Missing the Target
An aggressive public relations campaign by the Air Force Association and the Smithsonian's tepid response doomed the museum's plans for a full-fledged exhibit on the atomic bomb. The media covered the charges and coutercharges but ignored the underlying historical debate.
Tony Capaccio, editor of Defense Week.
Uday Mohan is a graduate student in the history department at The American University.
Fifty years after the U.S. bombing missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ideological fallout from the atomic bomb has settled over the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Following months of text changes, charges of anti-Americanism, and the resignation of the museum's director, an exhibit originally scheduled to open in May is finally open this month, a pared down version of what was supposed to be a complex retelling of President Harry S. Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb.
Instead, the exhibit is not much more than the 60-foot fuselage of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, instantly killing at least 70,000 Japanese. Air Force historian Richard P. Hallion, a former science and technology curator at the Air and Space Museum and an exhibit adviser, ruefully calls the exhibit "a beer can with a label."
The dispute that brought about this truncated exhibit was over which version of atom bomb history would be highlighted. The controversy was largely fueled by media accounts that uncritically accepted the conventional rationale for the bomb, ignored contrary historical evidence, and reinforced the charge that the planned exhibit was a pro-Japanese, anti-American tract.
The conventional view reflects the sober accounts of Truman and his secretary of war, Henry Stimson: The A-bombs saved as many as 1 million American soldiers who would have been killed or wounded in an invasion of the Japanese mainland "Our Boys or the Bomb?" as one Washington Post op-ed headline put it. This position was defended by veterans groups, most prominently the American Legion and the Air Force Association, which campaigned vigorously against the initial plans for the exhibit.
The other ver&ion comes from historians who, since the mid-1960s, have been reassessing Truman's decision in light of documents and memoirs. They have found that:
• President Truman did not face the stark choice of either an invasion or the bomb. He had other alternatives.
• No documents back up claims made by Truman and others that an invasion of Japan would have cost as many as 1 million American casualties (see "How Many Casualties?" page 25).
• Archival evidence reveals that a number of factors contributed to Truman's decision to drop the bomb, including bureaucratic momentum, political imperatives, psychological factors and the desire to contain an expansionist Soviet Union. Many historians have concluded the administration saw deterrence of the Soviets as a secondary benefit; they generally agree that ending the war quickly was the dominant reason.
• Some combination of the Soviet Union's August 8 entry into the Pacific war, modification of unconditional surrender terms, a blockade, and conventional bombing most likely would have forced the Japanese to surrender without the use of the A-bomb before the planned allied invasion of November 1, 1945. These elements in fact contributed significantly to Japan's surrender on August 15.
• The dropping of a second atomic bomb on August 9 on Nagasaki, which instantly killed at least 40,000, cannot be justified on political, military or moral grounds.
This summer, as journalists prepare for the inevitable flurry of 50th anniversary stories in August, they have a chance to test such assessments and evaluate how well they stand up against the conventional explanation for Truman's decision. The resources, both documentary and human, are readily available. However, a survey of the coverage of the Enola Gay exhibit flap, as well as earlier anniversary coverage (see "Who's the Revisionist?" page 21), indicates there has been little willingness by major media organizations to reassess the A-bomb decision with the same energy applied to other great historical controversies, such as the Kennedy assassination or the Cuban missile crisis (see "Rallying Around the Flag," September 1994).
The overall coverage of the exhibit controversy "wasn't very thorough," says George Washington University history professor Ronald Spector, author of the widely acclaimed World War II Pacific theater history book, "Eagle Against the Sun." "I don't think there was much of an attempt to really understand the issues that were involved."
A July 1993 Air and Space Museum planning document clearly describes what the Smithsonian initially intended for the exhibit scheduled to open this spring: "The primary goal of this exhibition will be to encourage visitors to undertake a thoughtful and balanced re-examination of these events in the light of political and military factors leading to the decision to drop the bomb, the human suffering experienced by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the long term implications... This exhibit can provide a crucial public service by re-examining these issues in the light of the most recent scholarship."
The museum's plan, however, was derailed by a sophisticated public relations campaign launched by the Air Force Association (AFA), a 180,000-member nonprofit organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
The AFA first heard about the exhibit in August 1993 after the museum disseminated planning documents. The group believed the plans were flawed, so it contacted the museum and began what it once called a "constructive dialogue." During the next seven months AFA officials quietly lobbied the museum to change the tone of the exhibit.
