Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Tour Guide (Updated)

“They didn’t respond after the first one, so we dropped another one after three days.”

I was walking around inside the Udvar-Hazy Center of Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, seeing exhibits by myself when that sentence, spoken in a loud, proud voice reached my ears. I looked up to see a plump gentleman with white hair and moustache address a group of visitors. He was standing under the nose of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay,” arguably the most infamous plane to ever fly the skies. He repeated his sentence, probably for the effect.

“We dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima (and by the way, it’s not Hiro-sheema, it’s Hero-shima), and when they didn’t respond, we dropped the second one on Nagasaki. Make no mistake about it; the nuclear bomb ended World War II.”

While there was probably no factual error in the words spoken, I was stunned at the inappropriateness of the way they were spoken, especially when Japan was fighting with another major nuclear disaster. I stopped to listen.

“This was the plane that Paul Tibbets flew carrying ‘Little Man’ and his plane was one of three planes on that mission. Both the bombing missions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki used three planes each. The first plane flew ahead to make sure everything was all right, the second one carried the bomb, and the third one flew to take pictures and make scientific measurements after the bomb was dropped.” He opened an album and showed us a photo of the bomb, and the actual mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, presumably photographed from that third plane. “We are proud to say that we completed the two bombing missions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without a single injury or death,” he paused briefly, “among the crew. There were psychological problems afterwards, but no physical damage,” he smiled, almost as if hoping for applause. “We Americans don’t like war, but if someone kicks our butt, we kick them back twice as hard.” Then he continued his explanation of the Hiroshima bombings, details of the two bombs, the promotions the pilots had received, and the current nuclear capability of the US, with quotations from important people and pictures from his album. I was about to interrupt him and ask him whether vaporizing a hundred thousand civilians instantaneously was the way peace loving nations fought wars, but then he said something more – something about people like me.

“Paul Tibbets died a few years ago, and he desired that he be cremated and his ashes be dispersed over the English Channel,” the tour guide said. “Now that really shows how smart a man he was. If he had been buried, these anti-nuke-nuts would probably have done something humiliating to his body.”

Hearing this, I decided to just turn around and walk away. I did not want him to include the anecdote of the anti-nuke-nut who confronted him in his next speech. But I will try to bring this incident to the notice of the Smithsonian Institution. I tremendously enjoy visiting all of their museums, and I would not want such visits to get spoiled because of people like this gentleman, whose name I had forgotten to ask. And although nobody spoke out that day, I am sure a lot more people will share my sentiments. Hopefully the world still has more anti-nuke-nuts than sane people like this elderly tour guide.

Update: I received a mail from the Office of Communications of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum this morning and then the director spoke with me on phone. They apologized for the incident and also mentioned that they take matters of objectivity very seriously and do not provide the docents with any album, and they would look into the incident. All this happened without even my registering a formal complaint.
I sincerely thank the Smithsonian Institution for their proactive stance on this issue and prompt action. No wonder their museums are some of the best in the world.


  1. Oh, so rather than dispassionate and accurate presentation of history you're upset at the lack of revisionist apologetics on the part of the volunteer docent.

  2. @Debmalya: Thanks!

    @Anonymous: Dispassionate? Accurate? Who decides that anti-nuclear people are "nuts?" Who decides whether the US is a nation that does not like war? And being proud because nobody got injured while bombing civilians from a distance? Does that sound dispassionate? I did not ask for apologetics - the docent should just stick to the facts and not add his ideas about right and wrong. The USA dropped two nuclear devices on cities full of civilians. That's it!
    And by the way, one requires maturity to accept one's own mistakes. The US spent a lot of money on the bombs, and then the war was about to end, and the Kamikaze were frustrating the allied forces, so perhaps at that moment one could say using the bombs was a justifiable decision for the US. But clinging on to that decision 65 years later is embarrassing, to put it mildly. I am sure neither the US Govt nor the Smithsonian would approve of this way of presenting history. "This is the Enola Gay, it dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Now let's move on to other exhibits" would have been a perfectly good way of presenting the facts.

  3. hmm, Sugata, i am sure you know that it is really hard to resist the temptation of being the 'alternative' voice. For example, justifying Hiroshima bombing, claiming that 'Gunda' is the best movie made on earth and so on. But it is good that you did not confront that 'Nuke-nut' tour guide, because that was exactly what he was looking for.

  4. @Kuntala: Thanks! I know these days it is trendy to be different, like everybody else. But still, I expect a minimum level of political correctness when addressing a multinational audience at one of the Smithsonian museums. See the update though - good thing that the authorities support my viewpoint. :-)