Amidst some long-standing controversy the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport, has rejected a petition seeking revision of the labeling of its exhibition of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, in 1945.
As the New York Times' Lawrence Van Gelder reports, a petition "from scholars, writers and others argued that a new display of the plane should be used to 'stimulate a national discussion of US nuclear history and current policy.'"
A label describing the plane acknowledges that it dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, describes the aircraft as "the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II," explains the role of the B-29 and furnishes statistics about it.
But as Van Gelder reports, Gen. John R. Dailey, the director of the museum explains, "to be accurate, fair and balanced, inclusion of casualty figures would require an overview of all casualties associated with the conflict, which would not be practical in this exhibit."
Peter J. Kuznick, a professor of history at American University and an organizer of the petition, however, disagrees, "I'm disappointed that the Smithsonian is defining its mandate so narrowly and missing a golden opportunity to educate the American people about one of the most important moments in our history and its ongoing ramifications for the world today."
Kuznick told the Washington Post's Jacqueline Trescott his group doesn't object to the plane being displayed but said the museum is missing the point by not including more of its history. "Displaying the Enola Gay puts a special kind of burden on the museum. It is not just another plane. They understand it is not just another plane. The Enola Gay has more symbolic meaning associated with it than any other plane in history." He argues that some mention of the number of casualties should be included, even though estimates of the number killed vary from 140,000 to 231,000.
It was at a little noted press conference at the University of Detroit in the winter of 1965 that Edward Teller, the so-called "Father of the H-Bomb, declared that the decision to use atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was "immoral." The reason that his remarks were all but ignored is simply that no nation wants to be told that it is guilty of perpetrating an act that is morally reprehensible.
In giving his reason for his declaration the late Dr. Teller stated that scientists failed to explain the full capacity of the bomb and alternate plans for its use before the decision was made by government officials to drop the bombs.
"There was an alternative plan suggested of exploding the bomb high above Tokyo where it would have rattled windows, but would not have killed thousands. The blast would have been visible all over the island of Japan to warn them we had a weapon to win the war. Then we could have demanded they surrender or the next bomb would hit their city. We know now they would have surrendered," Teller explained.
Readers of Robert C. Batchelder's The Irreversible Decision know that alternate plans, in addition to the one suggested by Teller, also existed. Those familiar with Robert Butow's Japan's Decision to Surrender also know that before Hiroshima, Japan was on the verge of offering the Allies terms of surrender "unconditionally" which closely paralleled those finally accepted by the Allied powers. In fact there is evidence that one mistranslated Japanese word by the US would have been the key to a pre-Hiroshima ultimate agreement.
In an April 1965 article for the Catholic magazine Ave Maria, which I authored, it was noted that the Boston Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper, had declared "when all the excuses are heard and all the circumstances weighed we still murdered in one single flash tens of thousands of innocent people who were unwarned and unprotected. Can we think that God will not ask us to answer for that?"
Some will deny that morality played any part in the dropping of the bombs to end the terrible war. Others will claim it saved thousands of American lives which might have been lost by a controversial invasion of Japan, others will say it was simply revenge for the those courageous men and women who were tortured and put to death while prisoners of the Japanese.
No one, however, will speak of guilt, for as the Pilot editorial continued: "Isn't it about time, now ... to try to be honest with ourselves and face up to the terrible implications of what we once caused to happen. The greatest single act of human destruction in the history of the world must be placed on our doorstep -- and we did it a second time at Nagasaki as if to show that it was no accident ... in a triumph of technology did we blow out the small spark of conscience?"
In the steady evolution of the Judeo-Christian tradition of "civilized" warfare there has been a gradual erosion of conscience-centered morality while war itself has become more terrifying and unspeakable. Today though, humanity's challenge is feeling about the unspeakable, not thinking about the unthinkable.
The introduction of obliteration bombing in World War II to terrorize civilian populations was a turning point in this erosion in the morality of war. The political decision that underscored this morally corrosive military posture came when the Allied powers in 1943 at Casablanca called for "unconditional surrender." And then in a moment of scientific achievement the last vestiges of that Judeo-Christian tradition of "civilized warfare" was extinguished in bursts of the "thousand suns" above Japan on Aug, 6 and Aug, 9, 1945.
Thomas E. Murray, former member of the US Atomic Energy Commission, observed in 1965: "The immoral decision that the civilian population has no claim to immunity from destruction in war was ratified, with most fearful effectiveness by the unfortunate American decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Thus, a contrite acknowledgement of the morally reprehensible act that we committed on these two Japanese cities, while exhibiting a new-found and continuing awareness that we as individuals living within the greatest military power the world has ever known offers us as a nation an opportunity. That possibility being to shape an international morality, based on love and non-violence, that is capable of taking that first long stride toward establishing genuine world peace and justice for all God's living creatures.
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email firstname.lastname@example.org; website www.ea1.com/CARP/