Frustrated by what they felt to be only "cosmetic changes," AFA officials decided to go public in March 1994. They issued a press release, titled "Politically Correct Curating at the Air and Space Museum," stressing what they saw to be an imbalance in the script between the depictions of Japanese suffering at ground zero in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the dearth of images depicting years of Japan's unspeakable brutality against other Asians and allied prisoners of war.
The AFA's release introduced the now infamous "war of vengeance" quote that reverberated throughout the debate: "For most Americans, it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism."
It was those two sentences, endlessly repeated by the media outside of their original context, that did the most damage to the museum's credibility.
The AFA had other serious problems with the first draft of the exhibit script. "A recurring undertone in the plans and scripts has been suspicion about why the United States used the atomic bomb," stated one association analysis. "Museum officials have seemed reluctant to accept the explanation that it was a military action, taken to end the war and save lives."
Another AFA document suggested that the exhibit section titled "The Decision to Drop the Bomb" should be renamed "The Decision that Ended the War" and "revised to reflect widely accepted scholarship that President Truman analyzed the...estimates of potential casualties, and made the decision to use the awesome military weapon in order to save lives... All revisionist speculation should be eliminated."
Curators did not expect the attacks. "We believed in rational discussion. We didn't want to get into a knife fight," says one shell-shocked Air and Space Museum official. But Thomas Crouch, chairman of the Air and Space Museum's aeronautics department and chief exhibit curator, concedes that "what went wrong was we didn't give enough thought to the emotional link that's still in the minds of obviously a great many Americans that binds the idea of the bomb, the memory of the bomb..to the euphoria at the end of World War II."
The controversy ignited in the summer of 1994 after the release of the first of four eventual script revisions.
First, in a widely publicized statement, Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets called the planned exhibit a "package of insults" in a speech to a military group. Then, in mid-July the AFA released internal Air and Space Museum documents, including an April 16, 1994, memo from museum director Martin Harwit acknowledging the exhibit lacked balance.
But the key story based partly on the internal museum documents the AFA released was a July 21 Washington Post Style section piece by Eugene L. Meyer that elevated the controversy to national status when it caught the eye of Republican Rep. Peter Blute of Massachusetts. "The critics accuse the Smithsonian of choosing political correctness over historical accuracy in the presentation," Meyer wrote. "They charge that the exhibit as planned will portray the Japanese largely as suffering, even noble victims and the Americans as racist and ruthless fighters hell-bent on revenge for Pearl Harbor."
So alerted, Blute issued a letter on August 10, co-signed by 23 other legislators, condemning the museum for proposing an "anti-American" and "biased" exhibit. The lawmakers wanted "an objective account of the Enola Gay and her mission rather than the historically narrow, revisionist view contained in the revised script."
Stanford University professor Barton Bernstein, a well-known atomic bomb historian, is amazed at how little press scrutiny the AFA received. "Any reporter who gave it four seconds of thought would conclude that the Air Force Association is a not a mainline, impartial group on this," he says. "It's a service lobby."
The AFA would keep up its media campaign for 11 months. By the group's own account, it was cited in more than 400 print and broadcast stories during the height of the controversy from August 1994 through the end of January. Combined with the efforts of the American Legion, which began highly publicized, line by line negotiations with curators in September 1994, the AFA campaign forced the museum to kill its original exhibit concept on January 30.
After members of Congress intervened, the story, as covered by the media, degenerated into a shouting match, with the veterans' groups doing most of the shouting. But instead of covering the veterans' charges and the historical debate, the media focused narrowly on the allegations of imbalance and anti-Americanism.
By most accounts, the media coverage of the museum controversy itself was scrupulously fair, at least within the standard news formula of reporting charges and countercharges. Even Air and Space Museum spokesman Michael Fetters is satisfied with the way the museum was treated by the press.
"All I can ask is that before they go with a story that will really provoke a reaction is give us a call and give us an opportunity to respond," says Fetters. "Most of the reporters of the major dailies did that and I'm satisfied. They definitely made a good effort to get a response."
Fetters acknowledged a common observation made by reporters interviewed for this story: "Our own office didn't respond as strongly as we could have so we bear a lot of the responsibility" for the way the coverage turned out.
§ome of the earliest accounts, which appeared in May 1994, were the most evenhanded, especially a May 9 story by Wichita Eagle reporter Tom Webb. It ran on the Knight-Ridder wire and was published by at least 17 newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Omaha World-Herald, San Diego Union-Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, Arizona Republic, Portland's Oregonian and the Orange County Register. Webb gave equal weight to the veterans' charges and the Smithsonian's reponse. He also included the curators' views, which debunked the large casualty figures predicted in the event of an invasion of Japan that have been used to justify the bomb. Unfortunately those passages were often cut in the versions that ran.
