The National Air and Space Museum is but a brief stroll away from the United States Holocaust Memorial. Of late, however, these two federally-run institutions have come to embody two opposite approaches to the study of America's past: one reasonable and fair, the other paranoid and myopic.
In addition to its sensitive, tasteful (can we speak of tasteful?) presentation of the story of the destruction of Europe's Jews, the Holocaust Memorial dedicates an entire section to the consideration of America's ambiguous response to these horrid events. The Memorial does not attempt to white-wash the callousness with which the FDR administration responded to the Nazi genocide.
Whether by refusing to admit a boat carrying helpless Jewish refugees into an American harbor, or by opting not to bomb the railroad tracks to the death camps, the United States government fell far short of moral perfection in its policy towards the Holocaust.
But this material, painful as it may be for American audiences, is available to anyone who visits the United States Holocaust Memorial. The information embarrasses us; it shames us. It announces to all Americans the awesome burden our nation shoulders for its paltry response to a great crime. The Memorial reminds us of the sheer heft of memory.
This week, an extensive show at the Air and Space Museum commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was dramatically scaled down. Some eighty members of congress, together with the American Legion and other veterans' groups, attacked the exhibit, which explored the moral ambiguities of the atomic bombing of two major Japanese urban areas.
The veterans claimed that the exhibit portrayed the American forces as aggressors against a hapless Japanese nation, and radically underestimated the number of casualties the Americans would have sustained had they mounted a full scale invasion of Japan instead of dropping the bomb.
At first blush, the veterans have a point. The United States declared war on Japan only after the gruesome bloodshed at Pearl Harbor. Japanese kamikazes--the Hamas car-bombers of the forties--wreaked havoc on American servicemen at sea. The Japanese frequently defied international law in torturing American POWs.
Yet there is room---indeed, a pressing need--for a thoughtful re-consideration of President Harry S. Truman's decision to give the go-ahead to the Enola Gay and its terrible cargo 50 years ago. Might we have won the war without the bomb? Were the bombs dropped on Japanese soil intended primarily as a grotesque warning to Stalin? Did the atomic bomb create a unique sense of human despair from which we have yet to emerge?
The answer to each of these questions might well be `no.' The problem with the Smithsonian's decision to cancel the show does not hinge on its content (which may well have gone too far) so much as the notion that it is no longer permissible to inquire into the recesses of our own memory, critically and dispassionately--and publicly!
Veterans are outraged at the exhibit, and we must respect their outrage. A man who feels his life was spared because of the bomb does not want to hear an upstart historian (who was not even there) analyze the moral implications of Hiroshima. But who ought to craft our memory: soldiers or historians?
The answer, of course, is that we need both. But given the delicacy of memory and its tenuousness, we must not attempt to shape or form it in the throes of passion or sentimentality. And that is precisely what the American Legion would have us do. The campaign it has waged against the Smithsonian confirms that P.C. is not the eclusive propertry of the Left.
All those who become indignant at the mere mention of this exhibit would do well to pay a visit to the Holocaust Memorial. Our own hands, it would seem, are not so clean.
Samuel J. Rascoff s. column appears on alternate Fridays.