SHOULD nations live unexamined lives? Should comforting, but inaccurate, versions of history be left alone? Should unpleasant memories be ignored? Such questions are raised in two recent episodes involving the presentations of history.
The Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum has been forced by veterans' groups and others to retract and rewrite a script for an upcoming exhibit on the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of World War II.
Popular history has it that the two atomic bombs prevented some 500,000 to 1 million American casualties that would have been suffered in an invasion. But research over the years has cast doubt on that assumption. A strong case, based on historical documents, is now made that Japan would have surrendered without an invasion by the end of 1945, and that even an invasion would have resulted in many fewer casualties.
The thought that the bomb was unnecessary disturbs Americans, understandably so. We are comforted - somewhat - to think that the horror and death of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more than offset by the lives saved. But now the Smithsonian, a great historical institution, has backed down, favoring comfort over the quest for truth; this causes the high casualty figures to go unchallenged in its exhibit and the historical record unexamined.
Recently at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, honest history took another blow but survived. The reenactment of an 18th-century slave auction drew protesters who called it demeaning to black Americans and an unsavory part of America's past that was best left forgotten. Thankfully, Christy Coleman, director of African-American Interpretations and Presentations at Williamsburg and herself a black American, refused to back down and the reenactment went on.
After watching the slave auction, several in the mostly white crowd wept. Afterward, at least one protester changed his mind. ``Pain had a face,'' said Jack Gravely, political director of the Virginia branch of the NAACP, in a newspaper interview. ``Indignity had a body. Suffering had tears.''
All of which shows that the truths of history, even the uncomfortable ones, can move us. And teach us. But only if we can bear to look.