The Washington Post first covered the debate as a federal bureaucracy story on May 31 in a "Capital Notebook" column on its Federal Page. In contrast with the paper's later critical coverage, it concluded somewhat sympathetically: "There is something to be said for an exhibit that suggests that warplanes are not simply expensive sporting devices to be used for movie props or flyovers at presidential funerals."
But the overall tone of coverage became more strident following Rep. Blute's letter. Reporters, columnists and editorial writers often used criticism by the AFA, the American Legion and other veterans groups as a club to beat on the museum.
Former Air and Space Museum Director Harwit, who resigned in May due to the negative publicity, is more critical of the news coverage than Fetters. He believes many reporters weren't open to the curators' perspective. "I did have the feeling the stories [reporters] had in mind when they came in to see us were the stories they wrote when they left," he says. "It had nothing to do with what we were going to say because what we said would have made their stories differ so much from those that were already in the press."
But Harwit reserved his sharpest criticism for editorial writers. "Columnists took this over and these allegations were in hundreds of newspapers," he says. "One editorialist would write something and then in a day or two you'd see exactly the same wording or the same quotes" in other stories or columns.
Editorial writers in particular did land some hard punches. Perhaps the most damaging piece was written by Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Meg Greenfield in an August 14 op-ed column titled "Context and the Enola Gay." Blute spokesman Rob Gray says it was instrumental in neutralizing political support for the museum.
"What the tenor of the debate suggests," she wrote, "is a curatorial inability to perceive that political opinions are embedded in the exhibit or to identify them as such opinions rather than as universal objective assumptions all thinking people must necessarily share."
Meanwhile, the Tulsa World concluded that "a distance of 50 years makes it easy to make half-baked judgments on history." Syndicated columnist Charley Reese of the Orlando Sentinel repeated a favorite AFA sound bite, stating that the problem was "the intellectual arrogance of the museum director." A Providence Journal Bulletin editorial lamented: "Unfortunately, this latest example is all too characteristic of the way left-wing politics have smothered the Smithsonian's historical presentations." Similarly, the Indianapolis Star, published in the home city of the American Legion, opined that "a revisionist faction has tried to turn the planned display..into an America-bashing enterprise." And syndicated columnist Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe called the exhibit script "tendentious and manipulative... It portrays the United States and the Allies as militaristic and racist."
Given the emotions stirred by the controversy, one would expect strong editorial opinions. But often these columns and many of the news stories contained factual errors and script passages taken out of context that exacerbated an already polarized debate.
Perhaps the most glaring gap in the coverage was the failure to challenge the standard "our boys or the bomb" assumption that the allied forces would have had to invade Japan if the atomic bombs hadn't been dropped.
"If you look at the weight of the historians who have written about this, and I'm not a historian of the era, but I've read some of the histories, it seems the evidence is very, very strong," says syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post. Jacoby agrees. "My best judgment is that this is by and large a settled historical conclusion," he says. "There were major preparations under way for an invasion and it was the use of the bomb that made that invasion unnecessary."
A number of historians say that the AFA, Krauthammer, Jacoby and the other journalists who accepted this "conclusion" are mistaken. "It wasn't that way," says J. Samuel Walker, the historian at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Number one, there were alternatives. Number two, it wasn't at all clear that an invasion was necessary. Clearly, many high officials within the Truman White House and advisers thought the war was practically over. It's less clear Truman felt that way."
University of Southern Mississippi military history professor John Ray Skates, who has written a critical assessment of the planned invasion, says, "It's always couched in this false dichotomy of either the bomb or the invasion. The connections between the use of the bomb and the decision to invade Japan are neither direct nor close."
The view offered by historian Martin Sherwin in the 1987 edition of his book, "A World Destroyed," was incorporated by the curators in the ill-fated exhibit. He wrote, "The choice in the summer of 1945 was not between a conventional invasion or a nuclear war. It was a choice between various forms of diplomacy and warfare. While the decision that Truman made is understandable, it was not inevitable. It was even avoidable."
