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Balancing "The Last Act"

the battle over how the Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be commemorated by the National Air & Space Museum in it's 50th anniversary remembrance.
By Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi

Page 1

The National Air & Space Museum (1) plans to open a special exhibit in May. The exhibit will mark the 50th Anniversary of nuclear weapons. The Smithsonian named the exhibit "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II." The Smithsonian's plans have caused an uproar from many sources. Dr. Richard Hallion, (2) an exhibit critic and Air Force Historian, called the exhibit's original script "dreadful." Many WW II veterans contacted the Air Force Association (AFA). The AFA is an independent, non profit, aerospace organization. The AFA publishes Air Force Magazine. These veterans felt the exhibit portrayed the US as a racist imperialist aggressor. Air Force Magazine's Editor in Chief, Mr. John T. Correll, agrees with the veterans. Mr. Correll explained:

In the early concept planning documents the word 'brutal' kept showing up. One time on one of the documents I started underlining 'brutal' and writing in the border 'there's that word again' but the brutal was always applied on the one (The American) side.


Mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. [USAF Collection, NASM]

The Museum made some revisions and released a second script. The exhibit's detractors acknowledged the revised script was better than the first. However the Museum's detractors believed the exhibit was seriously flawed and needed a major rewrite. Herman S. Wolk, an Air Force Historian, said:

    "I think the really deep problem here goes back to the original concept paper that (Dr. Tom D.) Crouch and (Dr. Michael J.) Neufeld drew up. Where they said, 'The objective of this exhibit is to emphasize the debatable nature of dropping the Atomic Bomb and the ensuing arms race and the Cold War.' I think there has been a point of view the script, the exhibit, the structure of it reflects a certain point of view."

The Museum finished a major rewrite on 31 August. The August script answered many of the critics' complaints. The Museum also added a second exhibit called "The War in the Pacific."

The second exhibit will begin with Japan's China invasion in 1937. It ends with US troops capturing Okinawa in June 1945. The purpose of "The War in the Pacific" is to provide a historic context for "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II." Dr. Hallion complained of earlier scripts:

    "I think there is an unbalanced approach in the artifacts that you have entirely too many artifacts related to the 'Ground Zero' (3) portion of this exhibit its disproportionate."

The first two scripts included a school girl's lunch box with its carbonized food. Dr. Hallion called the lunch box, "An emotionally laden artifact." The Smithsonian removed the lunch box from the exhibit. The August script cut down significantly on the ground zero artifacts.

Critics complained a vast majority of the photographs showed Japanese suffering. The August script changed that. The August script had a rough balance between pictures depicting Allied casualties and pictures depicting Japanese casualties. That is unless one includes burning ships and crashed airplanes. Almost all of those pictures were of US ships and planes. Counting pictures is very subjective. For example, there is a picture of Japanese POWs and a picture of Allied internees. A script evaluator can count these pictures equally. However, the US treated Japanese prisoners well. The emaciated internees suffered greatly from their Japanese captors. Another problem is the picture distribution. Almost all of the pictures showing Japanese casualties are from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This could give the mistaken impression that US combat casualties were higher than Japanese combat casualties.

One major problem was the consequences of not using the atomic bombs. The earlier scripts implied Japan would have surrendered without an invasion. Dr. Tom Crouch, one of the exhibit's curators explained the evidence for that conclusion:

    "(take) The Strategic Bombing Survey team for example. Paul Nitze and John Kenneth Galbraith and the economists who were in Japan in the months immediately after the war to assess the impact of the strategic bombing campaign. They looked at everything I mean at economics, at morale, at what happened to fire departments and particular industries, particular towns. With regard to Japan. Their final comment on the (Atomic) bomb was that their studies indicated had there been no bomb, had there been no invasion, Japan would of surrendered in September-October. Something of that sort. Other Post-War studies said the same thing. I don't think we quote any of the others. Marine Corps and Army immediate Post-War gaming situations in 1946-1947, when they were playing with the political elements suggested essentially the same thing. The collapse was closer than the Japanese themselves realized and would of come at that point. If you see that in the script you're only going to see that as a quote from somebody else. There will be quotes to the contrary."

Dr. Hallion pointed out the atomic bomb dilemma:

    "Imagine we are continuing the war by conventional bombing. In fact we did even after Hiroshima we raided Japan several times in B-29 raids after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bombed Tokyo for example one more time, among other places. Now just imagine this. Imagine you are having these conventional fire bombing raids which are killing an average of 60-70-80 thousand people at a crack. (4) Now imagine you have those continuing for a couple of weeks, a couple of months. Imagine this argument is right. Imagine you are able to do this completely by air. Imagine at the same time the submarine campaign and the Naval aviation campaign which is taking care of shipping in the local area. The China coast operations with B-25s. Imagine that continues. Imagine we got to the point where we don't have to make that invasion in November. How many Japanese citizens have died between the time we would of dropped the Bomb but didn't and the collapse of Japan up through late October or Mid-November, something like that. It is going to be well beyond the number that were actually killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And you were going to have US casualties were 900 a day. Americans were being lost in combat and remember we weren't invading any place. This was just the price of doing business. You take a look at those casualties and add those up and they just go up and up and up. So just because the war may of continued on a conventional basis and we could of won conventionally doesn't necessarily mean it would of been less costly than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think the shocking thing at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that they were caused be a single weapon. The fact that you were incinerating people with thousands of small napalm bombs dropped out of B-29s, Mark 20s, doesn't mean anything to the victim. The victim is just as dead. Imagine something else. Imagine that this isn't true. Image this isn't right. That you can win the war conventionally but in addition to all this maybe just an air and sea campaign but it doesn't end in November. We decide not to invade. We decide to let the air and sea campaigns run on. It goes on and on and on into early 1946. You are going to have the same problem. Casualties are going to be enormous. Then imagine that maybe we decide to invade after all. Then you take the casualty rate based on Okinawa which is what (Fleet) Admiral (William) Leahy, who was Chief of Staff for Roosevelt, had suggested. Indeed the casualties would be at this June 18, 1945, meeting to Harry Truman. Imagine you have a situation which take 35% of the invading force. You have casualties there killed, wounded, injured, and missing. That 's a total of 268,000 people and that's just the Americans. Now take a look at Japanese casualties and multiply that by five or six. Now you are already over a million Japanese casualties. Now imagine you have to go to a second stage invasion. Now you really get into some hard core invasion problems. Thirty-five percent of the force is probably a typical figure. Now you're up around 525,000 Americans for that second stage. So between stage one and stage two you're up around 800,000 casualties. Now multiply that by five or six. Now you're up around 3-4 million Japanese. Is that better than dropping two bombs? I don't think so. These are devil's choices - they're the choices you don't want to make."

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    1 The National Air and Space Museum is one of the Smithsonian buildings. It is located on the Washington DC Mall, an area between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building.

    2 Dr. Hallion is an Air Force Historian, however his views are his own and do not express the views of the US Air Force. Neither the US Air Force, nor the Department of Defense has an opinion on the exhibit.

    3 The Ground Zero portion of the exhibit described the damage and casualties the atomic bombings caused. Ground Zero is the nickname given to an atomic blast's Hypocenter, where an atomic bomb explodes.

    4 Only the initial Tokyo fire raid caused casualties in this range. The next costly raid was the March 17, 1945, raid on Kobe, which killed 8,841 people. The Night Tokyo Burned, by Hoito Edoin, 1987.

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Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi © 1996