Seventy years ago, the American military dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, obliterating the center of the city and killing about a hundred thousand people. The world had never seen this kind of destruction. America wanted to end the war quickly, but this time did the cure turn out to be more devastating than the disease?
So far no one has used an atomic bomb in combat since 1945, which makes the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unique historical events. These are the kind of historical moments that humans want to find meaning in, but the meaning of historical events is notoriously difficult to pin down.
Twenty years ago, in commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, the Smithsonian commissioned an exhibit about the Enola Gay that caused a firestorm of its own. The exhibit’s designers believed that the anniversary should be used to tell the history of nuclear weapons and their proliferation. The original script for the exhibit hailed the bomb as the beginning of a new, more precarious age for mankind, but many Americans wanted an experience that focused on the bomb being the necessary close of the Second World War. A power struggle ensued with two sides laying claim to the Enola Gay.
The curators of the Smithsonian’s exhibit gave it the title “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War,” and they intended for the fiftieth anniversary of the Enloa Gay’s flight to explain how America moved seamlessly from one conflict with imperial Japan into another with the Soviet Union.
The curators did not depict the Enola Gay’s mission as the conclusion of a protracted military engagement, but rather they portrayed the dropping of the bomb as the central event in the military history of the twentieth century. The exhibit began with the situation in the Pacific after V-E Day, moved through the development of the bomb and the decision to use it, highlighted the horrific aftermath in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ended with the legacy of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.
Presented in this manner, the exhibit was not a commemoration of an important event; it was a question, asking its viewer to ponder the current status of nuclear proliferation. The script ended, “One thing is clear, the nuclear ‘genie’ is out of the bottle and, for the foreseeable future, the human race will not be able to eliminate the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons. The dilemma is not about to disappear.”
A narrative not to everyone’s liking
Veterans groups, like the American Legion, took issue with the Smithsonian’s script that accompanied the exhibit. They were worried about some of the facts that were in the script, most notably how many Americans the bomb saved. Some post-war estimates claimed that the bombs saved half a million lives. Later it had become common for some groups to claim that the bombs saved a million lives, and by the nineties some people had adjusted this to a million American lives. The Smithsonian’s scholars called these numbers into question. What if the bomb had only saved the lives of forty or fifty thousand American servicemen? It seemed to many veterans that the Smithsonian was trying to erode America’s justification for the bomb.
The Smithsonian’s script raised another question that disturbed America’s veterans: Would the Japanese have surrendered without bomb or invasion? The script said, “Some combination of blockade, firebombing, an Emperor guarantee, and a Soviet declaration of war would probably have forced a Japanese surrender.” In the Smithsonian’s exhibit, Japan began to look like an already defeated foe kicked by America after falling down.
In the end, neither side got exactly what they wanted. The veterans mustered enough support to get Congress to look over the plans for the exhibit, and eventually the Smithsonian backed down. The Smithsonian scrapped most of the exhibit, using neither the script it had prepared nor many of the artifacts from ground zero. The Enola Gay was displayed without of anything resembling historical analysis. Seeing the plane would merely confirm what one already believed about its significance.
In reality, this was a struggle between two non-mutually exclusive narratives. The Smithsonian’s narrative was about nuclear weapons, featuring the Enola Gay’s mission as the pivotal event. This narrative began on V-E Day and ended with the contemporary situation regarding nuclear proliferation. Many historians of the bomb felt disappointed and betrayed by the Smithsonian’s decision to change the exhibit. They had lost an important opportunity to tell their story.
The Smithsonian’s exhibit made valid points, and while the veterans took offense at some of the facts, the bigger issue was that the exhibit did not tell the story the veterans wanted to hear. For the veterans, the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki needed to commemorate the American war victory. The veterans needed a narrative that began at Pearl Harbor and ended at V-J Day. An exhibit featuring Hiroshima as the beginning of the Cold War gave the anniversary of the war’s close an ominous feeling that didn’t conform to how the veterans experienced the news that the Japanese had surrendered.
Even though these two stories were not mutually exclusive, the veterans, by the intensity of their feelings and by the fact that they were veterans, claimed the Enola Gay as exclusively theirs. The Smithsonian’s interpretation of the event became wholly unacceptable. Viewing the bombing of Hiroshima as both the central event of the Second World War’s conclusion and as the central event of the Cold War’s inception was unpatriotic. The Enola Gay could only belong to the history of America’s victory.
A generational divide
Historical narratives have their time and season, and though both stories about the bomb legitimately incorporated the Enola Gay, both stories may not have been equally appropriate for a public display in 1995—the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the most destructive war in human history. As evidenced by the national outcry, America wanted to reflect upon the end of World War II and leave complex analysis of the bomb’s consequences for a different day.
Both my grandfathers fought in the Pacific theater, and one of them was actually on the island of Tinian the day the Enola Gay left the runway. But both my grandfathers are dead now, and most of their generation is too. Now that the veterans are gone, it seems that the season for celebrating the end of the war has passed. Unfortunately, I don’t know if America is capable of complex analysis.
Over the last seventy years, the idea that the atomic bomb is evil has lodged itself in the popular consciousness. We all learned in elementary school that nuclear weapons are bad and that they will end of all life on this planet. Most Americans think Little Boy and Fat Man were many times more powerful than they were and overestimate the severity of the radiation fallout. Though a majority still believe use was justified, popular opinion has steadily moved towards the opposing position. Most Americans who decry the bombing of these two Japanese cities do so merely because America used The Bomb. Many Americans today can’t imagine a world in which someone would entertain using such an evil weapon.
Historical realities have faded and our culture has replaced them with the easy maxim that a bad weapon is bad. In asking whether America should have dropped the bomb, people no longer take into account the fact that every world power was working on a bomb. People also forget that American leaders were just as worried about their Soviet allies as they were about their Japanese enemies. It is also hard for us to understand that in the twentieth century, industrialization of the war effort had blurred the distinction between soldiers and non-combatants. Everyone was a target because everyone was part of the war machine.
My grandparents thought the bomb was good, and most contemporary Americans think the bomb is bad. It seems the bomb is morally complicated, because war itself is morally complicated. Merely arguing about whether we should have dropped the bomb misses the larger questions. When should America go to war? What should the goals be? How much force is appropriate? These questions and myriad others surround the bomb, but these are not questions with easy answers.
Is an atomic bomb evil, or is it merely another tool for destruction that humans have created in their long history of warfare? Augustine suggested that the City of Man used warfare in an attempt to bring about peace which was a noble goal. However, based on his dim view of human nature, he also believed that our motivations in war are probably always mixed at best. According to Augustine, the real evil in war isn’t the killing; it’s the lust for violence and power that manifests itself in the killer. It seems that the best we can hope for is that our side has less evil mixed in than the other side does.
Most people consider World War Two America’s “good war,” but no war will ever fully meet the criteria for a “just war.” After the bombing of Hiroshima, Robert Lewis, one of the pilots on the Enola Gay, wrote in the log, “My God, what have we done?”Augustine would be pleased that though the goal was just, the means to bring it about caused revulsion rather than lust for more violence in some of those who witnessed it.
The Enola Gay’s flight over Hiroshima belongs to many different stories. It is part of the story of the end of the Second World War. It is part of the story of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear winter. For many Japanese people, it is part of the story of Japan’s transition from imperial power to pacifist state. The atomic bomb belongs to all these stories, but as we tell these stories, we need to transcend the idea that this or that inanimate object was good or bad. History—including the bombing of Hiroshima—is ultimately about people, and people are complicated messes who will inevitably engage in war. As we reflect on August 1945, let us give more attention to the motivation of human beings than we do to the technology they used.