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  • Ana Villegas

Are Memorials Inherently Controversial?: American and Japanese Commemoration of World War II

By: Ana Villegas


During the 1990s, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War was quickly approaching. In the United States, an atmosphere of patriotism flooded culture and society. 1993, for instance, was dubbed “The Year of the Holocaust” as both Schindler's List and the United States Holocaust Museum premiered on the fiftieth anniversary of the Sobibor concentration camp uprising of 1943. Another big anniversary would dominate this patriotic resurgence, as 1995 would be the anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

However, tempers flared between the United States and Japan over the commemoration of the first atomic bomb. In May 1995, the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) planned on launching an exhibition titled The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II. The exhibit drew criticism and anger from multiple angles: The Last Act’s framework was designed to demonstrate both the triumphant and tragic natures of the atomic bomb. The museum’s message was that the bomb did result in the end of the Second World War, but that the result was the deaths of thousands of Japanese civilians. Its star artefact, the restored fuselage of the Enola Gay (the plane that dropped the bomb), was accompanied by pictures of Japanese corpses.

In 1994, many Americans expected the exhibit to align with the patriotic spirit of the time: That the atomic bomb would be a symbol of American victory, American sacrifice, American peace, and American military power. The final decisions, publicized in 1994, drew widespread condemnation. The Air Force Association coordinated a smear campaign against the script. The Senate complained that the exhibit was "revisionist and offensive to many World War II veterans." The final straw was when the American Legion dissolved its partnership with the museum in January 1995. In the end, the exhibit was cancelled. This decision also drew its own controversies. Historians criticized this decision as a “historical cleansing” or “propaganda.” NASM’s Secretary I. Michael Heyman gave a statement shortly after:

"We made a basic error in attempting to couple a historical treatment of the use of atomic weapons with the 50th anniversary commemoration of the end of the war. . . . Veterans and their families were expecting . . . that the nation would honor and commemorate their valor and sacrifice. . . . They were not looking for analysis, and ... we did not give enough thought to the intense feelings . . . analysis would evoke."

So, what went wrong? First, NASM was already in hot water for its portrayal of air power. John Correl, the editor of Air Force magazine, stated that the exhibits were a "strident attack on air power in World War I" with another museum curator saying that it was erasing "the spirit of romance" surrounding wartime pilots.

Second, the atmosphere was ripe for confrontation. During the 1990s, both the US and Japan had prior incidents over their commemoration of World War II’s Pacific Theatre. In 1991 during the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor there were suggestions to have both American and Japanese children throw wreaths over the USS Arizona, or to invite Japanese foreign nationals to the ceremonies. The State Department scrapped those ideas to avoid controversy. But it was not just Japanese citizens that were excluded from these ceremonies. Many Japanese-Americans were also exposed to such hostilities. The same responses to The Last Act were also present at the National Park Service. Many judged the interpretative content as “soft” on the Japanese. A visitor of the center wrote an angry letter to his congressman stating, “no visitors from areas of the Far East be allowed to visit this area during the first two weeks of December 1991.”

This pattern of accusations that Japan was not sufficiently portrayed as a military aggressor was also present in East Asia. There were plans by the Japanese government to create the War Dead Peace Memorial Hall, a monument that would honour the Japanese wartime dead and victims. There were criticisms that such a monument would be an insult to the Chinese and Korean victims of Japan’s wartime aggression. Critic Ichikawa Hayami stated that “Japan is still incapable of officially recognizing its war responsibility and for this reason cannot freely lay claim to its status as the first nation to suffer from a nuclear bomb.”

Third, the 1990s were a time when museums were starting to test the boundaries of historical interpretation and challenge certain historical narratives that dominated the American collective memory. Three years before the exhibition launch, future 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie Bunch, wrote an article that expressed his disappointment in the lack of bold, controversial exhibitions that challenged uncontested historical narratives in fear of the political climate. Bunch states that museums “can be forums that stimulate debate and understanding, arenas that allow audiences to better comprehend the complexity and ambiguity of the past...” Many cultural institutions struggled to transform their institutions from temples to forums.

Dr. Edward Linenthal was part of The Last Act’s advisory committee. He claimed that the history of the atomic bomb is split between two very different commemorative voices: one that celebrates the bomb as the solution that ended the Second World War and the other that emphasizes the impact on the Japanese and thus demonizes the American intervention as morally questionable. Linenthal continues, “Both narratives also resisted the…voice of the historian—occasionally challenging these deeply felt truths—is often perceived as "stealing" history from its guardians, the witnesses.” The positive commemoration, the one that places emphasis on heroics, was the most politically acceptable narrative. He states, "For many Americans, the atomic bomb balanced the scales of justice.”

This case study highlights an important question in modern museology: What are the roles of memorials? As museum professionals, we will probably grapple with such questions eventually. Are memorials supposed to be symbols of patriotic pride or places of reconciliation? Are they supposed to achieve historical consensus or confrontation?

Video 1: Responses of the Enola Gay Exhibit in 1995.


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