The Smithsonian Confusion

Published September 1, 1995

This fantastic exhibit plan, which featured forty-three photographs of Japanese suffering during World War II as against three photos of American wounded and dead, soon drew the ire of various veterans’ organizations, whose protests in turn alerted a number of commentators in the national media. John Leo of U.S. News & World Report correctly noted that “the Enola Gay controversy at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington is no isolated incident, just the most publicized example so far of the politically correct make-over underway at various museums of the Smithsonian Institution.” Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post wondered when the Air and Space Museum had “become not merely a museum of technology but also a forum for the enlightenment and conversion of the politically and morally obtuse.” The museum, after all, was an agency of the United States government. By what authority, Yardley asked, did it “engage in what can fairly be called anti-American propaganda”?

The controversy caught the academics who administer the Smithsonian by surprise—itself unsurprising, given the insularity of the academic world and its general obliviousness to, if not downright hostility toward, the mores of the society in which it exists. Compromise scripts were batted back and forth, as the Smithsonian found itself caught between aggrieved veterans’ organizations and the passions of the revisionist historians. But then came November 8, 1994, and, like much else in Washington, the “Enola Gay” controversy changed—not because the Smithsonian had seen the light, but because conservative Republicans now controlled the national purse-strings.

After further hectic polemicizing, the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents decided to accept the resignation of Air and Space Museum director Martin Harwit and to drastically scale down the “Enola Gay” exhibit, which now consists of little more than the restored fuselage. Even at the end, though, the head of the Smithsonian, former Berkeley chancellor Ira Michael Heyman, showed a stunning incomprehension of what all the fuss had been about. At a press conference announcing the new, minimalist exhibit, Heyman said that the Smithsonian had indeed made mistakes, and that its basic error had been to try to combine a commemorative historical exhibit with an analysis of an event. But this pathetic effort at spin control not only misrepresented the controversy: it completely missed the main point of the argument, namely, that the revisionist account in the first exhibit script was not an “analysis” but an ideological screed unworthy of an institution putatively serious about history.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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