SFifteen years after dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Enola Gay stands, restored and shiny, like a museum exhibit near Washington’s Dulles Airport.
It was not always so well maintained. For decades after the war, the B-29 Superfortress bomber was left to rot. It was taken apart, its pieces scattered, birds nestled in its engines, and someone smashed its cannon turret.
Behind this neglect hid a deep national ambivalence about what it represented, a dilemma that endures today: was it the plane that ultimately ended WWII, saving hundreds of thousands of lives – or the instrument of the massacre of civilians, which heralded a new era of nuclear terror?
When the Enola Gay was partially restored and plans were made to be exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum in 1995, historians wondered how the exhibit could view its legacy from all sides. It did not go well.
In the face of outcry from Air Force veterans, who said the exhibit would place Japanese and US responsibility on the same moral plane, conservatives reduced or eliminated items focused on the 140,000 people killed in Hiroshima and the nuclear arms race that followed. . For critics, even that was not enough. Museum director Martin Harwit was forced to resign.
When the plane was fully restored and moved to the spectacular new museum building near Dulles in 2003, there were protests from Japanese survivors and others. Red paint was sprayed, nicking the cell.
In the wake of these battles, registration under the Enola Gay is now minimal and bland.
“Although designed to fight in the European theater, the B-29 has found its place on the other side of the globe. In the Pacific, the B-29s delivered a variety of air weapons: conventional bombs, incendiary bombs, mines and two nuclear weapons, ”it says.
Any reference to the moral, political and historical debate over the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 – and then of Nagasaki three days later – was left out, but that did not prevent the dispute from resurfacing in the days that followed. preceded the 75th anniversary on Thursday.
The disagreements are not confined to historians. While the Air Force’s view – which reflects American orthodoxy – is that the use of atomic weapons has stopped the war and prevented a much worse bloodbath, the National Naval Museum American has a different view.
“The vast destruction caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the loss of 135,000 people had little impact on the Japanese army,” he says on a plaque next to a replica of Little Boy, the Enola Gay bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
“However, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria on August 9 – fulfilling a promise from the Yalta conference in February – changed its mind.
The plaque reflects the views of the leadership of the US Navy at the time.
« [T]The use of this barbaric weapon in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender, ”wrote Admiral William Leahy, who chaired the combined chiefs of staff of the United States and the United Kingdom.
The general who had won the war in Europe months earlier, Dwight Eisenhower, recalled his reaction by being told that the atomic bomb would be used.
“I told him of my grave apprehensions, firstly because I believed that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was absolutely unnecessary, and secondly because I believed that our country should avoid shocking it. ‘world opinion using a weapon,’ Eisenhower told his biographer, Stephen Ambrose.
One of the most controversial issues remains the role of US Secretary of State James Byrnes in influencing the decisions of new President Harry Truman, who was inexperienced in foreign policy.
During the Potsdam conference in mid-July 1945, which brought together Truman, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill (replaced at the summit by Clement Attlee), an ultimatum was issued to Japan for him to surrender. Byrnes was instrumental in removing a paragraph offering to allow Emperor Hirohito to retain his title, the main Japanese condition.
“The proclamation was issued without any assurance, knowing that it could not be accepted, then the bombs went ahead,” said historian Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and author of two books on diplomacy. surrounding the decision to use atomic weapons.
Michael Kort, a professor of social sciences at Boston University who wrote The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb, argues that the inclusion of the offer in the Potsdam Declaration alone would not have shortened the war. .
“The Japanese military also had a whole host of other conditions,” Kort said. “Also what we meant was for the Emperor to remain on the throne as a constitutional monarch. What the Japanese meant was their request that the Emperor remain with all his powers.
When the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, the Japanese ambassador in Moscow was probing the Soviets on the conditions for a negotiated end to the war.
The destruction of Hiroshima did not change the Japanese negotiating position. This came with a double blow from two days later. On the evening of August 8, the Soviets announced that they would go to war with Japan, as Stalin had promised Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill in Yalta. A few hours later the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
Historians are divided over whether the bombs or the Soviet declaration alone could have ended the war.
“Despite the Hiroshima bombing, the Japanese government continued to seek an end to the war through Moscow’s mediation,” said Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, former research professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and expert in diplomacy Soviet-Japanese at the time.
“I would say that the Soviet entry into the war had a more decisive impact on the decision to surrender than the atomic bombs.”
This point of view is contested by the Reverend Wilson Miscamble, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.
“Even after the Soviets entered the war, some elements of the Japanese army wanted to continue fighting. But it was Hirohito’s motivation, prompted by his recognition of the damage caused by the bombs, that led him to engage directly with his government and order the surrender, ”Miscamble said.
“So if the bomb was the most decisive on Hirohito, and if Hirohito was the most decisive character in ordering the surrender, I think we can conclude that the bombs were the decisive element in the surrender of Japan.
The American invasion of the Japanese-origin islands was not planned until November, so some have argued that Truman could have postponed the decision to use atomic weapons for a while to see what the effect of Russian intervention. Alperovitz argues that the timing of the bombs was aimed at stopping the war before the Red Army penetrated too deep into Manchuria.
“It’s no accident that the bombs were dropped on August 6 and 9, just when we expected the Russians to go to war,” he said.
Miscamble argues that this takes too narrow a view of the scope of the war and the number of lives at stake.
“The aim was to end the war as quickly as possible, as lives were being lost all over Asia,” he said. “Would it really have been moral to stand aside to maintain its so-called moral purity, when a vast massacre was occurring at the rate of over 200,000 deaths per month?” Isn’t there a tragic dilemma here – what innocent lives to save? “