University of Nebraska professor Peter Maslowski, in the Spring 1995 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, noted how out of the four primary options Truman faced, the bomb or invasion "remain so vivid in the national consciousness that it is as if they were always the only possibilities." At the time, however, none of the options bomb, invasion, blockade or a negotiated settlement that modified the demands for Japan's unconditional surrender "was self-evidently better than the others." He concluded that "strictly speaking, the bombs were not necessary..but...represented a way to avoid the difficulties inherent in the other three" options.
Newsweek also botched the bomb versus invasion issue. A December 12 story quoted Walker's assessment out of context to reinforce the premise that the exhibit script failed to give due consideration to the "bomb or invasion" dilemma Truman faced.
"Did the bomb prevent an invasion of Japan that would have made Normandy look like a training exercise or not?" wrote former Toyko bureau chief Bill Powell, now based in Berlin. "The subject is of fierce dispute among historians. But as J. Samuel Walker..wrote recently, 'The historical consensus..which held that the bomb was used primarily for military reasons [i.e. to avoid a bloody invasion of Japan]..continues to prevail.' "
But in the same Winter 1990 issue of Diplomatic History, Walker also wrote: "The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it... [I]t bears repeating that an invasion was a remote possibility."
Powell concedes he had not seen the entire Walker article and based his story on files from other Newsweek reporters. "Perhaps I misinterpreted his quote," he says.
One of the most unfair and unfor§unate aspects of the coverage was the consistently poor way reporters and columnists handled the infamous two-sentence "war of vengeance" quote. Although the museum removed the lines in a May 31, 1994, draft, they were repeated for more than a year by the press as representative of the museum's mindset in organizing the exhibit.
They were picked up and hammered home in stories and editorials in newspapers ranging from the Washington Times to the Tulsa World, Rocky Mountain News and Portland's Oregonian. They were uttered on the radio by Rush Limbaugh and National Public Radio newscasters, and they were turned into a graphic for the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."
"That quote always, always came up," says museum spokesman Fetters. Despite a summer full of script changes "all the veterans groups had to do was talk about 'that Enola Gay exhibit that portrayed the Japanese as victims and Americans the aggressors,' and then they would use the 'war of vengeance' quote and all of the sudden we would be fighting that January 1994 script again."
Krauthammer recalled the quote in an August 19 piece with special indignation, noting that although it had been cleaned up "you can imagine the prejudices of those who would write such a thing and the kind of exhibit they would put on."
A fair comment, perhaps. Read in isolation, the quotes are inflammatory. But published in the context of what preceded it something virtually no journalist, including Krauthammer, saw fit to do the sentences, while clumsy and open to misinterpretation, are less offensive.
Here is the full passage:
"In 1931 the Japanese Army occupied Manchuria; six years later it invaded the rest of China. From 1937 to 1945, the Japanese Empire would be constantly at war.
"Japanese expansionism was marked by naked aggression and extreme brutality. The slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese in Nanking in 1937 shocked the world. Atrocities by Japanese troops included brutal mistreatment of civilians, forced laborers and prisoners of war, and biological experiments on human victims.
"In December 1941, Japan attacked U.S. bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and launched other surprise assaults against allied territories in the Pacific. Thus began a wider conflict marked by extreme bitterness. For most Americans, this war was fundamentally different than the one waged against Germany and Italy it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism. As the war approached its end in 1945, it appeared to both sides that it was a fight to the finish."
MHQ Editor Robert Cowley agrees the quote was portrayed inaccurately. "If you give the full thing it's not nearly so bad. But what was quoted was that last sentence," he says. "If you take that out of context it's much worse and in that sense, Krauthammer was not being entirely honest. But what we got was that last sentence. Once that was out of the bag, it was hard to stop the conflagration."
Krauthammer stands by his use of the quote. "Anybody who could write that clearly is seeing the Japanese defending their culture against Western 'imperialism.' That certainly cast them as victims."
The Washington Times also attacked the museum for the quote. "I couldn't believe that [passage]," says Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden. "I thought, 'My god. If that's the quality of historian they've got at the Smithsonian we ought to look into it.' ...It was almost as if they were talking about something that happened on another planet."
Pruden, like many journalists, had not seen the entire page, relying instead on previously published accounts. When he was shown the page during an interview, he conceded that "perhaps" his paper ran the quote out of context. "Maybe we should have put that text in a sidebar or graphic of some kind, it probably would have been a good idea," he said. "But I think it pretty much expresses what they had in mind."
As for what the quote intended, curator Michael Neufeld offers this explanation: The media "misread our mindset or misinterpreted our mindset. It was an attempt to interpret what was in the minds of each side at the time. It's not what we thought the Japanese were all about. We were trying to explain what they thought they were all about."
