A Canadian historian touches raw nerves with a Second World War exhibit
The morality of bombs
A Canadian historian touches raw nerves with a Second World War exhibit
Fifty years ago, as Nazi Germany fought advancing Allied forces in Europe, and Imperial Japan battled defeat in the Pacific, “secret weapons” on both sides ensured that the closing stages of the Second World War would literally be its dying days for tens of thousands of civilians and many more warriors. The desperation use of the ballistic missile invented in Germany and the nuclear bomb designed in the United States spread death and terror. The postwar combination of those weapons plunged the world into an era of fear.
Now, as the winners of history’s costliest war prepare anniversary remembrances of 1945, another form of conflict has arisen. On one side stand people, often veterans and other survivors, who look back on that year’s events as a triumph of arms and sacrifice for freedom and humanity.
On the other are those, often younger, who view the war more as an example of mutual inhumanity and a warning. And in Washington, that quarrel has come into bitter focus for Canadian historian Michael Neufeld, the curator of a disputed exhibition he is organizing for the Smithsonian Institution, The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II.
For Edmonton-born Neufeld, 43, a specialist in modem German history and rocketry who joined the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in 1988, the development of ballistic missiles and the atomic bomb during the war were “truly revolutionary” events that transformed world history. Successors of the German V-2 missile and the atomic bomb, he writes in a newly published book, “have threatened us for 50 years with nearly instantaneous nuclear destruction, and will continue to do so, despite the end of the Cold War.” As such, his original 1993 outline for the museum exhibit, which opens in May for eight months, proposed to address “the significance, necessity and morality of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” in August, 1945. “The question of whether it was necessary and right to drop the bombs,” he wrote, “continues to perplex us.”
REPORT FROM WASHINGTON
That is a common enough view among scholars, if unusually questioning for a hugely popular centre that celebrates achievements in flight and will build its atomic exhibition around the front half of the 99foot-long Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber that delivered the bomb to Hiroshima. On the same subject in The Growth of the American Republic, a two-volume basic text, co-author Samuel E. Morison asks whether the United States should have used “this most terrible of weapons,” and not once but twice. “That is a question men will ask for a hundred years, if the atomic weapon allows mankind another hundred years.” But when an exhibit script released by the museum last summer raised the same question, war veterans, editorialists and members of Congress protested against a project that some of them denounced as “un-American.”
The criticism got personal. A September article in The Washington Post questioned Neufeld’s credentials as “a Canadian citizen who spent his undergraduate years at the University of Calgary between 1970 and 1974, when Americans were fleeing to Canada to escape the Vietnam War.” Exhibit manager Tom Crouch’s primary involvement with the war era, the article said, was as curator at another Smithsonian museum of a 1985 project on the internment of Japanese-Americans.
In some respects, the American debate over the atomic end of the Pacific war echoed a Canadian dispute generated by CBC television s screening in January, 1992, of The Valour and the Horror, a look-back series on the Second World War produced by brothers Brian and Terence McKenna. In particular, a segment of the series questioning the need for and humanity of mass bomber raids on German cities provoked a Senate inquiry, criticism by CBC Ombudsman William Morgan and a defamation suit launched by Canadian air force veterans. In Washington, the atomic exhibit came under attack months before its opening, from within as well as from outside the Smithsonian. “Many of the critics were right,” says Smithsonian secretary Michael Heyman, whose 16 free-admission museums and galleries, like the CBC, depend partly on public funding.
Neufeld and fellow organizers revised the script. They toned down an original emphasis on the destruction of Hiroshima on Aug. 6,1945,
and Nagasaki three days later (Japan surrendered on Aug. 14).
Of death rolls totalling at least 100,000, and at least as many
more dying later of wounds and radiation sickness (casualty estimates still vary widely), the museum reported in a late-October statement that “emotionally laden or repetitive photographs and text have been removed from the exhibition.”
