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Thursday, July 16, 2015

July 16, 2015: Trinity Sites and Texts: The Enola Gay Controversy

[On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested at Trinity Site, New Mexico, an explosion with numerous aftereffects and meanings. This week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such Trinity connections, leading up to a special weekend post on a foreign film that’s also profoundly American.]
Three lesser-known, telling details from the controversy over the Smithsonian’s proposed Enola Gay exhibit (all drawn from this wonderful “History on Trial” website).
1)      An origin point: According to the two main architects of the proposed exhibit, Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams and Director of the National Air and Space Museum Martin Harwit, the initial idea of the exhibit as “The Crossroads” was inspired quite directly by their experiences of the Cold War and atomic age in the 1970s and 80s. This is a really complicated way to envision an exhibit about a specific historical moment: to frame it more (or at least as much) through the lens of what followed in the half-century after the moment, rather than (for example) what led up to it. I personally agree with that wider frame, but it’s important to note that it could be controversial for reasons not simply related to partisan political divisions or the like.
2)      A very specific debate: As the website highlights at length, the nearly year-long debates over the proposed exhibit included numerous topics and questions, voices and controversies. Yet the culminating debate, and the one that apparently derailed the initial exhibit for good, was focused on a much more specific historical question: invasion casualties, the number of American lives that might have been lost in a hypothetical invasion of mainland Japan. In part because that historical question is and will always remain so hypothetical, and in part because like most historical questions it’s impossible to separate from different perspectives and opinions in the present, the answers were stunningly wide-ranging: from an estimate of one million casualties provided by supporters of the bombing to Martin Harwit’s quote of about 63,000 casualties in a January 9th response to the American Legion (the letter that led the Legion to call for cancelling the exhibit entirely). A good illustration of how fraught and significant such specific historical debates can be in our collective memories and conversations.
3)      The past isn’t past: The whole controversy proves that point quite effectively, of course. But nearly a decade after the initial debates, another Enola Gay controversy sprung up that echoed and extended the first. The Air and Space Museum was opening its new museum space near Virginia’s Dulles Airport, and the Enola Gay was to be moved into that new, more expansive exhibit space. Apparently the initial plan was to label and exhibit the plane solely as a “magnificent technological achievement,” a framing that received pushback from the Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Current Policy as well as from the Japanese and Japanese American communities. As I wrote in this piece on San Diego’s U.S.S. Midway museum, the question of how to exhibit instruments of war is always a complicated one—but I can think of few debates that offer more instructive and crucial examples of the ongoing presence and meaning of the past, and more exactly of the value in engaging with how we represent as well as remember those histories.
Next Trinity connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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