TCS Daily

Happy Birthday to America's Air and Space Museum

By James Pinkerton - July 2, 2001 12:00 AM

Happy Silver Anniversary, National Air and Space Museum. In the 25 years since President Gerald Ford dedicated the three-block-long building on July 1, 1976, some 219 million have come to visit-"more than any other museum on the planet," The Washington Post reports.

NASM is popular because it chimes with the natural optimism of Americans. It is unabashedly pro-progress, pro-technology, and yes, pro-USA. Indeed, what might be called the Aviation Century, beginning in 1903, when the Wright Brothers took off from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, runs concurrently with what magazine magnate Henry Luce referred to as "The American Century." So one can see, for example, the Wright Brothers' wood-and-canvas flyer, Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis," Chuck Yeager's supersonic Bell X-1, John Glenn's "Friendship 7" Mercury capsule, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's Apollo 11 command module. One can even touch a moon rock. And it's all free to the public.

Of course, it wasn't always easy to keep the NASM so red, white, and blue. In the midst of this anniversarial celebrating, it's worth pausing to recall some not-so-distant history--as a reminder that eternal vigilance is needed atop the ramparts of truthful historical memory.

In the '80s, the same cancers of multiculturalism and political correctness that afflicted American universities metastasized into the Smithsonian Institution. The Museum of Natural History, for example, spent much of the last two decades in an increasingly obsessive quest to purge itself of any display that anybody might deem "racist" or "sexist." In 1991 the Museum of American Art put on an exhibit, "The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920" that denigrated U.S. expansion; the eminent historian Daniel Boorstin called it "a perverse, historically inaccurate, destructive exhibit."

Nor was NASM exempt from this tendency. Walter Boyne, director of the museum in the mid-'80s, recalled in an interview, "There was always pressure from the top to make the museum more like a university, to insist on Ph.D.s for curators, rather than those having knowledge of aircraft." And so it's easy to see how the anti-technology, anti-military virus was introduced into the big building on Independence Avenue.

In the early '90s, a new NASM director, Martin Harwitt, resolved to put on an exhibit about the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. And what became known as "The Enola Gay Exhibit"-after the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945-became a bomb of its own kind.

The Enola Gay controversy blew up when conservatives and veterans groups started reading what Harwitt's NASM exhibitors were scripting. The Harwittians were choosing to cast the entire history of American military aviation, going back to World War I, as a case study in unrelenting cruelty and devastation-with no thought given to American lives saved, or to freedom gained for others.

And so the scriptwriters, for example, mostly ignored the context of the dropping of the atomic bomb, including, say, Pearl Harbor. One early draft read, "For most Americans, it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism." Western imperialism? Is that what the men of the USS Arizona were espousing on December 7, 1941?

The notion that the Japanese were defending their culture against American imperialists may be state-of-the-art "thinking" for ivory towers, but such sophistry was unacceptable on the National Mall. Veterans and service organizations, spearheaded by the Air Force Association, sounded their sirens. Columnist George Will opined that the Smithsonian was "besotted with cranky anti-Americanism," and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that Americans were "sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country."

In May 1995, Harwitt was forced out of his job. And the exhibit--suitably amended to make the point, for example, that by ending the war so abruptly, the atomic bomb saved Japanese as well as American lives-was unveiled later that same year without further controversy, at least in official Washington.

Since then, of course, the World War II-themed works of authors Stephen Ambrose and Tom Brokaw-and the film "Saving Private Ryan"-have let loose a torrent of "Good War" sentiment. It's hard to imagine any recrudescence of revisionist "Blame America First" sentiment-at least in the short run.

The long run, of course, is a different matter. History is still being written and rewritten as veterans pass away, as pundits and politicians turn their attention to other topics. So NASM fans should keep track of the works being ranked out by the academic left. The first is a 1996 book, An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of Enola Gay, by the same Martin Harwitt, who, not surprisingly, used his 477 pages to trash Gingrich & Co. Harwitt even went so far as to argue that "the losers in this drama were the American people," because they didn't get to see the anti-American exhibit he had prepared for them. The other books, History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles of the American Past, edited by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Englehardt, and Judgment at the Smithsonian, edited by Philip Nobile-which blares the words "Banned History" on its cover-take a similarly p.c. tone. Yet if such books aren't refuted, they might someday form the conventional wisdom about the struggle over the Enola Gay exhibit and, indeed, reshape opinion about Hiroshima.

But an altogether different skirmish could erupt even sooner. In Dulles, Virginia, not far from Washington, a new annex to NASM is being built. This 710,000-square-foot facility will be known as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in honor of the Hungarian-born businessman who donated $60 million to get the project underway. It is much needed, as the current NASM can display a mere 10 percent of its treasures. As of now, there's no reason to think that p.c. types will shape the display, but there's every reason to think that they would if they could.

So there are no final victories in the endless battle over historical interpretation. Those who believe in the greatness of America-past, present, and future-must stay vigilant, because only a country confident of its own worth can achieve great deeds, on earth, in the air, and in outer space. NASM is today what it always should have been: a font of techno-optimism. But it will survive as a bravura aerospace attraction only if its friends and fans continuously replenish the wellsprings of historically minded patriotism.

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