Garry Wills. Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
Reviewed by T. Hatch
President Harry Truman referred to the nuclear bomb(s) that the United States dropped on Japanese cities as “the greatest thing in history.” Informing the American public that the Bomb had been used against the Japanese was “the happiest announcement I ever made,” Truman boasted. While Truman naively thought that the U.S. nuclear monopoly was eternal, what was seemingly forever was the way the Bomb redefined the Presidency. Garry Wills argues that it was the Bomb that allowed for a permanent militarization of U.S. society; the government was fundamentally changed to a National Security State; the apparatus of secrecy and control were elevated; the Congress and Supreme Court became constitutionally junior partners.
Any book about the Cold War, or as I like to refer to it “the gift that keeps on giving,” always raises two questions in my mind: Would there have been a Cold War without Harry Truman? And, was the deployment of the Bomb the sine qua non of the Cold War? Clearly these are two hypotheticals we can never know the answer to, but what if Henry Wallace was correct in his assertion that the Soviets were weak at the end of World War II and could best be dealt with diplomatically?
Wills maintains that what made the use of the Bomb inevitable was Truman's fear that if it was not used, the American public would find out about its existence and the great cost ($2 billion 1940s type dollars) to construct it and would demand his impeachment. The National Security State in retrospect seems like a natural outgrowth of Truman's bellicose paranoia. In order to maintain a large military during peacetime and for the executive branch to exercise power in a secretive fashion, the National Security State was essential. Its existence was buttressed by the belief that any gain by the Communists anywhere was a threat to U.S. security. The National Security State was unaccountable to the Congress and the people, was secret and secretly funded, and resorted to subversion, sabotage, and assassination.
If it was not bad enough that the National Security State assumes that the government's secrets are too important to be shared with the public, and that we should simply trust our political leaders to do the right thing issuing them an exemption to democracy, the consolidation of executive power continues unabated. The Congress has made efforts to halt the concentration of power in the Executive Branch, e.g. the War Powers Resolution (1973), the Ethics in Government Act (1978), the Independent Council Act (1978), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (1978), and the Presidential Records Act (1978), all of which have had little effect in halting the march of the concentration of power in the Executive Branch. The reason that Congress and the courts are reticent to challenge executive power and its propensity to make so many unilateral decisions is the president's power over the bomb. Wills holds that the Commander-in-Chief role has been unconstitutionally elevated, giving the president illegitimate power over civilians.
It is Wills' contention that this concentration of power in the Executive Branch has led to much mischief. He devotes a full chapter to the events that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unlike the usual hagiography of the History Channel, Wills places the blame for the near nuclear catastrophe on the Kennedy brothers. Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General of the United States, managed Operation Mongoose. The goal of this operation was to overthrow the Cuban Revolution. RFK stated that, “My idea is to stir things up on [the] island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder." Neither Congress nor Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, were informed about any of RFK's activities with Operation Mongoose. In addition, RFK placed the now historically notorious Colonel Edward Lansdale in charge of directing attacks on Cuba. Wills argues “The direct consequence of Mongoose was Castro's acceptance of the Russian offer of nuclear missiles on his island.” The missiles were intended as a deterrent against a U.S. invasion of Cuba. The U.S., in the wake of the Bay of Pigs incident, was clearly the aggressor. Krushchev, for his part, reasoned that the missiles in Cuba were no more of a provocation than the U.S. missiles in Turkey. Similar to Noam Chomsky's argument the the U.S. is a “rogue state,” Wills avers, “We toppled regimes in a high-handed way, which gave us license to kill those who might uphold dangerous regimes, even democratically elected ones.”
It is no surprise that Wills segues to the war on terror and to the implications that this consolidation of power signifies. In this narrative, Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld are seen as leading the counter-revolution through their actions. The Unitary Executive theory was perfectly suited to their purposes insofar as it allows the president to get rid of troublesome regulations and allowed Bush and Cheney to use it as an authorization to set-up military tribunals, wage undeclared wars, deny habeas corpus, order extraordinary renditions (kidnap and torture), abrogate the Geneva Conventions etc. Cheney in particular is on the record saying, “I believe in a strong robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it.” Cheney's argument is very much like the one that Julius and Augustus Caesar employed two thousand years ago, i.e., you can hardly run an empire when burdened by the unruliness of amateurish and inefficient mechanisms of the Republic.
Wills opines that the legacy of the Bomb makes the president “a self-entangling giant.” This was demonstrated brilliantly by G.W. Bush. The troubling part of all of this is the continuity between various administrations regardless of the party affiliation. In this regard, Barack Obama has displayed a remarkable respect for tradition and an absolute contempt for “change.” CIA chief Leon Panetta has defended “extraordinary rendition,” (a practice invented during the Clinton administration), Solicitor General Elena Kagan (also a potential candidate for the Supreme Court) stated that captured terrorists should be subjected to “battlefield law,” “state secrets” are defended by the Obama Justice Department, and Obama has consistently refused to release torture photos or investigate the criminality of the Bush administration.
Perhaps the tired bromide that “politics end at the waters' edge” is true.
Burling 3rd Floor UA 23 W4596 2010