The Enola Gay and the Smithsonian Institution (Book Review)

Reviewed by Conrad Crane
By Charles T. O’Reilly and William A. Rooney
McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 2005

This book is as much a piece of history as a work of history. William Rooney and Charles O’Reilly are a former advertising executive and university professor, respectively, but they were also leaders of the World War II veterans group that challenged the interpretive exhibition of the Boeing B-29 planned by the Smithsonian Institution for the 50th anniversary of the end ofWorld War II in 1995. The often acrimonious dispute that erupted between the exhibit’s critics and defenders eventually led to its cancellation, but the burning issues of that debate continue to smolder.

O’Reilly and Rooney have provided a sometimes eloquent and always passionate exposition of the position of the critics, mostly WWII veterans who believed the planned displays misrepresented the end of the war. The book primarily focuses on dissecting the original script for the exhibit, an easy target that even most defenders of the Smithsonian agree was severely flawed. It would have been more instructive to delve into the nuances of the many alterations the program underwent, but looking at the original language does reveal clearly why veterans would have been upset with it.

O’Reilly and Rooney also attempt to counter the primary arguments of the exhibit’s defenders, an array of museum staff and loosely grouped “revisionist” historians. This exchange reveals much about the biases and blinders on both sides. The authors, for instance, refuse to accept the possibilities that racism or vengeance affected any American attitudes about the end of the war against Japan, that service interests played a role in the course of the Pacific War, or that President Harry S. Truman might have had difficulty halting the inexorable momentum leading to the use of the atomic bomb.

On the other hand, their critique is very effective concerning those historians who have argued that Japan was obviously ready to surrender without the nuclear attacks, or that they were conducted primarily to intimidate the Soviets. O’Reilly and Rooney are particularly successful at highlighting the grievous flaws in the work of Gar Alperowitz, the historian who first established his reputation making those arguments and who has continued to try to manipulate new evidence to support them. In some ways it can be argued that this whole controversy has resulted from academia’s overgenerous tolerance for many years of, as the authors point out, Alperowitz’s “skill at stretching evidence to make a case.” Readers familiar with the historiographical debates about the atomic bomb will notice that O’Reilly and Rooney rely heavily on and echo the school of historians supporting more traditional views, especially Robert Newman, Robert Maddox and D.M. Giangreco.

The authors are less successful in their lengthy attempts to take on Barton Bernstein, generally recognized as the most knowledgeable historian concerning issues about the atomic bomb. O’Reilly and Rooney don’t seem to be aware of his evolving positions. Bernstein has continually revised his arguments as new evidence has appeared, unlike Alperowitz, whom he has consistently criticized. It is unfair for O’Reilly and Rooney to portray him using writings from the 1970s or 1980s, while ignoring his more current work, which often agrees with their own positions. Bernstein still wishes that the bomb had never been dropped on Hiroshima, but he concedes that the situation in 1945 presented Truman with no other viable option, and no one can accurately predict how the war would have ended without it. The authors spend too much time — two full chapters — taking on Bernstein and others about the greatest red herring of all the controversies about the bomb: projections for the number of casualties saved (the bomb would have been used had predictions been 5,000 or 500,000), but that section does get to the core issue dividing the most responsible participants in the Smithsonian debate. Bernstein is a rigorous academic researcher demanding documentary evidence for any conclusion, while those who lived through the events argue that memory is also useful in determining historical truth. Both sides have valid arguments.

It is outrageous for the publisher to expect general readers to pay $39.95 for a paperback volume of barely 200 pages of text with no illustrations or photographs, but libraries should buy this historical record of one side of a revealing debate about the relative merits of documentation and memory concerning one of the seminal events of the 20th century. Public and academic historians also need to read it to better understand how they are often viewed by those they aim to serve and educate.

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