History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay Exhibition

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  • The tone of this article is set at the beginning when the author characterizes the January 1995 cancellation of the original Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum as possibly the greatest tragedy to befall the public presentation of history in many years. He bemoans the lost opportunity to educate a vast audience about a defining moment in history, and suggests that the Smithsonian's Secretary and Board of Regents abandoned the planned exhibition for political reasons. This article provides an exceptionally detailed account of the controversy by describing the preparation of the exhibit, the origins and types of objections raised, subsequent revisions in the exhibit, and the decision to cancel it.
  • The author states that the controversy began when the Air and Space Museum opened about twenty years earlier and came to a head in 1994 when five elements essential to the exhibition's success conflicted. He believes the reconstruction of events leading up to the cancellation as the best way to explain what happened. His reconstruction describes the five elements separately, and then explains the effect and influence each had when combined with the other elements to produce the outcome of the exhibition's cancellation.
  • The first element involved exhibition planning, particularly development and production of the exhibition script. As the author views this matter as central to the turmoil that followed, he devotes considerably more time to this element than the others.
  • Since the National Air and Space Museum opened in 1976, it had developed a reputation for celebrating technology and displaying famous artifacts, but offered minimal intellectual content. Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, an academic who wanted to encourage critical scholarship, appointed Martin Harwit director of Air and Space in August, 1987. Harwit shared Adams' philosophy and worked to improve scholarly standards at the museum.
  • Discussion of a possible Enola Gay exhibition had begun years before the museum's Research Advisory Committee met in October 1987 to further consider the matter. Veterans had lobbied to have the airplane restored and displayed, and because of the Enola Gay's educational value in an exhibition, all but one of the committee members approved the restoration and display of the airplane. The exception was Noel Gayler, a retired antinuclear admiral who argued against the potential of celebrating destruction or memorializing the killing of so many civilians.
  • The museum began planning for the exhibition, and by 1993 a planning document was drafted. It stated that the exhibition's primary goal was to encourage the public to re-examine the bombings in view of the political and military factors which led to the decision to use the bombs, actions which brought suffering to Japanese civilians and had long-term implications. Even though Secretary Adams was concerned about how veterans would react to such a possibly contentious presentation, and Tom Crouch, Chairman of the Aeronautics Department, stated that it would probably be impossible to make veterans feel good at the same time as the public was being encouraged to think about the consequences of the bombings, Martin Harwit insisted that the museum could do both scholarship and commemoration.
  • Crouch and lead curator Michael Neufeld both agreed to proceed with preparation work and the first script was finished in January, 1994. Entitled "The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War," the script consisted of five sections: "A Fight to the Finish;" zThe Decision to Drop the Bomb," described in the planning document as the intellectual heart of the exhibit; "Delivering the Bomb;" zGround Zero: Hiroshima, 8:15 A.M., August 6, 1945[;] Nagasaki, 11:02 A.M., August 9, 1945," described in the planning document as the exhibit's emotional center; and "The Legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
  • The author describes the five sections in great detail by elaborating on their content and offering his opinion on each of the sections. He views the first section as providing context and being strongly interpretative; the second as emphasizing recent historical scholarship; the third as memorializing American science, technology, industry and fighting men; the fourth as rousing powerful emotions in viewers; and the fifth as exploring implications and meanings. He commends the effort and comments that a February 1994 advisory committee meeting led museum officials to believe that the script and exhibition plans were satisfactory and required only minor modifications. However, the author states that he also recognized potential problems that were later termed as serious by military historians who reviewed the script.
  • Those problems and the uneasy relationship between the museum and many in the military aviation community comprised the second element important to the exhibition's success. The reaction of the Air Force Association was particularly hard-hitting, as it criticized the Smithsonian and the National Air and Space Museum curators as being antimilitary. The author suggests that part of the emotion behind the criticism stemmed from the absence of public monuments to air power, which may have been due to the difficulty of depicting air battles.
  • The Air Force Association resented the exhibition of its Enola Gay icon as proposed, and worked with other veterans groups to change the presentation. The author calls their actions part of the larger culture wars of the time, which he identifies as the third element in explaining the controversy. Criticism against the museum came from politicians and the media, sweeping it into turmoil similar to that generated when various segments of American society discussed other divisive social and cultural issues of the time.
  • Museum director Martin Harwit sought to defuse the criticism by writing articles for the Air Force Magazine and leading negotiations with some veterans groups to revise the exhibit. By the end of October 1994, these efforts produced a fifth draft, which was promptly denounced by some veterans groups that wanted the exhibition cancelled and by many historians who felt the Smithsonian was abandoning its role as an independent exhibitor of unbiased history.
  • The fourth element of the controversy came with Republican wins in the November 1994 congressional elections. This brought pressure to cancel an exhibition the winners viewed as unpatriotic; cuts in the Smithsonian budget and hearings into Smithsonian management practices were threatened.
  • The fifth and final element came after I. Michael Heyman took office as the new Secretary of the Smithsonian in September of 1994. Heyman initially refused to cancel the Enola Gay exhibition, but reversed himself in January 1995 when he was unable to combat political pressures. Martin Harwit argued against cancellation, but the author writes that Heyman changed his mind about the feasibility of combining commemoration and history at a time when the Smithsonian was facing serious financial worries. Federal budget monies were threatened by a Republican Congress and warnings of drastic fiscal choices yet to be faced were issued by the Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution, which was created by the Board of Regents.


  • Crouch, Tom D
  • Adams, Robert McCormick 1926-2018
  • Harwit, Martin 1931-
  • Heyman, Ira Michael 5/30/1930-11/19/2011
  • Neufeld, Michael J. 1951-
  • Gayler, Noel 1914-
  • National Air and Space Museum (U.S.) Dept. of Astronautics
  • United States Congress
  • Enola Gay (Bomber)
  • National Air and Space Museum
  • National Air and Space Museum Research Advisory Committee
  • Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution 1993-1995
  • Board of Regents
  • Air Force Association
  • Enola Gay (Exhibition) (1995: Washington, D.C.)
  • Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War, The (Exhibition)


Smithsonian History Bibliography


  • The article includes extensive footnotes throughout the text, including quotes from exchanges of correspondence.
  • Although the information is not mentioned in the article, National Air and Space Museum Director Martin Harwit resigned on May 2, 1995, and a modified version of the Enola Gay exhibition opened at NASM on June 28, 1995. The exhibition closed on May 18, 1998.

Contained within

The Journal of American History Vol. 82, No. 3 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


December 1995


  • Politics and culture
  • Airplanes
  • Atomic bomb
  • Veterans
  • Secretaries
  • Aeronautics
  • Lobbying
  • Museums
  • B-29 bomber
  • World War, 1939-1945
  • WW II
  • Education
  • Controversies
  • Exhibitions
  • Learned institutions and societies
  • Federal Government, Relations with SI
  • Museum directors
  • Museums--Educational aspects
  • Museum techniques
  • Museum curators


  • Hiroshima-shi (Japan)
  • Nagasaki-shi (Japan)
  • Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

Number of pages : 28; Page numbers : 1036-1063

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