The Ethical Spectacle, April 1995,

Two Sides to Every Story: The Smithsonian Hiroshima Exhibit You Won't See

This year is the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, the only use of atomic weapons in war, and the Smithsonian had planned an exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum. The exhibit would have centered around the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima; now, that is all you will see, as the rest of the exhibit has been cut.

Here are some samples of the narrative that would have accompanied the exhibit, provoking thought about whether the U.S. was correct to use atomic weapons against Japan:

Harry Truman inherited a very expensive bomb project that had always aimed at producing a military weapon. Furthermore, he was faced with the prospect of an invasion and he was told the bomb would be useful for impressing the Soviet Union. He therefore saw no reason to avoid using the bomb....

The introduction of nuclear weapons into the world, and their first use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, left powerful legacies....For Japan, the United States and its allies, a horrific war was brought to an abrupt end, although at a cost debated to this day; for the world, a nuclear arms race unfolded that still threatens unimaginable devastation.

First, let's dispose of the substantive issues, so we can get on to the procedural. Personally, I hold with the idea that you don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes. Most of us, if we pretend for a little while we are Harry Truman, would decide to use the bomb. I know I would. A desperate, violent war is taking place against an aggressor nation-- what considerations would stop me, in 1945, from using the most effective weapon possible to bring it to an early conclusion? I happen to think that Mr. Truman was the most honest, firm and no-nonsense President we have had in this century, and he did the best he could with the bomb decision pretty much like he did with everything else.

That said, why on earth can't the Smithsonian present an exhibit which admits that there are two sides to the story? Though I believe Truman made the best decision he could, it is the job of historians continuously to re-evaluate the decisions of the past and to present new information as it comes to light. All my life, to cite just one example, I have believed, as you probably also have, that the atomic bombing of Japan avoided the necessity of an invasion that would have resulted in one million American deaths. It appears that this number, so frequently quoted, is not based on the military analyses done at the time:

...military staff studies in the spring of 1945 estimated 30,000 to 50,000 casualties--dead and wounded--in "Olympic", the invasion of Kyushu. Based on the Okinawa campaign, that would have meant perhaps 10,000 American dead. Military planners made no firm estimates for...the second invasion, but losses clearly would have been higher.

(That was another quote from the proposed Smithsonian exhibit.) But if the losses for the second invasion were five times higher, that still totals 60,000 dead, not one million. Doesn't a Smithsonian curator have a right to put this information before the public?

Another recent incident involving interpretation of history sheds an interesting sidelight on this issue. After the November elections, Mr. Gingrich fired the House's official historian and, after some discussion as to whether the office was to be eliminated, appointed a college professor acquaintance of his as replacement. This candidate had to withdraw from consideration when her reaction, years ago, to a Holocaust lesson she was reviewing, came to light. Her criticism--she had been on a panel reviewing lesson plans for federal funding--was that it failed to tell the Nazi side of the story. Mr. Gingrich could not defend her against the resulting fuss (and did not even attempt to.)

On a gut level, it feels wrong to censure the Smithsonian curator for covering the other side of the Hiroshima story--but it feels right to force the prospective House historian to withdraw for having claimed that there was another side to the Holocaust story. By holding these two opinions, am I the unwitting purveyor of a double standard, something I detest?

I don't believe so. There are two sides to most stories, not every story. Reducing it to the starkest moral terms, the proposed Smithsonian exhibit questioned our assumption that an act of mass killing was moral and necessary. The candidate for the House historian job criticized the Holocaust lesson plan for assuming that an act of mass killing was immoral and unnecessary. We could easily make a moral rule that questioning killing, or other apparent violations of our fundamental beliefs as embodied in the Judaeo-Christian ethic, is healthy, while questioning the ethic itself is not--or at least is not a fit job for public officials and museums.

I don't think its quite that simple, however. I would only go so far as to say that we can all probably agree that there are certain issues which have only one side. An exhibit of famous rapists, their techniques and beliefs, with a sidebar on whether rape should be legalized for sport, would not be acceptable to anyone. But an exhibit suggesting that there are two ways of thinking about a war, or an act of war, really should be.

The First Amendment protects the free flow of ideas in this country and attempts to guarantee debate. In support of this philosophy, we should draw the circle as wide as possible, so that we recognize that our morality demands that relatively few issues are one-sided. The uproar about the Enola Gay exhibit has had the unfortunate result that only the fuselage of the plane will be exhibited, with no commentary. Five attempts were made to revise the exhibit to everyone's satisfaction before it was abandoned entirely. The Smithsonian was caught in a crossfire between forces such as the American Legion, on the one hand, and historians calling for the re-introduction of some balance into later scripts, on the other. The American Legion:

The hundreds of thousands of American boys whose lives were thus spared....are, by this exhibit, now to be told their lives were purchased at the price of treachery and revenge.

A group of scholars writing to the secretary of the Smithsonian:

Certain irrevocable facts cannot be omitted without so corrupting the exhibit that it is reduced to mere propaganda, thus becoming an affront to "those who gave their lives for freedom".

Once a museum tries to make everyone happy, only the blandest of exhibits becomes possible. The Holocaust museum should be able to mount an exhibit referring to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as genocide. The Air and Space Museum should be able to discuss the morality of the atomic bomb. We should trust the people we hire to be our curators to range widely within the circles we have drawn for them. If we make their decisions subject to the approval of a particular political faction, or of vocal minorities in general, then we will have only propaganda museums.