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.’
After previous wars, the national security apparatus had been quickly dismantled, but the constitutionally limited prewar presidency did not return after the Second World War. According to Wills, ‘the care and keeping of that weapon began a whole series of security measures that made it impossible to put the nation back on a truly peacetime basis.’ Among them was the creation of ‘the vast and secret apparatus of the national security state’, including a ‘network of espionage and counter-subversion activities’. Wills applies his c’est-la-faute-à-la-bombe approach even to the CIA’s cloak-and-dagger escapades. ‘What,’ he asks, ‘made so many American officials feel they had the right to roam the world secretly killing “undesirables”?’ His reply is neatly on message: ‘The right grew out of one of the requisites of Bomb Power.’ Another direct consequence of Bomb Power was the establishment of a ‘worldwide web of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy’. So too ‘our anxiety over nations “going Communist”’: it ‘was in large part prompted by a fear that this would shrink the area for such bases’. The need for staging areas, storage facilities, docking privileges and launch sites – rather than fear of Communist expansion – gave birth to an age of ‘overt invasion as a way of overthrowing governments’.
Wills devotes four chapters to the political abuses and unintended consequences of the executive branch’s secrecy. The national security state that emerged during what he calls ‘the permanent emergency that has melded World War Two with the Cold War’ was dominated by ‘the secret intelligence agencies’, which came to specialise in ‘the withholding of evidence and information’. Three political purposes were served by this secrecy: covering up embarrassments, masking crimes, and circumventing congressional oversight and obstructionism.
The corrosive effects of information-hoarding by the executive branch, Wills points out, have been reproduced within it: even in a single agency one clique will often keep things from another, giving the lie to the conservative theory that executive branch unilateralism is justified during a crisis because it gives power to experts. It is just as likely to allow a handful of political operators, invoking the imperative of confidentiality and the danger of leaks, to cut rival specialists out of the policy-making process. Wills gives the example of the Bay of Pigs, when Richard Bissell, the head of the CIA’s Directorate of Plans, kept his plan to invade Cuba from the CIA’s own experts. Wills also says that ‘nominally’ subordinate executive branch agencies kept important security information from the president. This, too, upends right-wing theories about executive power: how can the commander in chief’s constitutional authority be invoked to justify covert operations and programmes about which the president himself has been deliberately kept in the dark? Given these examples, it’s hard to see how Wills can argue that the executive branch is a ‘single actor’, and that ‘the only ones deceived’ by such secrecy were Congress and the American people.
Wills nevertheless makes a strong case, elaborating on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s argument in Secrecy: The American Experience (1998), that the short-term political advantages of concealing crimes and embarrassments and of blindsiding congressional opponents are outweighed by the long-term costs. ‘Policy,’ as he rightly says, ‘is often disabled by the withholding of information from knowledgeable critics.’ Los Alamos, where creative thinking was not stifled by secrecy, is the exception that proves the rule. Those who dominated the making of American national security policy after the war routinely overvalued information for the logically flimsy but psychologically compelling reason that they, the ‘clearance patricians’, were the only ones who knew about it.
There are parallels here with the arguments Wills has made in Papal Sin (2000) and elsewhere against the overconcentration of executive power in the Catholic Church. Being a good American does not require saluting the president, in his view, any more than being a good Catholic requires submission to the pope. In both cases, structures of deceit have been created to sustain hierarchical authority. The president and his entourage, like the pope and his, are driven into lies and intellectual confusion in an attempt to defend what they believe to be a politically useful illusion that the chief executive is incapable of error. ‘Lodging “the fate of the world” in one man, with no constitutional check on his actions’, Wills says, is not advisable for the simple reason that leaders are always fallible and may even be unbalanced or at least chronically disconnected from reality. Executive branch officials do not suddenly stop making mistakes during national security emergencies. Secrecy and dispatch, the institutional advantages of the executive branch, may be useful for the implementation of national security policies, but not when it comes to establishing priorities in a maze of threats.
