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In preparing an exhibit on next year's 50th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the venerable Smithsonian Institution has stumbled badly by planning a show that portrays Japan as a victim of a vengeful America.

The exhibit features the nose section of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first A-bomb on Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 1945, but much of the rest of the scheduled display leans heavily toward harsh criticism of the United States.This includes pictures and accounts of the suffering Japanese and romantic descriptions of the Japanese kamikaze, the suicide pilots who inflicted heavy losses on American ships in the closing months of the war.

To hear the Smithsonian tell it, the war featured a Japan trying to defend its unique culture against Western imperialism, while for Americans it was simply a war of vengeance.

This revisionist approach wallows in misplaced guilt and seeks to leave the impression that the atomic explosions over the two Japanese cities were somehow criminal and totally unnecessary.

Vigorous criticism has caused Smithsonian officials to alter the proposed script three times so that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are set more accurately in the context of the entire war and to show the struggles of the allies during years of bitter fighting.

Truly, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the deaths of 200,000 people in those attacks were tragic. The violence of war is always tragic. But those two bombings did abruptly end the war.

Pretending that the war would have somehow ended painlessly in other non-atomic fashion fails to acknowledge the desperation of Japan's military-dominated government. Some knew the war was lost and looked for a way out. But simple surrender at that point was never considered an option.

Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese emperor had to break centuries of tradition and intervene to bring about a surrender. Younger officers still tried a coup to prevent such a humiliating event.

Both sides were preparing for an invasion of the Japanese homeland in which civilians were prepared to be thrown into battle in masses of spear-armed fighters. Casualties were expected to be enormous, perhaps as many as one million, including hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers.

Just weeks earlier, a smaller battle for Okinawa had ended with 123,000 killed among the Americans and Japanese.

Excess guilt, driven by horror over the word "atomic" and the faddish desire to be "politically correct," ignores those facts and produces a propaganda show instead of the accurate history which is supposed to be the signature of a proud institution like the Smithsonian.

Why not just present the bare facts without all the interpretation? Otherwise, the most damage will not be to the reputation of those who fought Japanese aggression but to the credibility of the Smithsonian itself.