AFA Chief of Media Relations Jack Giese defends the association's repeated references. The passage, he says, was only one of three in the initial 500-page script of text and photos to clearly acknowledge Japanese aggression a point conceded by the curators and subsequently corrected.
The other most common mistakes in the coverage involved the projected number of casualties from an invasion of Japan and the presumption that the exhibit called U.S. motives racist.
In his July 21, 1994, story, "Dropping the Bomb: Smithsonian Exhibit Plan Detonates Controversy," the Washington Post's Meyer wrote that "military planners estimated upwards of 800,000 American casualties would result from a planned two-stage invasion." In an interview, Meyer conceded that the casualty figure was an extrapolation made by Air Force historian Richard Hallion in 1994, not a wartime planning estimate. After another historian questioned the figure, Meyer did not use it in subsequent stories.
Meyer also mischaracterized key themes in the scripts. For example, in a September 30 story, Meyer wrote that early scripts "suggested that American war planners, including President Harry S. Truman, were motivated less by concern over American casualties than by a desire to impress the Soviet Union with the new weapon, and to justify the expenditure of $2 billion in the production of the bomb." The scripts, however, clearly stated that "most scholars have rejected this argument."
"My article did not say that the early scripts made such claims," says Meyer. "It said the scripts 'suggested' conclusions. They did so through sheer repetition of the 'impress-the-Soviets' and price-tag factors, and by understating Truman's concern with lives lost in a possible invasion."
An August 1 piece by USA Today columnist Tony Snow was typical of the way the racism issue played. Snow wrote: "A later piece of text raises a racism charge: 'Some have argued that the atomic bomb would never have been dropped on Germans because it was much easier for Americans to bomb Asians than white people.' No serious historian takes this view, but the Smithsonian curators included it."
In fact, the issue was raised by the curators as a "historical controversy" and answered in the script: "The consensus of most, if not all, historians is that President Roosevelt would have used the bomb on Germany if such an attack would have been useful in the European war."
When asked if he unfairly pulled the quote out of context, Snow replied, "If I had to go back and look twice, I probably would have stuck in a parenthetical to say that they make note of the fact that no historian [agrees]." But the fact that the curators raised the issue, he added, "implicitly gave some sense of credence" to it.
On August 29, the Wall Street Journal printed one of the most damaging errors just as congressional and editorial pressure was building against the museum. In an editorial titled "War and the Smithsonian," the Journal stated that "it is especially curious to note the oozing romanticism with which the Enola show's writers describe the kamikaze pilots... These were, the script elegiacally relates, 'youths, their bodies overflowing with life.' Of the youth and life of the Americans who fought and bled in the Pacific there is no mention."
The Journal's observation was picked up the next day by Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle, who wrote that "just yesterday, for example, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal found it 'especially curious to note...' " He then repeated the statement.
The quote the Journal attributed to elegiac curatorial prose was actually written after the war by a surviving kamikaze pilot, Ensign Yukiteru Sugiyama. This was clearly spelled out in the script text.
Journal spokesman Roger May and Ringle refuse to discuss the mistake. "We don't do postmortems on editorials," May says.
On September 26, Ringle contributed "At Ground Zero: 2 Views of History Collide Over Smithsonian A-Bomb Exhibit," a 3,780-word piece that pitted a Bataan death march survivor's perspective against the museum's. The former POW, Grayford C. Payne, told Ringle that "all of us who were prisoners in Japan or were headed for it to probably die in the invasion revere the Enola Gay. It saved our lives."
In a recent interview, Ringle argued that the Smithsonian's "perceptions are vastly different from the population at large. I can only say if the academic historians were right and all the curators were right, there would be no political pressures the other way."
A traditionally disorganized group, historians entered the debate last fall much too late to influence public opinion. And they found getting much more than a sound bite was difficult, says a New York Times editorial assistant, Timothy McNulty, who wrote a Week In Review piece on February 5, 1995, summarizing the controversy. "It was harder for them to get their points across as easily as it was for the veterans," says McNulty. The veterans' side "was a lot more understandable because everyone was used to it. When you see people criticize or question Truman's decision, he's a legend. You knew how the vets would react."
Some reporters did attempt to weave the historical debate in with the exhibit controversy, but they were exceptions. USA Today reporter Andrea Stone, for one, consistently incorporated the views of historians in her pieces.
And while the public was continually informed about the veterans groups' take on the exhibit plans, news organizations failed to report that a number of historians had actually praised the museum for its efforts.
