Last year a Newsweek article made public President Obama’s reading list. Its message was promising: A third of the books focused on former presidencies. Yet according to “The Emergency State,” David C. Unger’s ambitious and valuable overview of 20th-century presidents and national security, Obama has unfortunately picked up the bad habits of his predecessors. They have created what Unger calls emergency state government — policies by which America’s security interests are defined with an ever-increasing expansiveness. Over the past century, Unger argues, America’s presidents have incrementally institutionalized the emergency state and in so doing have weakened the country morally, constitutionally, financially and most of all in terms of security itself.
According to Unger, a longtime foreign affairs editorial writer for the New York Times, the rationale for the emergency state emerged in the early 1900s with Woodrow Wilson’s evangelical promise to make the world safe for democracy. But it took the personality and genius of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the godfather of the emergency state, to put into place its more unsavory elements. In the name of national security, FDR enhanced executive power, crafted foreign policy in secret and devious ways, authorized far-reaching and possibly illegal policies against Japanese Americans, and misled the public about his intentions and behind-the-scenes directives.
After FDR, both Republican and Democratic presidents set the pattern of the emergency state. Harry Truman “locked in [its] policies and politics” by waging an all-encompassing cold war rather than pursuing a more nuanced relationship with Soviet Russia, and overseeing the passage of the 1947 National Security Act, which created the architecture of emergency state government: the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council. Eisenhower authorized the CIA’s policy of toppling governments around the globe. And, in a move that Unger finds unforgiveable, John F. Kennedy made the executive unaccountable for its decisions by creating the position of national security adviser, a post subject to neither congressional confirmation nor oversight.
For Unger, all this undermines the Constitution and violates the intent of the country’s founders and 19th-century presidents to steer clear of foreign entanglements. By the time Lyndon Johnson entered the White House, all the elements of the emergency state were in place, and each successive president chose entanglements and evasion over transparency, legality and independence. Following “his political mentor and presidential model,” FDR, Johnson lied to the public about his intentions to escalate the American presence in Vietnam, bypassing Congress and relying on covert operations — and ultimately deciding not to seek reelection in 1968 as a result. Richard Nixon and, to a lesser extent, Gerald Ford aimed to strengthen the emergency state but, with Watergate and its aftermath, accomplished the opposite, “discredit[ing] three crucial pillars of the emergency state — the White House, the CIA and the FBI.” Then came Jimmy Carter, singular in eschewing the deceitful and destructive ways of the emergency state but politically naive and ultimately unwilling to give up presidential powers. He tried his best to pull the country out of the dark hole into which it had fallen but was too ineffectual to do so.