibition followed by a congressional investigation. Detweiler’s strategy included a letter to the president of the United States; a face-to-face meeting with selected members of Congress to explain the Legion’s opposition; a letter to leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives with copies to all members of Congress; and “continued maximum exposure of the Legion’s position in the public media.” All this to be immediately implemented. The advisory committee approved the plan that same day, January 4.

The Legion still needed a pretext that would allow it to go ahead. Detweiler found this in a routine letter I wrote the Legion on January 9. It was one of many exchanges and meetings that had taken place in the preceding four months. The national commander now claimed that I had broken an important agreement, though my letter had only reached him January 12, eight full days after his call for action.

Detweiler wasted no time. He came to Washington January 18 to declare he would get the exhibition canceled. On January 19 he sent a letter to President Bill Clinton. On January 20, Congressman Gerald B. Solomon, Republican of New York, and chairman of the House Rules Committee, wrote me:

To date, I and other like-minded colleagues here in Congress who were disgusted with the original plans for the exhibit have patiently awaited adequate corrective action from the Smithsonian. Having learned that the American Legion has called for the cancellation of the exhibit due to the Smithsonian’s unwillingness to make adequate changes, I have run out of patience….

The Smithsonian is getting on my nerves. Let me make a promise: If the Smithsonian cannot accommodate the wishes of the American Legion concerning the Enola Gay exhibit, I will personally take measures this year to zero out the Smithsonian’s appropriation. You can count on that.

In contrast to Solomon, the three immediate past presidents of the Organization of American Historians, and the president of the Society for Military History wrote letters to the Institution’s chancellor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, begging him not to cancel the exhibition.

Canceling the exhibition now that most scholars and even veterans appeared satisfied seemed unthinkable. But Secretary Adams had retired a few months earlier and the Smithsonian Institution was now governed by the still new Secretary I. Michael Heyman. On January 24, 81 Congressmen, spearheaded by Sam Johnson, Republican from Texas, wrote Heyman to call for “the immediate resignation or termination of the Director of the National Air and Space Museum” and “a fresh and unbiased…balanced exhibit.” Six days later, on January 30, Heyman canceled the exhibition and promised to personally oversee a new exhibit that would avoid all historical context.

As the museum’s director, I strongly protested. Heyman, however, feared the loss of congressional funding. As he initiated a pattern of similar decisions, I resigned from the Smithsonian on May 2, 1995, much to his relief. The secretary’s own exhibit opened late the following month.

Once the cancellation of the museum’s planned exhibition had been accomplished, Johnson demanded also the suppression of the exhibition’s catalog, which reproduced word for word the text of every label in the original exhibition as it would have stood at its planned opening in May. For nearly a year we at the museum had planned to publish this catalog. Antagonists and the media had made so many false allegations and quoted so much out of context that we wished to have a record of the exact wording. We had no illusions that the attacks would cease once the exhibition opened or even eight months later when it was scheduled to close.

The Smithsonian Press had already announced the catalog in its spring 1995 offerings, and book stores had indicated a strong demand. But when Johnson asked for it to be banned, Heyman again agreed and withdrew it from publication. In banning the catalog, Johnson and Heyman made sure that the American people would never know what the museum had actually planned to display.

It is one thing to close down an exhibition in a public museum, where parents might be concerned by displays their children would see, but quite another to ban a catalog, a book that people must find sufficiently attractive to buy. Every democratic society abhors book banning, and here a member of the U.S. Congress and the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution were doing just that. In closing the museum’s exhibit, Heyman maintained:

We made a basic error in attempting to couple an historical treatment of the use of atomic weapons with the 50th anniversary commemoration of the end of the war. Veterans and their families were expecting, and rightly so, that the nation would honor and commemorate their valor and sacrifice. They were not looking for analysis, and frankly, we did not give enough thought to the intense feelings such an analysis would provoke. I reject this notion. A museum can, of course, avoid controversy by mounting an exhibition in an inaccessible location or at a time when nobody notices. But Congress established the National Air and Space Museum to produce exhibitions that will attract visitors, be timely and arouse interest. And that is what the museum should continue to do.

The three past presidents of the Organization of American Historians who wrote to Chief Justice Rehnquist had it right when they stated: History museums should not be confined only to exhibitions about subjects for which a perfect consensus exists. Where consensus already exists, there is the least need for the presentation of information and the opportunity for members of our diverse society to be educated and formulate opinions.

I agree with that.


Why did the Air Force Association and the American Legion so strongly oppose this exhibition?

Some have speculated that the American Legion was losing many of its aging members and that the end of the Cold War had left the Air Force Association with fewer convincing arguments in support of maintaining a strong Air Force. An exhibition celebrating our victory on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II might counter these trends.

Such speculations look for an immediate cause. I suspect deeper, unresolved differences rooted in our nation’s history.

The United States suffered terrible losses for nearly three years after Pearl Harbor. Our prewar isolationist stance had left us totally unprepared. Those who fought and saw their comrades die were determined never to let the country’s defenses lag again. The 40-year-long Cold War only increased the conviction that our best defense was overwhelming military strength. Nothing should be permitted to interfere with that-certainly not an exhibition at the nation’s most popular museum.

Such fears are understandable but take into account only our most recent past. An older tradition dates back two centuries to Thomas Jefferson, who saw our needs for defenses quite differently when he wrote George Washington, “Our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves…people with a certain degree of instruction.” James Smithson, the Englishman whose bequest established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, had similar aims in mind when he directed that the institution dedicate itself to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Jefferson and Smithson both recognized that a democracy can thrive only if it fosters an informed public able to learn from history to secure a sound future. This is what public education is all about. This is why we have national museums.

There is no inherent conflict between an enlightened public and the maintenance of military preparedness. A nation today still needs to have both. But the military, their lobbyists, the veterans associations and their voices in Congress wished to deny the public the information it needs. They shut down an exhibition that might have helped us to better understand ourselves and our past, as we grapple with the complex issues raised by the dropping of the atomic bomb and the subsequent proliferation of nuclear arms that remains problematic to this day.