Wills’s argument is not without its shortcomings. Take his repeated suggestion that postwar presidents not only wield unconstrained power but are also helplessly shackled. This discombobulating paradox appears early in the book, in a discussion of Truman, who had been told nothing about the Manhattan Project when he was serving as vice president and, after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, had only a few months in which to make a decision about dropping nuclear bombs on Japan. According to Wills, Truman didn’t make a decision at all, the choice was forced on him: ‘The bomb’s tenders had put themselves in a position where they could not not use it. They were now the prisoners of their own creation.’ Wills makes no effort to explain how presidential omnipotence can be reconciled with this apparent presidential impotence. The solution seems to lie in an unstated distinction between constitutional limitations, which Wills sees as effectively overturned by Bomb Power, and limitations imposed by technology and bureaucracy, which Bomb Power has effectively reinforced.
The idea that new weapons technology can reshape, and in that sense constrain, not just military strategy but the exercise of political power is persuasive enough. A technical innovation such as the Predator drone is not simply a means for pursuing existing war aims. Rather, new technical capabilities encourage war planners to find new objectives, which might well not be morally or strategically wise. Rapid technical change thus makes war aims evolve faster and even less predictably. The power of human instruments to reconfigure, and sometimes distort, human purposes is well known. In this sense, American presidents are servants as well as masters of what have been considered their most powerful weapons.
But presidents can be hobbled for more mundane and easily documented reasons. The White House has inevitably been subject to manipulation by the powerful and sprawling bureaucracy created during and after the Cold War to overcome the problems associated with ad hoc decision-making. This is Wills’s principal argument about Obama, whom he portrays as a captive of his own national security bureaucracy. In explaining Obama’s failure to break with such Bush policies as the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects without trial, Wills drops all mention of the bomb. Obama, he writes, may have sincerely wanted to undo the excesses of the Bush years, but ‘turning around the huge secret empire built by the national security state is a hard, perhaps impossible, task.’ His Justice Department cannot bring charges against the CIA officials responsible for violations of the Anti-Torture Statute, because he will need the CIA’s co-operation in the future and cannot afford to make it into a spoiler or even a reluctant ally. He has to keep up the ‘morale’ of his clandestine agents. The elected president’s inevitable dependence on unelected national security agents is one of the principal reasons the rise of legally unaccountable power in the executive branch cannot be ‘easily reversed, checked or even slowed’. The considerable leverage that subordinates with access to classified information wield over those who are nominally their superiors helps explain why ‘executive misdeeds are rarely punished, or are punished lightly and pardoned.’
On the one hand, Wills emphasises the constraints placed on postwar presidential discretion by the bureaucracy; on the other, he denies that Congress ever gets in the president’s way or forces him to do things he would rather avoid: Bomb Power, he argues, gives the president the power to rule without consulting Congress and, therefore, without facing any proper democratic accountability. To understand what is at stake here we need to recognise that Wills has an originalist understanding of the US constitution as a system in which powers were shared among the branches but Congress was nevertheless supposed to predominate. In principle, he says, legislative supremacy should be compulsory in wartime just as it is in peacetime, because, according to the constitution, ‘Congress is the supreme judge of national security, not the president.’ It wasn’t that the framers underestimated threats to national security: on the contrary, they didn’t trust a single individual of uncertain virtue and wisdom (or his political loyalists) to make intelligent decisions in a truly serious crisis. This system eroded over time, but lingered on as the general peacetime practice until the Second World War, when Bomb Power gave it the coup de grâce and ‘caused a violent break in our whole governmental system’. In effect, Wills uses this interpretation of the original constitution as a stick with which to beat the advocates of a more expansive view of executive power. His examples – from the dropping of the atomic bomb to the invasion of Iraq – are cautionary tales, designed to illustrate the morally disastrous consequences of the president’s refusal to involve Congress in national security decisions. The problem with this sort of argument by example is the existence of equally telling counter-examples. Truman may have approved the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki partly because he was afraid of being impeached after the war if he didn’t. But if this is true, it suggests that democratic accountability, far from being a holy of holies as Wills suggests, is not dependable in its consequences. Conversely, Truman went over the heads of Congress when he fired the immensely popular General MacArthur, who was urging a massive nuclear strike on China. Far from embodying Bomb Power, in this case Truman acted as a bulwark against it.
