Museum shelters from A-bomb storm

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The Independent Online
THERE may have been bigger special shows at the Smithsonian, but few that have aroused such controversy. The venerable Washington museum complex is at the centre of a storm of accusations of historical distortion and anti- American bias - all stemming from an exhibition on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan which will not even go on display until the middle of next year.

'The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb And The End of World War II' is due to open at the National Air and Space Museum here in May 1995, its centrepiece the front fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress which carried the bomb that annihilated Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945. The row is partly about the plane, but far more over the way in which the Smithsonian presented - or, more accurately, failed to present - the events which led to its fateful mission.

Despite recent changes, a broad front of critics, embracing veterans' associations, military historians and much of the political right, still feel the planned show drips historical revisionism, portraying the Japanese as a peaceful people brought to their knees by US conquerors determined to use the A-bomb at all costs.

'For most Americans this was a war of vengeance,' the original script read. 'For most Japanese it was to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.' In its initial version, the exhibition paid virtually no attention to Japan's record of expansionism, aggression and cruelty across East Asia, starting well before the Second World War.

If anything, the US was portrayed as the aggressor in the Pacific. Adding insult to injury were such items as a lyrical description of kamikaze pilots as 'youths, their bodies overflowing with life' - with scant mention of young American lives lost in the conflict.

The first public objections came in July, when a group of 24 congressmen complained to the museum's curators of the 'narrow revisionist view' of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Last week, the Wall Street Journal pitched in, alleging that the most prestigious national museum in the US had fallen into the hands of academics who believed the country's history was nothing but 'a woeful catalogue of crimes and aggressions against the hapless peoples of the earth'.

In the last few months, both script and layout of the show have been reworked twice. In the latest modification, a new section on the war in the Pacific will set out the long campaign which led up to President Truman's decision to unleash the Enola Gay. But there is still no certainty that critics will be appeased.

Weighing most in Truman's mind, historians have long agreed, was his concern to avoid the American casualties that would have come from an orthodox invasion of Japan. But the exhibition estimates that these would have been only 30,000 to 50,000, compared to projections of half a million or more by other military scholars.

Veterans, meanwhile, are furious that only a segment of the Enola Gay will be on display. It was 'a disgrace' not to show the whole plane, said retired Brigadier General Paul Tibbetts, 79 - the man who piloted the Enola Gay in the attack on Hiroshima.