Book review: 'Bomb Power' by Garry Wills

By George Perkovich
Sunday, February 7, 2010


The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

By Garry Wills

Penguin. 278 pp. $27.95

Gary Wills begins his provocative account of the atomic bomb's impact on the republic with a high-detonation assertion. "The Bomb," he writes, "altered our subsequent history down to its deepest constitutional roots," redefining the presidency in ways that the Constitution does not intend. "It fostered an anxiety of continuing crisis, so that society was pervasively militarized. It redefined the government as a National Security State, with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control. It redefined Congress, as an executor of the executive."

The ensuing pages carry the reader through well-written, sometimes exciting vignettes of the bomb's damage to liberty and constitutional checks and balances. Wills recounts how the government publicly humiliated Robert Oppenheimer, the maestro of the Manhattan Project, by revoking his security clearances because he did not applaud Truman's decision to build the hydrogen bomb. The government, Wills writes, "wanted cheerleading; and it punished an enthusiasm-deficit by discrediting any form of dissent."

In Wills's iconoclastic telling, the Cuban Missile Crisis was triggered by the aggression and deception of an over-active White House. Castro and Khrushchev put tactical and intermediate range nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba to deter the United States from re-invading Cuba and to balance the deterrent power of American nuclear-tipped missiles in Turkey. "But Kennedy could not admit that there was a defensive rationale for Cuba's missiles, since that would involve admitting" that after the Bay of Pigs debacle the United States was embarking on Operation Mongoose to oust Castro. The nuclear narrative had to portray the Soviets as the aggressor against whom anything could go; the U.S. public must be kept innocent of compromising facts, including the quid pro quo by which Washington withdrew missiles from Turkey.

In decrying the centralization of power within the executive branch, Wills goes off on a tangent to present a short but interesting précis of presidential signing statements. These used to be ceremonial expressions of the executive's receipt of a law from Congress. Ronald Reagan's attorney general Edwin Meese sought to transform signing statements into vehicles for the president to impose meaning on legislation, by dissenting from disliked clauses, interpreting mandates, inviting constitutional challenges in court and so on. Reagan used this constitutionally dubious practice in 95 instances. George W. Bush objected to 1,400 sections of legislation in the first six years of his presidency, Wills writes, "twice as many as had been objected to by all forty-two earlier presidents taken together."

For all the light Wills generates, however, his argument is overheated. The damage that successive administrations and congresses have done to constitutional governance since the Manhattan Project should not be blamed so narrowly on the bomb.

Had the bomb not been used in 1945, wouldn't the memory of Pearl Harbor, and the emergence of the global contest between U.S.-led democratic capitalism and Soviet-led communism, have been enough to induce the centralization of executive power? To fight an obsessively secret and ruthless adversary that had global ambitions, wouldn't worst-case thinking have undermined the deliberateness and openness required for good democratic governance?

If all nuclear weapons were eliminated everywhere, would the imperial presidency, abuse of executive orders, overdone secrecy and reckless clandestine interference in other countries all cease? Would Congress somehow become more responsible -- in all senses of the word? To fight terrorism, recent administrations and congresses have adopted all the practices Wills abhors. Would we reform these practices if nuclear weapons were somehow removed from the terrorist-threat menu?

Wills is certainly right that the bomb poses profound challenges to American constitutional governance. Congress's sole authority to authorize war is difficult to reconcile with the five minutes in which a president would have to decide whether to order the launch of nuclear weapons if the United States were under missile attack. The end of the Cold War should allow alternative ways to balance nuclear deterrence with deliberative decision-making. Secrecy is required to interdict nuclear proliferation or prevent adversaries from learning how to undermine the deterrent effects of U.S. nuclear forces, but reforms clearly are necessary to prevent secrecy from being abused to cover incompetence, folly, criminality and military-industrial aggrandizement.

Having illuminated these dangers, "Bomb Power" regrettably does not point the way to remedies. The bomb is no longer the solution to the most pressing challenges facing the United States, if it ever was. Cooler heads are now needed to act on the alarm that Wills sounds.

George Perkovich is director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-editor of "Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate."

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