It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s. Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage. Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself. We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.
It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms. Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth. I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard. While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.