Jewish Journal


February 10, 2010

Bomb Power Breeds Imperial Presidencies


Over the years, I have read and reviewed books on subjects as diverse as the life of Augustine, the political back story of “Macbeth,” the glory of Lincoln and the squalor of Nixon. All of these books, and many more besides, are written by the same man — the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and public intellectual, Gary Wills.

“Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State” (The Penguin Press, $27.95) is Wills’ latest book, an audacious work of political and historical analysis that sees the Manhattan Project and the invention of the atomic bomb as the starting point of the current crisis in the American democracy. The so-called imperial presidency, argues Wills, begins with “the Bomb,” and, for that reason, “[e]xecutive power has basically been, since World War II, Bomb Power.”

Nowadays, when we talk about weapons of mass destruction, we tend to think of a “dirty” bomb smuggled into an American port by al-Qaeda or a nuclear-tipped missile based in Iran and aimed at Israel. But when Wills writes about “the Bomb,” he is referring to the vast American nuclear arsenal that has given us the power to obliterate our enemies. In “Bomb Power,” he invites us to ponder how the ability to do so has distorted the workings of our democracy.

“[T]he Bomb altered our subsequent history down to its deepest constitutional roots,” Wills writes. Among other things, he argues, the Bomb “redefined the presidency” and turned Congress into “an executor of the executive.” It has “fostered an anxiety of continuing crisis,” and thereby transformed the government into “a National Security State, with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control.” Above all, he argues, the Bomb has thrown the delicate checks and balances of the American political system into hopeless disarray.

“Only one part of the government has the supreme power, the Bomb, and all else must defer [to] it,” he concludes in a flourish of irony, “for the good of the nation, for the good of the world, for the custody of the future, in a world of perpetual emergency superseding ordinary constitutional restrictions.”

The toxin that was introduced into the body politic by the atomic bomb, as Wills sees it, is the cult of secrecy. Scientists who were recruited to work on the Manhattan Project were issued driver’s licenses “with ‘Name on File’ where the names would normally be.” Even Truman, then serving as vice president, was told about the Bomb only upon Roosevelt’s death. Alloyed with an all-pervasive fear of the Soviet Union and its allies — a state of mind that Wills call the “permanent emergency” — Bomb Power was the necessary and sufficient condition for the making of the National Security State in which we live today.

Wills describes the institutionalization of secrecy in America in fascinating detail. “Nuclear warheads cost the United States about $250,000 each; less than a fighter bomber, less than a missile, less than a patrol boat, less than a tank,” writes Richard Rhodes in “Arsenals of Folly,” as quoted in “Bomb Power,” and Wills goes on to explain that “[t]he immense costs of the nuclear establishment, social costs as well as financial ones, would be in the maintenance of the vast security system around it.” At the top of the pyramid of secrecy stands a single flesh-and-blood human being.

“In case of nuclear attack on the United States, the president would not have time to consult Congress or instruct the public,” writes Wills. “The president’s permanent alert meant our permanent submission.”

Wills walks us through the making of the National Security State, a process that was sometimes conducted in plain sight but more often behind the closed doors of various federal offices. Long after the arms race between the superpowers came to an end, and even after the final collapse of the Soviet Union, the infrastructure of state secrecy remained intact. “[T]he power of secrecy that enveloped the Bomb,” insists Wills, “became a model for the planning and execution of Anything Important, as guarded by Important People.”

Every president since Roosevelt is put under scrutiny in “Bomb Power,” but Wills is especially alarmed by “the full-court press of warmaking powers asserted by the administration of George W. Bush.” Indeed, he sees a chain reaction of presidential abuse, starting with “false information about yellowcake, mobile bioweaponry labs and centrifuge tubes,” followed by “the panicky reaction to terror” and finally “the faulty legal justifications for military tribunals, suspended habeas corpus, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons around the world, warrantless surveillance of citizens at home, abrogration of the Geneva Conventions, unilateral dispensation from treaties, and enhanced interrogation methods like waterboarding.”

I promise that you will be thinking of “Bomb Power” when you mark your next ballot, if only because Wills confronts us with what’s at stake when we cede control of the National Security State to our elected public officials. On Sept. 11, 2001, for example, it was Vice President Cheney who sat in the White House bunker and issued the order to shoot down the third hijacked airliner because George W. Bush was somewhere in the stratosphere aboard Air Force One. Wills refers to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as Bush’s “brain trust” — a purely ironic reference, of course, and perhaps the single scariest line in an unsettling but important book.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of 13 books, blogs at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve.

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