Sherwin speaks on atomic bombs

by Jason Casell | 8/14/95 5:00am

Martin Sherwin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, shared his personal experiences and professional knowledge in an attempt to shed new light on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before a capacity audience of more than 300 people in Cook Auditorium Thursday afternoon.

Sherwin, who served as an adviser to the failed Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., discussed possible reasons for the use of the atomic bomb and his knowledge of the exhibit in a speech titled "The Missions of the Enola Gay: The History and Politics of Hiroshima, 1945-1995."

"No one who looks closely at the argument surrounding the atomic bomb fails to recognize that there is more than a matter of history at stake," Sherwin said.

"Hiroshima not only introduced the nuclear age to the war, but it also serves as a symbolic culmination of America's global power," he said.

Referring to writings from Henry L. Stimson, who served as Secretary of War from 1940-1945, Sherwin listed four possible reasons for the United States' decision to use nuclear power.

"The impact the bombs were expected to have in curbing Stalin's ambitions in Eastern Europe" is one of the potential reasons for their use, Sherwin said.

The pressure Manhattan Project officials felt to validate high costs, the momentum to use new weapons created by urban bombing strategies, the revenge for Pearl Harbor and the "ghastly" treatment of America prisoners of war may have also been contributing factors, he said.

Sherwin linked the use of atomic weapons in Japan to the Cold War period that began soon after World War II.

"In 1995, the history of 1945 remains a hostage to the politics of memory and how that history has been written played an important role, I submit, in the politics of national security policy during the Cold War," he said.

"The Cold War may have been a poor substitute for World War II, but World War II was an ideal model for the Cold War," he said.

Sherwin said Americans do not have a high tolerance for ambiguity and called World War II an "unambiguous" war.

"Unlike any American war, World War II was ... a war with a clarity of purpose and an unprecedented shared sense of national unity," he said. "Related questions about the necessity of destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki were replaced with answers, and the answers left no room for ambiguity."

Sherwin discussed his experience with the Enola Gay exhibit as an example of America's unwillingness to question its role in the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"The Enola Gay debate is not only a poignant example of the clash between memory and history, it is also about politics and history and the political uses of history," he said.

Sherwin said he objected to the planned exhibit based on its lack of interactive elements, the omission of key documents from President Harry Truman's advisors and the estimate of the number of Americans that would have been killed had a Japanese invasion been necessary.

"I judged the commemorative character of the exhibit to be dominant and ubiquitous and the historical portion marginalized and unforgivable," he said. "I was opposed to an exhibit that might be attributed as celebrating the deaths of 150,000-200,000 Japanese civilians, mostly old men, women and children."

Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute I. Michael Heyman '51 canceled the exhibit that was to accompany the Enola Gay B-29 bomber on January 30, 1995, in the wake of the controversy that had erupted among the American Legion, the United States Air Force, Congress and historians.

Sherwin said there is a strong sense of nationalism associated with World War II, which makes it difficult for many to re-examine President Truman's decision to use nuclear power.

"In the United States, the collective memory of World War II is the war as our finest hour," he said. "For memory, the living voice of the past is personal and particular while history, the scar we reconstruct of the past, is universal and critical."

Sherwin said the use of nuclear deterrence created resistance to the use of nuclear weapons during wartime, but that future nuclear conflicts are still possible.

"I don't think nuclear weapons had any positive effect on preventing World War III," he said.