The Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 – a marvel of technology? A worthy subject for a historical exhibit, rather like Disneyland’s Robot Lincoln? The Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum seems to think so.
Near Washington’s Dulles Airport (named after John Foster Dulles, whose nuclear brinkmanship in the 1950s made nuclear war into a game of chicken), the Smithsonian has opened a new exhibition hall that features the Enola Gay as part of its centennial celebration of the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight. According to news reports, the plane is displayed with a plaque that calls it “the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II” and mentions without comment that it dropped the bomb. Many historians, this author included, signed a petition to protest the museum’s uncritical and ahistorical portrayal of the Enola Gay. The Smithsonian simply brushed the petition aside, as it did protestors who challenged the exhibit’s opening.
The exhibition raises many issues. First, it can be seen as an expression of the Bush administration’s arrogant and dehumanizing militarism. Scholars and citizens have long debated the use of the atomic bomb against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the waning days of World War II, but even those who have steadfastly defended the attacks have seen them as acts necessary to “save” both American and Japanese lives, not something to be hailed the way the present administration hails “smart bombs,” heat-seeking missiles, and other military-industrial-complex products.
It is important for all Americans to know that the best and most serious scholarship over the last 40 years has shown that the Japanese were seeking to negotiate a settlement to end the war, asking only to keep their emperor, and that the Truman administration was well aware of this. Scholars have also shown that Truman and his advisers saw the use of the bomb as a warning to the Soviet Union, which had borne the brunt of the war against Nazi Germany – “a hammer,” as Truman called it at one point, to intimidate the Soviet Union from supporting revolutionary movements anywhere and from opposing the restoration of capitalism in the East European countries that it liberated from the Nazis.
But this important and ongoing debate is entirely absent from the Enola Gay exhibit, which seems to say that this was “our plane” which dropped “our bomb,” and we should be proud of “our power,” because technologically enhanced might makes right.
For Marxists, the plaque hailing the Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber, is a classic example of the fallacy of false concreteness. The B-29 was the most sophisticated propeller-driven plane of World War II and the Enola Gay did drop the bomb on Hiroshima, but anyone who believes that those two true statements tell us what we need to know about the dropping of the atomic bomb has no analytical sense or moral compass.
Having put the Enola Gay on exhibit, perhaps the Smithsonian will also show the technological achievements of napalm and Agent Orange in the defoliation of Vietnam, and the information gathered by the high-flying U-2 spy planes, even though they helped to create international crises that intensified the Cold War.
For Marxists, science and technology are never neutral, not part of an independent “scientific and technological revolution,” as Mikhail Gorbachev, the gravedigger of the Soviet Union, was fond of talking about. Science and technology can never be separated from their social uses and the class forces that determine those uses. To say nothing about the social meaning of the Enola Gay is to make a statement celebrating it and creating a mindset that will celebrate future “military marvels” regardless of the devastation they cause.
To ask only how things are done, which is what the Smithsonian has done in this exhibit, and not ask why and to what effect, is yet another example of the Bush administration’s immoral worldview and the mindset it is seeking to impose on the American people.
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University. He can be reached at email@example.com.