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Digital History ID 3498

 

Fifty years after the United States ended World War II by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, a major public controversy erupted over plans to exhibit the fuselage of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. As originally conceived, the exhibit, titled "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II," was designed to provoke debate about the decision to drop atomic bombs. Museum visitors would be encouraged to reflect on the morality of the bombing and to ask whether the bombs were necessary to end the war.

The proposal generated a firestorm of controversy. The part of the script that produced the most opposition stated: "For most Americans, this...was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism." Another controversial section addressed the question: "Would the bomb have been dropped on the Germans?" The answer began: "Some have argued that the United States would never have dropped the bomb on the Germans, because Americans were more reluctant to bomb 'white people' than Asians."

Veterans groups considered the proposed exhibit too sympathetic to the Japanese, portraying them as victims of racist Americans hell-bent on revenge for Pearl Harbor. They called the exhibit an insult to the U.S. soldiers who fought and died during the war and complained that it paid excessive attention to Japanese casualties and suffering and paid insufficient attention to Japanese aggression and atrocities. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling a revised version of the exhibit "unbalanced and offensive" and reminding the museum of "its obligation to portray history in the proper context of its time."

In the end, the Smithsonian decided to scale back the exhibit, displaying the Enola Gay's fuselage along with a small plaque. In announcing the decision, a Smithsonian official explained, "In this important anniversary year, veterans and their families were expecting, and rightly so, that the nation would honor and commemorate their valor and sacrifice. They were not looking for analysis and, frankly, we did not give enough thought to the intense feelings such an analysis would evoke."

The decision to use atomic bombs against Japan was the most controversial decision in military history.

Early in 1946, the Federal Council of Churches called the bombings "morally indefensible" because Japan had received no specific advancing warning. In July, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that Japan would have surrendered "certainly prior to December 31, 1945, and in all probability prior to November 1, 1945...even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion [of Japan] had been planned or contemplated." An account of six survivors of the Hiroshima bombing by John Hersey published in the New Yorker magazine in August 1946, which helped to humanize the bomb's victims, led the influential magazine Saturday Review to describe the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a crime.

Henry Stimson, the 78-year-old former secretary of war, publicly defended the U.S. decision to drop the bombs. He argued that the Japanese were determined to fight to the death and that, without the bombings, it would have cost at least a million American and many more Japanese causalities to achieve victory. Stimson also explained why the U.S. had refused to warn Japan about the new weapon or to stage a demonstration of the bomb's destructive power. Engineers were unable to assure the government that the bombs would work, and officials feared that a failure would have disastrous effects on American morale. Further, they noted that even if a successful demonstration was carried out, the Japanese government might suppress the news.

In 1949, Stimson's arguments were challenged by a British physicist, P.M.S. Blackett. Blackett claimed that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intended, at least in part, to intimidate the Soviet Union.

Why did the United States drop the bomb when it did? On July 29, a U.S. Navy ship, the Indianapolis, was sunk and 883 lives were lost. A U.S. invasion of Southeast Asia was scheduled for September 6, in which case, it was likely that 100,000 British, Dutch, and American Prisoners of War would be executed by the Japanese.

Decrypted Japanese military cables indicated that Japan was building-up its defenses in preparation for an American invasion, and many Japanese leaders testified that they were confident that they could have stopped at least the first wave of an American invasion. Decoded diplomatic cables indicated that Japan's leaders were seeking to persuade the Soviet Union to negotiate an armistice on favorable terms that would have allowed Japan to retain conquered territory. A three-time Japanese premier, Prince Konoye Fumimaro, said that had the atomic bombs not been dropped, the war would have continued into 1946: "The army had dug themselves caves in the mountains and their idea of fighting on was fighting from every little hole or rock in the mountains."

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