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Technology and Culture 45.2 (2004) 373-395



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A Narrative for Our Time

The Enola Gay "and after that, period"


To say that a thing happened the way it did is not at all illuminating. We can understand the significance of what did happen only if we contrast it with what might have happened.
—Morris Raphael Cohen
Any historical object can sustain a number of equally plausible descriptions or narratives of its processes.
—Hayden White

For a little while in the fall of 2003, during the run-up to the centennial of flight on 17 December and the opening of the National Air and Space Museum's satellite in Virginia, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, historians whose names have often graced the pages of Technology and Culture began to turn up with unusual regularity on television and radio and in the popular press: among others, Roger Bilstein, Robert van der Linden, Richard Hallion, Bayla Singer, Joe Corn, John Anderson, Peter Jakab, and, perhaps most ubiquitous, Tom Crouch. Several had written books whose publication coincided with the centennial—Hallion's Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity through the First World War, for example, and Crouch's Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age. A feature article in the December Smithsonian, "Taking Wing: A Century of Flight," [End Page 373] quoted a half-dozen historians on the significance of Kitty Hawk but gave pride of place to Crouch: "Aviation is the definitive technology of the 20th century," he said. "Flight symbolized our deepest aspirations, like freedom and control of our destiny."

Foremost among many biographers of the Wright brothers and chair of the First Flight Centennial Federal Advisory Board (a presidential appointment), Crouch clearly deserved first say about 17 December. Yet one wonders how many people browsing in Smithsonian connected the dots to a paragraph in a second feature article, on the new Udvar-Hazy Center, that began "Probably the best known—and most controversial—artifact on display is the Enola Gay" and alluded to a notorious conflict in the mid-1990s which had made the plane that delivered the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima into the most famous museum artifact in the world.1 At the heart of that conflict was the question of how this plane was to be "interpreted" in the accompanying narrative—the script, in museological idiom—and for many people it was Crouch who came to personify attempts to infect the Smithsonian with "counterculture morality pageants." As a rhetorical firestorm raged on the op-ed pages of newspapers nationwide, Tom Crouch might have felt like he was losing control of his destiny.

In a remark that seemed tailored to confirm Hayden White's dictum about narrative as "intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality," Crouch had once asked his NASM boss, Martin Harwit: "Do you want to do an exhibition intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan?"2 Crouch thought that combining the two was impossible. But Harwit disagreed, arguing that NASM could deal with the mission of the Enola Gay and at the same time honor Americans who had fought and died in the Pacific, and eventually Crouch decided to go along with an effort that cultural commentator Tom Engelhardt, writing in Harper's, termed "a kind of inspired folly."3

Which is not to trivialize Engelhardt's choice of the word inspired. How, indeed, could a national museum not address "the mission," which a poll conducted by USA Today and the Newseum had denominated the number-one news story of the twentieth century? (Invention of the airplane ranked fourth, after Pearl Harbor and the moon landing.) The work of writing the script for the planned exhibit was distributed among several [End Page 374] members of the NASM staff, but everyone knew, as Crouch put it without a hint of conceit, that "I...

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