Wills is so convinced of the danger of excluding Congress from secret operations that he tends to forget the occasional benefits of the president’s insulation from Congress. Eisenhower refused Joseph McCarthy’s demand that he hand over the names of the Pentagon officials who issued security clearances. In this case, unmentioned by Wills, a constitutionally controversial extension of executive privilege protected the country from rabid anti-Communism, illustrating the positive role that the executive branch itself has to play in any effective system of checks and balances.
The panic over national security during the Cold War, as Wills sees it, was entirely caused by the national security apparatus, which ensnared fair-minded congressmen and citizens in a web of pernicious lies. ‘The sense of emergency came from a vast overestimation of the Soviet power,’ he claims, implying that a baseless inflation of the enemy’s capacity was hatched inside the incubation chamber of the executive branch. This is a strange picture of the Cold War, especially for a man of Wills’s background. Before he became an outspoken liberal in the 1960s, he was a protégé of the arch-conservative William Buckley Jr. And, as Wills mentions, Buckley himself had been a disciple of James Burnham. Buckley and Burnham were two of the influential intellectuals who fanned the flames of anti-Communism in the 1950s from outside the national security establishment.
The hawkish policies Wills most dislikes were not simply products of an executive branch insulated from Congress and the democratic process. On the contrary, as Julian Zelizer documents in his remarkable study Arsenal of Democracy, many of the most aggressive Cold War policies resulted from attempts by incumbent presidents to fend off the charge that they were weak on national security.Feverish and sometimes unhinged responses to the Communist threat (such as Truman’s loyalty programme) arose not from an insulated executive so much as one forced to answer to a public opinion the politicians and media had already done much to inflame.
Presidents are inevitably besieged by well organised and richly endowed social forces. Wills recognises this when he writes about presidents as prisoners. But he forgets the same paradox when laying blame for all manner of misconduct on the unrestrained executive branch. He describes the Cuban Missile Crisis as ‘the supreme example of the use of secrecy as a Congress deceiver’. Challenging a national myth, he argues that Kennedy ‘irresponsibly raised the temperature of the crisis’ by asserting publicly that the Soviet missiles recently stationed in Cuba were offensive not defensive weapons. Castro and the ‘restrained and responsible’ Khrushchev, Wills says, were only trying to defend Cuba against American invasion, which was completely justified given Bobby Kennedy’s deranged plotting to overthrow Castro after the Bay of Pigs.
This revisionist approach is well worth considering on its merits, but in this context one detail stands out: namely, Kennedy’s remark, cited here without comment, that he hoped to avoid ‘a Munich’. That is to say, he raised the temperature of the crisis not because the presidency was insulated from Congress but, on the contrary, because he was afraid of being lambasted as a spineless appeaser of Moscow by congressional Republicans. A similar story can be told about Lyndon Johnson, who, remembering that Truman had been politically undone by the charge of having lost China, escalated the Vietnam War in the run-up to the 1966 midterm elections.
Parties compete to outdo each other in hawkish policies because voters respond to assertions of toughness in the face of real or imagined enemies. Wills acknowledges this dangerous dynamic only in a few scattered passages. One concerns Jimmy Carter, a single-term president who was smeared by Republicans as being soft on national security. As president, Carter ‘did not destroy any foreign regimes, a fact that made the right wing consider him a wimp’. Obama’s need to parry such attacks may have played a greater role than his capture by the bureaucracy in his failure to stop some of Bush’s most controversial national security programmes.