Edwin Bearss, special assistant to the director of the National Park Service and a member of the exhibit's advisory board, wrote in February 1994, "As a World War II Pacific combat veteran, I commend you and your colleagues who have dared to go that extra mile to address an emotionally charged and internationally significant event in an exhibit that, besides enlightening, will challenge its viewers."
Even Hallion, one of the critics' favorite sources, had some kind words about the original script. "Overall, this is a most impressive piece of work, comprehensive and dramatic, obviously based upon a great deal of sound research, primary and secondary," he wrote in a February 1994 note.
Nor did reporters get their hands on mid-July assessments from the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Pentagon's chief historian, Alfred Goldberg. Both judged the museum to be making progress in rewriting a flawed first script.
In a July 15 memo to museum curator Michael Neufeld on the second script, Goldberg noted, "My overall impression of the Enola Gay script is favorable. It shows evidence of careful research and an effort to realize a balanced presentation."
By focusing exclusively on the veterans' charges the news media failed to convey the bigger story: Whose version of the historical record is closer to explaining why the atomic bombs were dropped, the veterans groups or the Air and Space Museum curators?
The AFA and other veterans groups wanted "all revisionist speculation" removed. Many of the arguments on the other side the view of the decision based on archival research were ably represented by a cover story in the January/February 1995 issue of Civilization, a bimonthly magazine published by the Library of Congress. The article, "Why We Dropped the Bomb," was written by William Lanouette, the author of a 1993 book on Leo Szilard, one of the creators of the A-bomb.
Although Lanouette's story was available in mid-December several weeks before the Smithsonian abandoned its original concept for the exhibit no reporter referred to his carefully edited findings.
"[I]t still seems fair to conclude that the predominant reason for dropping the bomb was the belief that it would end the war quickly and spare American soldiers," he wrote. "But other factors clearly influenced that decision." Those factors included bureaucratic momentum, political justification, psychological factors and postwar diplomacy.
Lanouette endorsed J. Samuel Walker's conclusion that an invasion was an "unlikely possibility." Moreover, he noted that the United States' insistence on unconditional surrender when the Japanese wanted to retain their emperor "may have foreordained the use of the bomb."
The piece also pointed out that "Truman's new secretary of state, James F. Byrnes and a number of military leaders saw the awesome weapons as a way to make the Soviets 'more manageable'...."
Indeed, Byrnes told U.S. News & World Report in 1960 that "of course" the bomb was dropped to finish the war before the Soviet Union entered on August 8. "We were anxious to get the war over with as soon as possible," he said. "In the days immediately preceding the dropping of that bomb his [Truman's] views were the same as mine we wanted to get through the Japanese phase of the war before the Russians came in."
A database search found only two stories that addressed the latest historical evidence in any depth. One, a January 31 New York Times piece written by reporter John Kifner, wove in the views of atomic bomb historian Gar Alperovitz who said it could be documented that "the bomb was not only unnecessary, but known in advance not to be necessary" with the less critical positions of Stanford's Bernstein and MHQ's Cowley. Kifner also discussed the problem of inflated casualty estimates for a proposed invasion of the Japanese mainland.
Kifner's piece was nearly matched by reporter Rod Dreher of the Washington Times, who wrote a January 20 round-up of historians' views debunking the high preinvasion casualty estimates used by exhibit critics. Dreher's editors, however, apparently forgot about his story when they ran a piece a week later that included a chart listing estimates of between 500,000 and 1 million troops killed or wounded in an invasion. "We blew it," admits Times Editor in Chief Pruden.
Reflecting on the dearth of historical analysis that typified the Enola Gay exhibit coverage, Mark Johnson of Media General News Service summed it up this way:
"What would have been nice to do for a lot of people was to sit down in a research library and read everything they could about how the atomic bomb was created and what happened when it went off," he says. "I would have liked to have gotten more space and have written a history lesson, which you can't do."
No one expects reporters on deadline to be budding Barton Bernsteins. But the realities of time and space do not mean that the conventional wisdom on the A-bomb has to be uncritically passed along to the public. There was ample opportunity and time as the issue unfolded for reporters to incorporate the latest research into their stories.
In this case the media's shortcomings are all too obvious. Journalists did not do enough research and failed to hold the veterans' version of history to the same exacting standard they used in judging the curators' version.
The initial exhibit had flaws of context and historical perspective but not as serious and certainly not as ill-informed as the media coverage led the public to believe. l