Last week, Matthew Weinberg set up a small table in the dust on the north side of the National Air and Space Museum and began his improbable summer as a Mall vendor. The unshaven Weinberg, a recent American University graduate student of literature and nuclear studies, sits under the pitiless sun in an Amish straw hat, light-colored clothing, and sandals, selling copies of a new book that almost nobody wants to read: Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy (Pamphleteer’s Press). After several afternoons surrounded by hot, damp tourists, Weinberg has read four booksRay Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles lies in the grassand sold two.
“I’ve gotten more than two good cursings-out, however,” says Weinberg, squinting behind his spectacles with his hat off momentarily. “I’ve been told I’m un-American and told to go to hell. But to say I didn’t expect that would be false.”
The 600-page anthology, edited by historians Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, with photographs by Yosuke Yamahata, gives facts about the atomic bombing of Japan that the Smithsonian would not. The project was conceived three years ago by the Historians’ Committee for Open Debate, an ad hoc group Bird and other scholars founded at the height of the Enola Gay controversy at Air and Space. The Enola Gay show, named after the aircraft that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, was timed for the 50th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Under pressure from Congress and veterans before the show’s opening, the Smithsonian thoroughly sanitized the entire show, removing any whiff of skepticism about President Truman’s decision to play the nuclear trump cardincluding photographs of Japanese radiation victims. “It was the cleansing of history,” asserts Weinberg.
Though Hiroshima’s Shadow is stacked with dissident writers, it is not so much a polemic as a historical record. The writing spans the gamut of opinions about the nuclear bombings of Japan. It includes Paul Fussell’s tract “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” in which the author argues that the bomb was crucial to winning the war. It draws as well from the circumspect memoirs of Adm. William D. Leahy, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Gen. George C. Marshall, and from the essays of horrified intellectualsAlbert Camus, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Lewis Mumford, Kenzaburo Oé, and Bertrand Russell, among others.
Weinberg’s summer salary is supported by a grant from the Arca Foundation, a public policy-driven philanthropy. He has a big sign emblazoned with the book’s title above his table. “Most people see the word ‘Hiroshima’ and think I’m out here to protest the bombing,” Weinberg says. “But I’m really out here to protest censorship.” He notes that the Air and Space Museum displays two intercontinental ballistic missles in its triple-height lobby, but the Smithsonian refuses to sell Hiroshima’s Shadow in its bookstores. “I’m here to give people information they’re not getting inside the museum,” he says. And should there be any question, Weinberg did secure a vendor’s permit from the National Park Service.Bradford McKee