The 2,085th Meeting of the Society

February 6, 1998 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

An Exhibit Denied

Lobbying the History of the Enola Gay

Martin Harwit

Astrophysicist, Former Director, National Air and Space Museum


President-Elect Garavelli called the 2085th meeting to order at 8:26 p.m. on February 6, 1998. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2084th meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2085th meeting was Martin Harwit, the former Director of the National Air and Space Museum. The title of his talk was, “An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of Enola Gay.”

In 1995, a planned exhibition of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum was cancelled before ever opening due to pressures from congressional lobbyists, including the American Legion and the Air Force Association. One of the more telling arguments came from Republican New York Congressman Gerald B. Solomon, who promised to “zero out” the Smithsonian's congressional appropriation unless the museum accommodated the wishes of the American Legion concerning the Enola Gay exhibit and the museum “could count on that.” It was not clear whether Representative Solomon ever reviewed the content or context of the proposed exhibit before issuing his edict. Further, 81 members of Congress demanded the dismissal of the museum director, Mr. Harwit. As one might expect, the money threat won out and the Smithsonian's chief executive cancelled the exhibit and Mr. Harwit resigned.

At the heart of the issue was the proposed exhibit itself. Mr. Harwit described the exhibit as including a collection of wartime newspaper articles, letters to families, Albert Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt alerting him to the possibility of an atomic bomb, and Secretary of War Stimson's briefing paper to President Truman telling him of the existence of “the most terrible weapon ever known.” The centerpiece of the exhibit was to be the shiny 56 foot long front fuselage of Enola Gay, with a replica of the atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” suspended beneath her open bomb bay doors. As is the practice in any prudent professional organization, the Air and Space Museum Director issued for review a draft “script” of the exhibit to cognizant parties such as Colonel Paul Tibbets, Enola Gay's pilot, as well as other members of Enola Gay's crew, and a blue-ribbon panel of university and military historians. The intent being to revise the exhibit and its script to provide an accurate and balanced presentation of events surrounding the first and to date, only use of atomic weapons. However, at this juncture, the normal, prudent practices to prepare the exhibit went beyond the pale. Special interest groups, primarily the Air Force Association went public with their criticism insisting the Smithsonian show only their heroic version of the bombing — as reiterated at their conventions and meetings for the past 50 years. Ostensibly, their fear of losing public and political enthusiasm for the Air Force fueled their crusade.

The Organization of American Historians and the Society for Military History pleaded that the exhibit be permitted to open as scheduled. However, the lobbyists for the military and the veteran's organizations and their supporters in Congress insisted on closing down the display, which they considered a challenge to their special and limited interests. The speaker pointed out that Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, and the first President of our Philosophical Society, would have been dismayed that lobbyists could dictate how historical, artistic or scientific information should be displayed in our public institutions; but these lobbyists did shut down the exhibit.

By tradition, dating from the foundation of our Republic, our national institutions have had the responsibility of providing public history and education. This traditional responsibility has been severely challenged by the jettisoned Enola Gay exhibit. Mr. Harwit described occurrences with other single-issue groups that attacked and forced the cancellation of planned projects not only at the Smithsonian but also at the Library of Congress and other public institutions. If our national institutions are to continue to carry out their responsibilities to us and to our children, they need to regain the responsible freedom to provide reliable, dispassionate information. If for no other reason than to preclude us from repeating the tragic mistakes of our past because our understanding of our past was distorted.

The speaker then closed his presentation and kindly responded to questions from the floor. President-Elect Garavelli thereupon thanked Mr. Harwit for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. He then adjourned the 2085th meeting at 9:39 p.m.

Attendance: 81
Temperature: 9.0°C
Weather: clear

Respectfully submitted,

Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary