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Bomb power: the Modern Presidency and the National Security State

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The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use, and be authorised to use, in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call the Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.

Dick Cheney, Fox News 21 December 2008

In passing the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, Congress granted the president unsupervised authority over the bomb, ‘for such use as he deems necessary in the interest of national defence’. The ‘nature of the presidency,’ Garry Wills writes, ‘was irrevocably altered by this grant of a unique power’. An uninhibited ‘crisis presidency’ was now ‘poised for hair-trigger response to nuclear threat’ and, by virtue of the president’s ‘sole authority to launch nation-destroying weapons’, imbued with a kind of superhuman aura.

Wills calls this ‘Bomb Power’ and claims that it has excited fantasies of omnipotence in the White House and reduced Congress to a spectator. Among the public, it fosters a cult, elevating the president from commander in chief of the military to commander in chief of the nation, enjoining all American citizens to spring smartly to attention and salute.

Wills’s ruminations about ‘the great mystery’ of the president’s ‘power over the very continuance of the world’ may seem excessive, but he’s channelling, so he claims, Dick Cheney, who appears to believe that the president, by virtue of his control of the nuclear bomb, is freed from all constitutional – and even ordinary ethical – restraints. The meaning of Cheney’s boast to Fox News is clear: the existence of the greater power – to kill hundreds of millions of civilians – implies that of the lesser power, to torture suspected terrorists. Wills startlingly concurs with this view: ‘Cheney was right to say that the real logic for all these things’ – torture, indefinite detention without trial and so forth – ‘is the president’s solitary control of the bomb.’ His backing of the use of torture, extraordinary rendition and black sites where torture was practised all serve to demonstrate, according to Wills, that the ‘monopoly on nuclear war that was given at the dawn of Bomb Power was now extended to all aspects of war’.

The weakening of checks and balances was also a consequence of the extraordinary way in which the first fission and fusion weapons were produced. The successful concealment from the Germans and Japaneseof this vast and complex industrial project created an enduring association between top-secret operations and miraculous triumphs of national security. But Wills shows that in the process those responsible for building America’s first atomic bombs, especially General Leslie Groves, subverted Congress’s control over funding, and argues that because Congress was kept in the dark, the Manhattan Project was a flagrant ‘violation of the constitution’. In its attempt to defeat America’s enemies without alerting the public and without any legislative oversight, ‘the Manhattan Project showed modern presidents the way.’ Before long, this cult of secrecy was ‘extended to many other parts of government’; and it didn’t end with Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘Because the government was the keeper of the great secret, it began to specialise in secret-keeping.’


12/01/2009David Gordon

Mises Review 15, No. 4 (Winter 2009)

Garry Wills
Penguin Press, 2010, 278 pgs.

I did not anticipate writing a favorable review of a book by Garry Wills. He veered fairly early in his career from a quirky form of conservatism to a run-of-the mill leftism. In his A Necessary Evil, he assailed the view that government is inherently bad: society, he hastened to assure us, could not function without the State. Only fanatics would fail to realize that the capitalist market depends for its existence on this vital institution. And the American State must not be hobbled by antiquated notions of federalism. After all, he averred, the federal government created the states, not the other way round.1

Wills’s previous espousal of topsy-turvy history did not inspire confidence in his new venture; but he has in this instance written an excellent book.


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