History Wars: The Enola Gay and other battles for the American past.

Edited by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt

Published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC in 1996 under the imprint of Owl Books.

This book was assigned for my required general historiography class, and I found it extremely readable and very interesting. Also incredibly depressing. The essays address various aspects of a particular event of focussed attention, specifically a plan by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum to put on an exhibit in 1995 featuring the Enola Gay which discussed the end of World War II as well as the beginning of the nuclear age. What resulted was massive outcry by several vocal groups and all vestiges of the original intent of the exhibit were scrapped, the director of the museum resigned under pressure, and there was agitation for a congressional investigation of the Smithsonian's administration. Particularly disturbing were the vitriolic claims of unpatriotic and dishonoring, indeed dishonorable, agendas of the curators and historians involved in the exhibit by politicians, some veterans groups, and many media outlets. The bugbear that some elite band of intellectuals is trying to subvert the American People by revisionist re-writing of its history (to be American-hating) is apparently stronger than I had thought, and too many people I’ve heard of have used it for their own ends. Yes, call me naive, but I was happy!

Contents and summary:
Introduction: History Under Siege
By Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt
1) Anatomy of a Controversy
By Edward T. Linenthal
Chapter 1 gives a survey of the events of the time from the point of view someone who was partially involved. The entire book is from the side of the scholars, so the perspective is necessarily skewed, but this does not explain all of the disunions between what critics would claim as fact publicly, say in The Wall Street Journal and what was actually happening as the museum attempted to modify the exhibit to appease each group. All in all, Linenthal attempts to be fair and in doing so largely lists chronological events, although he does add bits of humanizing reaction and his presentation is far from dry.
2) Three Narratives of Our Humanity
By John W. Dower
Chapter 2 discusses the cultural need for historical narratives that make sense, the US’s simplifying and then enfolding of the Enola Gay and the events it symbolizes into the heroic narrative of ever increasing progress, and compares it to the concurrent Japanese search for narrative meaning as both conquered enemies and victims in a censored environment. Dower then surveys the assorted scholarship, controversies and discussions still ongoing which would have been addressed in the exhibit.
3) Patriotic Orthodoxy and American Decline
By Michael S. Sherry
Chapter 3 discusses the use of the concept of patriotism as a political tool. Sherry examines how the concept has gone from one of relative inclusion during World War II to one which has become increasingly exclusionary to those within the system as enemies outside have decreased. I found a particularly disturbing resonance in this chapter to the current environment of those who claim that to be anti-war in Iraq or indeed to criticize George W. Bush’s War on Terror in any way, is to be un-American.
4) Whose History Is It Anyway? Memory, Politics, and Historical Scholarship
By Paul Boyer
Chapter 4 contextualizes the role of the historian in history focussing on changing scholarship on World War II’s end and the disconnect between historical scholarship and public opinion. It also discusses how certain events, such as the use of nuclear weapons against the civilian centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t fit neatly into the concept of ‘heroic’ actions. Some discussion about the changing concepts of war and the events which saw the ethical shift in the bombing of civilian centers.
5) History at Risk: The Case of the Enola Gay
By Richard H. Kohn
Chapter 5 is a closer look at the text of the exhibit and the context in which it became such a plum target for political and public destruction. It looks as 5 subplots and their context which form the larger story of the cancelled exhibit: the changing focus of the NASM away from celebration into scholarship; the Air Force Association’s search for commemoration and celebratory recognition; the culture wars which goes back to what Chapter 3 discussed; the Republican victory in Congress which imperiled the museum’s funding and administration; and the decisions of the new Smithsonian secretary in response to the financial pressure as opposed to academic criticism.
6) Culture War, History Front
By Mike Wallace (no, not that Mike Wallace)
Chapter 6 takes Chapter 3 further and is gives a closer look to the primary antagonist, the Air Force Association and its context. Wallace also looks at Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Lynne Cheyney, and assorted other efforts to contain history to a single, mythic text. He then looks at how the squashing of the Enola Gay exhibit has influenced other museums actions, and how a restrictive agenda is larger than any single museum decision, and also discusses ways in which museums may be able to forestall or at least protect against such attacks in the future. This essay was rather more *ahem* lively in its tone than the others.
7) Dangerous History: Vietnam and the ''Good War''
By Marilyn B. Young
Chapter 7 takes Chapter 2 farther and looks at how the Vietnam War was a complicating, and indeed threatening, development in the American national narrative, especially set as it was in the context of the civil rights movement. Young then looks at how the re-examination of earlier conflicts through the lens of the Vietnam War is profoundly destabilizing to those for whom the earlier way of thinking has been approved reality for 50 years.
8) The Victors and the Vanquished
By Tom Engelhardt
Like Chapters 2 and 7, Chapter 8 examines the need for narrative, but also discusses events which do not fit, and how communities attempt to assimilate them within an ambiguity which permits multiplicity. Englehardt, like the planned exhibit, takes the discussion into the Cold War and the nuclear age. He proposes that Americans had a strange disconnect after the war, that defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory when as a country we prospered and increased but went to bed every night dreaming of atomic annihilation. This disconnect, Engelhardt explains, is one reason why the generation who lived through World War II and that which was raised in the Cold War differ at times profoundly in their needs for what examined history can give us. This was by far my favorite essay for no other reason than its tone and literary writing style. It closed the book without recriminations, accusations, or sideways digs. It ends thoughtfully, sadly, and with some beautiful and evocative prose.