Among the numbers you won’t see listed on the description label of the Enola Gay inside the Smithsonian exhibit opening at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport on December 15 is 140,000. That’s how many people the Enola Gay helped kill, when it dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945.
Instead, the Enola Gay exhibit is being held up as an historical masterpiece of military weaponry, a chance to display “the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II,” according to its museum label, “an important artifact from a design and manufacturing point of view.”
But what of the point of view of those 140,000 killed in the world’s first atomic mission?
General John “Jack” Dailey, director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, suggests that there is marvel in the technological accomplishment of the Enola Gay. “We are displaying it in all of its glory as a magnificent technological achievement,” said Dailey.
But make no mistake, there is no “glory” in the Enola Gay. There can be no “glory” in something that helped kill 140,000 people, and injured tens of thousands of others. The development of this weapon was not a technological achievement; it was a humanitarian travesty. And there can be no “glory” in something that helped contribute to the start of a worldwide nuclear arms race – an arms race that has, in many countries, destroyed ecological systems, and taken billions of dollars away from social spending.
The National Air and Space Museum, in response to outcry that the exhibit was too celebratory, released a statement saying, “Over the 27 years of its existence, the museum has carefully followed an approach which offers accurate, descriptive data, allowing visitors to evaluate what they encounter in the context of their own points of view.” Their conclusion is that the exhibit neither glorified nor vilified the role the Enola Gay played in history, and that the public should be invited to make up their own minds.
But such an amoral stance is unfair to the numerous survivors of the bombing. One has to wonder, almost, if the Enola Gay exhibit is serving the purpose of normalizing the use of nuclear weapons, by failing to provide a thorough account of the destruction it assisted in causing.
To echo the statements of the Hidankyo, a survivor’s organization in Japan, and Gensuikyo, the Japanese Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, this exhibit rationalizes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when even now many victims continue to suffer from after-effects of the attack. For victims, whose lives have been shattered by permanent injuries, radiation-induced handicaps, and mental and emotional trauma, this exhibit is a celebration and justification of their horror and pain.
We must not forget, as people of faith and as citizens of this world, that the Enola Gay and the nuclear weapons it carried wrought an atrocity that broke all norms of morality and international relations. Instead of glorifying this tragedy, we should be taking this opportunity to address the suffering unleashed by the Enola Gay, and have an honest discussion about the role of past and present U.S. nuclear policy.
- The 140,000 casualty number is widely available from a number of places, including in official statistics from a 1994 report from the Department of Energy, available online at the American Airpower Heritage Museum’s Web site, http://www.airpowermuseum.org/trafter.html.
- The quote from General John “Jack” Dailey was given to the Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Policy, and is available here: http://www.enola-gay.org/#principles.
- Several groups and individuals will gather on December 15, the opening day of the Enola Gay exhibit, to openly protest the exhibit, and to call on the Smithsonian to exhibit the Enola Gay in a context that shows the mass destruction it helped cause. More information, including a complete list of individuals and groups that have signed on to support this demonstration, can be found at www.enola-gay.org.
Michael Jones is the Communications Associate at Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement. He was a field organizer for the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s 2002 re-election campaign, and holds a master’s degree in magazine, newspaper and online journalism from Syracuse University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org