Memory, Politics, and Historical Scholarship By Photo taken by 509th photographe
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Memory, Politics, and Historical Scholarship
By Photo taken by 509th photographer
Pfc. Armen Shamlian.
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The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C., found itself within the center of a culture war during the mid-1990s over politics, history, and memory. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, the curators at the Smithsonian planned an exhibit titled “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War.” The director of the Smithsonian, Martin Harwit, noted in August, 1994:
“…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” (Harwit, 1994).
Yet by January 30, 1995, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, I. Michael Heyman, bowed to the pressure that Congressional critics and veterans’ organizations imposed on what they deemed a controversial exhibit. The result was a drastic revision. Re-titled “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II,” visitors were now presented with the forward fuselage of the B-29 Superfortress – the Enola Gay; one of its propellers, which stretched from floor to ceiling on an opposite wall; a video presentation of the mission with various interviews including one with Col. Paul Tibbets; a section on restoration efforts; and text that simply summarized the history of the development of the B-29.
For this discussion, we will look at the dropping of the atomic bomb and the controversy surrounding same within the 1990s. You are to view the documentary, Hiroshima – Why The Bomb Was Dropped, and then read the assigned sections of Edward T. Linenthal’s History Wars in order to respond to the following questions:
Did the dropping of the atomic bomb shorten the war?
Did it save lives?
Was it necessary?
Discuss those involved in the decision to drop the bomb including President Truman, Henry Stimson, James Byrnes, Leo Szilard, etc., as well as those involved in the controversy that ensued in the 1990s.
And finally, who owns the memory of the past and who should control public history?
Work cited: Harwit, Martin. “The Enola Gay: A Nation’s, and a Museum’s, Dilemma,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 1944.