Forty-nine years ago this weekend, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and then another on Nagasaki. A year from now, on the 50th anniversary, Americans will commemorate these pivotal events. But we lack a national consensus on what to say.
Two divergent but widely held views define the dilemma. One view sprang up as soon as the bombs exploded and the war ended. Its proponents are united on the many details that need to be included in their story. Properly told, it appeals to our national self-image. The other point of view, slower in coming to the fore, is more analytical, critical in its acceptance of facts and concerned with historical context. It is complex and, the eyes of some, discomfiting.
The first view recalls the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, when three B-29 Superfortresses arrived over Japan's Inland Sea. One of the aircraft, the Enola Gay, named for the pilot's mother, approached its Hiroshima target, released its heavy payload, then veered to distance itself from the bomb. Seconds later, at 8:15 a.m. the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. The crew was stunned by the sight. The blast rocked the aircraft. The 29-year old pilot, Col. Paul W. Tibbets, commander of the 509th Composite Group, which was trained and tasked to deliver the bomb, was awed by the sight of the burning, devastated city below. To his copilot he remarked, "I think this is the end of the war." Five days and another atomic bomb later, Japan surrendered.
Our troops were ecstatic. They would not have to die by the many tens of thousands in a bloody invasion of Japan. They'd go home instead, settle down with their sweethearts, have children and lead normal lives. They had been asked to save the world for democracy, had accepted the challenge at great personal risk, and had come through victorious.
Approaching the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima next year, these same men, now in their seventies, have asked the National Air and Space Museum, into whose care the Enola Gay was entrusted after the war, to put their aircraft on exhibition. They want the museum to tell their story the way they have always told and retold it -- a story of fighting a ruthless enemy, perpetrator of barbaric massacres in China, the infamous attack at Pearl Harbor, the death march at Bataan, torture and executions in prison camps, kamikaze raids on our warships and deaths by the thousands for every Pacific island wrested away; a story of the world's top physicists working in secrecy to perfect a mighty weapon; a story of a powerful new aircraft, designed, built and first flown in just 24 months; a story of ordinary citizens, men and women, working together to defeat a ferocious enemy.
These are the themes emphasized by those who fought so hard to secure freedom for their children and grandchildren.
Those children and grandchildren by now are mature citizens. For them the atomic bomb has added associations: ICBMs, megaton warheads, the DEW line, 45-minute warnings, first strike, Mutually Assured Destruction, nuclear winter. ... Theirs was not a world of two small atomic bombs but of 50,000, many of which are 1,000 times more powerful than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next year these younger people will not only commemorate a bomb that ended the most terrible war, but also they will have reason to celebrate the restraint that has prevailed for half a century in which no man, woman or child has been killed by an atomic bomb. They want to extend that record to all time.
The Enola Gay symbolizes the end of one era and the beginning of another. For an older generation, the aircraft meant the end of World War II; for younger people, it ushered in the nuclear age. The postwar generations respect their fathers for the sacrifices they made, but they also realize that the nuclear bombs that saved their fathers' lives continue to threaten their own and their childrens'.
These conflicting views pose the dilemma the National Air and Space Museum faces as we prepare an exhibition of the Enola Gay for 1995. We want to honor the veterans who risked their lives and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. They served their country with distinction. But we must also address the broader questions that concern subsequent generations -- not with a view to criticizing or apologizing or displaying undue compassion for those on the ground that day, as some may fear, but to deliver an accurate portrayal that conveys the reality of atomic war and its consequences.
To that end, the museum proposes to tell the full story surrounding the atomic bomb and the end of World War II; to recall the options facing a newly installed President Truman, who had never heard of the bomb until the day he was sworn in; to examine the estimates of the casualties Truman anticipated if U.S. troops had to invade Japan; to consider the extent to which his wish to impress a threatening Soviet Union influenced his decision to drop the bomb; to exhibit the destruction and suffering on the ground at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and to recall the escalating numbers of weapons in the superpowers' nuclear arsenals during the Cold War, and their current decline.
Faced with a number of alternatives, the museum has chosen to provide not an opinion piece but rather the basic information that visitors will need to draw their own conclusions. This is our responsibility, as a national museum in a democracy predicated on an informed citizenry.
We have found no way to exhibit the Enola Gay and satisfy everyone. But a comprehensive and thoughtful discussion can help us learn from history. And that is what we aim to offer our visitors.
The writer is director of the National Air and Space Museum.