The organizers also erased a disputed observation that most Americans regarded the struggle at the time as “a war of vengeance” for Japan’s naval and air attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, which provoked the U.S. declaration of war, while “for most Japanese it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.” And in compliance with a claim by veterans, the exhibitors vastly increased the estimated risk of invading Japan instead of bombing it into submission, a justification used at the time. In the exhibit, potential American casualties in the first 30 days of an invasion went up from 50,000 to as many as one million, both figures derived from military estimates in 1945 and since.
The retreat by air and space officials, who rate their massive Washington Mall building the world’s most visited museum (more than eight million admissions a year), provoked counter-protests by historians. A group of 40 scholars delivered a letter in November to museum director Martin Harwit charging that the revision distorted history and corrupted the exhibition. Museum spokesman Michael Fetters, however, said at the time: ‘We recognize that it is highly unlikely that we will satisfy everyone completely, and we’re comfortable where we are now.”
But that attempt to call a truce failed to suppress a debate that, until recently, had raged mainly among scholars. As if on cue on Dec. 7, the 53rd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, White House officials conveyed a presidential request to U.S. Postmaster General Marvin Runyon to rethink plans for a 1995 commemorative stamp featuring a nuclear mushroom cloud and the words: “Atomic bombs hasten war’s end, August, 1945.” Japan—a vital U.S. trading partner—had protested. Dee Dee Myers, then the White House press secretary, said she was sure the post office understood “the sensitivity of the issue.” The postmaster promptly killed the stamp project.
Scholars and media commentators pursued the debate. Against those who contend that nothing short of the nuclear weapon could have convinced the fight-to-the-death Tokyo militarists and their suicidal kamikaze warriors to quit, others cite Japan’s isolation against an enclosing Allied army. Following the end of the European war on May 8,1945, Soviet, British, Canadian and other forces had moved towards the Pacific arena to join the war against Japan.
Contenders in both camps argue that factors other than casualties weighed as heavily in President Harry Truman’s decision to use the bomb three weeks after the successful detonation of a prototype in the New Mexico desert. Among those considerations: a belief that demonstrations of atomic power would make the Soviet Union “more manageable” after the war. Compounding that theory, U.S. intelligence officers whisked a team of German missile-makers under the V-2 project leader, Wemher von Braun, to develop an improved missile delivery system in New Mexico, where the bomb had been tested only weeks before.
As the debate raged, Neufeld abstained. He declined to talk to Maclean’s, saying that “I’m under orders—all questions about this exhibit go to public relations.” Air and space public relations issued a point-form biography: after his Calgary BA in 1974, a master’s degree from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, 1976, and a master’s and doctorate (1984) from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Md., all in German history, Neufeld taught history at three New York universities. He turned to research on von Braun and the German rocket program at the air and space museum. That study, he writes in his new book, The Rocket and the Reich (The Free Press, 368 pages), renewed an enthusiasm when “I lived and breathed space flight as a teenager in the 1960s.”
In his book, Neufeld traces the development of the supersonic V-2 from idealistic ambitions in the early 1930s through the program’s corruption under the Nazi regime and its employment of slave prisoners. Thousands of them died or were executed for subversion in the frantic endgame of the war. He estimates that about 3,200 V-2s (V for Vergeltungswaffe, or vengeance force) launched against London and the Belgian port of Antwerp between September, 1944, and March, 1945, killed perhaps 5,000 people. But an estimated 10,000 foreign prisoners and German dissidents died in the missile’s production. He asserts that von Braun himself, later the father of the U.S. space program, “made a pact with the devil in order to build large rockets.”
Neufeld cites an acknowledgment of that attitude from von Braun as “a depressingly frank statement common among inventors, engineers and scientists in the modem era.” The moral questions raised by Neufeld and others may no longer have a significant place in his exhibition on war’s end. But they remain vivid even as others prefer to celebrate victories that, however urgently necessary they appeared at the time, left the world a more dangerous place. As U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur warned in reference to the deadly power of nuclear arms after accepting Japan’s surrender 50 years ago, unless the world devised a peaceable system of resolving disputes, “Armageddon will be at our door.” □
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