I was shocked to read an article at the History News Network (HNN) reminiscing over the controversy of the Enola Gay Exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in the 1990s. For the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima the museum had planned to do an exhibit of the recently restored Enola Gay. But when a draft of the proposed exhibit was leaked by the Air Force Association (AFA) a firestorm of controversy erupted pitting the museum and historians against veterans, the Air Force Association (AFA), and the right-wing media.
What was the AFA so upset about? The exhibit included a section called “The Decision to Drop the Bomb,” which included many different perspectives on this event, including some historical perspectives that the AFA called “revisionist” (i.e. they disagreed with the claim that dropping the atomic bomb was necessary). The author of the HNN article, D.M. Giangreco, rehashed all the major accusations and resentments from the first debate, including the following:
- The exhibit was the work of “revisionist” historians who wanted to portray America and Truman as evil.
- These “revisionist” historians are anti-American
Rather than debating the historical record (it’s way too complicated for a blog post, especially when the topic is so controversial!) I want to address the above claims.
First, the claim that they are “revisionist” historians (by which Giangreco means that they deliberately misrepresented the evidence to suit some kind of agenda) is inflammatory and false. The accused historians are not revisionist in the sense that they are dishonestly manipulating the evidence, however they are revisionist in the same sense that all historians are revisionist: they will go against the standard narrative if the evidence demands it. Historians are obligated to follow the evidence no matter where it takes them. We are not and should not be writing history as nationalists. Unfortunately, history provides plenty of evidence of historians doing this and the consequences have often been disastrous (a review of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European history will confirm this).
Second, I do not agree with the assumption that claiming that “the dropping of the atomic bomb was unnecessary” is un-American or “Truman bashing.” I can disagree with Truman, while sympathizing with the difficult decision that he had to make in 1945. Disagreeing with his decision is not the same as seeing him as evil. Also, the idea that you are un-American if you criticize or disagree with anything that the United States did is dangerous and completely absurd! It is important that we reflect on our past. How can we make better informed decisions if we do not reflect upon our past? We all make mistakes and we should learn from them rather pretending that everything we have ever done was the right decision.
I think that it’s important that we debate the dropping of the bomb over Hiroshima, but we should do so civilly and not by name calling and making false accusations.
For anyone interested in the moral dimensions of the debate:
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of the World War II. I often use this in my class. It is a great overview of the debate over the dropping of the bomb and other moral issues raised by WWII.
A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan. Grayling offers a more sophisticated argument not just over the dropping of the atom bomb but relating to the broader Allied bombing campaign in both Germany and Japan.
 For an introduction to the debate over the necessity of the bombing of Hiroshima see Doug Long’s online article “Hiroshima: Was it Necessary?” It has some flaws, but I think it’s a great place to start because it provides an overview of the debate and links to primary source documents. Also see “The Historians’ Letter to the Smithsonian” in response to the uninformative exhibit that was put in place of the original proposal.
 There are many that fall into this category, but two key targets from the Smithsonian debacle include Kai Bird (Hiroshima’s Shadow) and Martin Sherwin (A World Destroyed). I would recommend reading their work and deciding for yourself. The only ones who question their integrity are those who are part of the Giangreco camp. Even many of the historians who disagree with them on this issue do not question their integrity. Disagreement is part of any scholarly endeavor. That is how knowledge advances.