Some years ago, in my home town of Washington, D.C., the Air and Space Museum had an exhibit about the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I believe I went through it, but I may just be conflating pictures of the plane with past trips to the museum in my ever fallible memory. Regardless, that exhibit unsuccessfully sought to avoid controversy by focusing on the technical aspects and avoiding politics and context. Worse yet are museums that actively distort the past for propagandistic purposes. By comparison, the Peace Museum takes an extremely challenging topic and addresses it in a forthright and informative matter.
The initial section gives the history of Hiroshima leading into the Second World War. Hiroshima was a garrison city a staging area for troops in various wars, one of the centers for emigrants from annexed Korea, and an industrial town with a significant reliance on mobilized students and forced labor. The panel on the right discusses the invasion of China: “Early in the War with China, the Japanese Army occupied many Chinese cities. In December 1937, it took the capital city, then called Nanking. The occupation of this important city cheered the Japanese people, who considered the war in China a holy crusade. Hiroshima’s residents celebrated with a lantern parade. In Nanking, however, Chinese people were being massacred by the Japanese army.” It goes on to briefly discuss varied estimates of the death toll. Wartime atrocities are not the subject of the museum - for that there is the Kyoto Museum for World Peace - but it squarely addresses the context of the bombing before making the hard case against it.
After reviewing the history, the museum proceeds to the actual attack. There are any number of artifacts, although the greater detail is held for the second building and a future post. On your left is a pocket watch donated by Akito Kawagoe, stopped at the exact moment of the bombing. The discussion of the decisions of the U.S. government does not rely on hyperbole. Instead it presents key memos and minutes from the debates, showing various competing views. As is somewhat widely known, the old capital Kyoto was also considered as a possible target. However, its selection was vehemently opposed by Japan experts within the U.S. government as a sacrilege which would destroy any hope of future peace with Japan. The museum did not specifically argue that there was a clear course that would have achieved peace without the use of the bomb, but did highlight that possible concessions, such as allowing the continuation of the imperial system as the occupying forces did anyways, were not deeply explored before the attack.
The destruction of the bombing was shown in multiple forms, including the two models above. One related point mentioned by the museum, but not an area of primary focus, was that the firebombing of Tokyo and not the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki is widely cited as the source of the largest casualty count from a single air raid. The horrifying specter of nuclear war is not just the enormity of the individual bombings, but that the threat can scale up in a way that more air force-intensive operations could not. This relative continuity in death toll is perhaps one of the reasons why the specific morality of the atomic bomb was not as hotly debated. In many ways it was a continuation of existing policy by other means. However, the questions raised there require research beyond the scope of this post.