WASHINGTON — ALMOST a half century after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan by the United States, an exhibit commemorating the attack has ignited an uproar that is shaking the Smithsonian Institution to its venerable foundation.
Plans for an exhibit on US air power in the Vietnam War have been frozen, staffers fear losses of congressional and corporate funding, and Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Hayman is expected this week to order a reassessment of the methods by which the institute's 15 museums select and mount exhibits.
``This just shows that the actions of a few curators in one museum can have adverse effects on the institution as a whole,'' says a Smithsonian official, speaking on condition of anonimity. ``Many people here want their heads to roll.''
The storm centers on an exhibit entitled ``The Last Act: the Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II.'' It is scheduled to open at the National Air and Space Museum in May to mark 50 years since the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The exhibit features the forward 60-foot fuselage section of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, ushering in the nuclear age.
The furor erupted when veterans groups, some historians, and members of Congress charged that the initial scripts distorted the history of the attacks. The scripts, they said, portrayed the Japanese as innocent victims defending their homeland against a racist America bent on avenging the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Confronted by charges of ``historic revisionism'' in the biggest public outcry in the Smithsonian's history, the museum rewrote the script five times between May and October.
The latest version was produced in consultation with the American Legion.
The script reflects major concessions to critics, including the removal of numerous photographs and artifacts from the exhibit's ``emotional center'' depicting the destruction that killed an estimated 210,000 people.
Also deleted were materials questioning the view that the bombings forced Japan to surrender, averting an invasion that would have claimed hundreds of thousands of US casualties. Even so, the American Legion and other veterans' groups remain deeply unhappy with the current script.
`NOBODY has officially canceled any money yet, but our antennae are up because there is a nervousness around the edges. We are still getting pinged over the first script,'' says one official. ``Corporations want to make sure that their association with the institution is not perceived as an indirect endorsement of the politically correct version of the end of World War II.''
Meanwhile, peace and religious groups and some historians, including several from the exhibit's advisory board, accuse the museum of ``intellectual corruption'' and bowing to political pressure. They say the script revisions go too far because they eliminate sections dealing with the necessity of the bombings.
``There was and is debate over the dropping of the atomic bomb. People need to know both sides,'' says Naila Bolus, co-director of 20/20 Vision, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental and peace group angered by the latest script changes.
But, Michael Fetters, an air and space museum spokesman, says there will be no new major script overhaul and that any further changes ``will be smaller in number ... and they will be our changes.''
``I wouldn't deny that the museum has been under a lot of pressure to make changes,'' says Mr. Fetters, who concedes that the uproar underscored that the process by which the exhibit was designed, researched, and initially presented ``broke down.''
That realization, he says, prompted Mr. Hayman, who recently took over as Smithsonian secretary, to order an institute-wide reassessment of exhibition planning methodologies.
``I think it is prudent for a new secretary who comes into a situation like this to say `Let's look how we consider a new exhibition, how we decide to do an exhibition and once we decide, what is the process,''' says Mr. Fetters. ``The exact process and shape of this review have not yet been determined.''
Other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Hayman also seeks to dispel intense displeasure over the atomic bomb exhibit within Congress, which provides 85 percent of the Smithsonian's budget.