The Obama administration’s refusal to release any more Abu Ghraib photos, like its continued reliance on the state secrets privilege to shut down civil suits against government officials, no doubt reflects pressure from the permanent national security agencies, especially the CIA. But it is Congress that has obstructed Obama’s plans to bring high-value Guantánamo detainees into the US for trial in a federal court, to the point of threatening to withhold funding for civilian trials. And this obviously reflects a partisan attempt to portray Obama as hopelessly weak on national security and unconscionably willing to lavish legal rights on America’s most ruthless foes.
Why are Republicans not bowing down before an infallible Obama the way they once demanded that the Democrats bow down before an infallible Bush? If they believe that America’s foreign enemies will be emboldened by any sign that the president is weak on national security, why are congressional Republicans doing everything they can to make Obama seem more yielding on national security than he obviously is? The answer is that they take their orders not from the constitution but from a factional agenda: they’re less interested in original intent than in electoral advantage. Wills knows this at some level, and his awareness that political choices play a decisive role in national security policy explains his willingness to denounce Cheney and his circle. Indignation at America’s conduct of the war on terror would make no sense if torture and indefinite detention really were just the inevitable by-products of an irreversible technological leap.
President Ahmadinejad may hope that Bomb Power will quell domestic turmoil, establish Iran’s regional pre-eminence and deter US plotting for regime change; Obama, on the other hand, benefits from it not at all and he certainly isn’t being saluted by America’s superpatriots as the nation’s commander in chief. In fact, the authority to launch a nuclear strike has been of little use to American presidents, starting with Truman in Korea. And in the age of counterinsurgency, America’s strategy of nuclear deterrence has never seemed more like a useless relic. True, low-yield nuclear bunker-busters are occasionally discussed. But no one talks about the ‘centrality of the bomb to American military policy’. The bomb did play a role in the Bush administration’s dismayingly successful attempt to avoid legislative or judicial oversight of its national security policy. But its role was the opposite of the one stressed by Wills. It was not the president’s unilateral control of the bomb that was the problem, but the possibility that a non-state terrorist conspiracy could get hold of a weapon and use it against an American urban centre. This possibility provided a public justification – as well as, in the opinion of some inside observers, a private motivation – for the latest incarnation of the imperial presidency.
From being a proud source of power, the bomb has become a humiliating source of vulnerability. Fears of proliferation, looted stockpiles and the black market in radioactive materials show how the Los Alamos breakthrough has been turned on its creators. The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in response to 9/11 was some senses a cynical ploy, but it can’t be fully understood without appreciating that there was real panic among the principal members of Bush’s national security team about the possibility that al-Qaida might get a nuclear weapon from a rogue state.
After 9/11, fear of the terrifying threat posed by a hypothetically privatised Bomb Power swirled beyond the national security apparatus to take in both parties in Congress, the press and the public. This fear, which mobilised support for waterboarding and war, is neglected by Wills. It is a curious omission, because public panic helps explain the widespread acceptance of Bush’s power grab. The American electorate re-elected Bush in 2004 after the Abu Ghraib photos were publicly released. Numbed by fear and anger, it proved indifferent to the death and suffering of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who had never harmed a single American. The country’s initial embrace of an unprovoked war, in other words, can’t be blamed just on government-orchestrated deceit.
Why does Wills, for all his immense erudition, explain the rise of the imperial presidency in such monocausal terms? Why does he place such emphasis on the atomic bomb? Historically, after all, the invention of the bomb coincided with other sweeping changes, such as the collapse of the European empires and America’s emergence as a world power. These developments also encouraged the expansion of executive power, yet Wills scarcely mentions them. Nor does he discuss the enormous growth of the executive branch’s power over the domestic economy in response to the Great Depression – i.e. before the bomb was even conceived.
There is one vaguely plausible explanation for Wills’s overemphasis on the bomb. He was seven years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked and 11 when the bombs were dropped on Japan. Reaching adulthood in the 1950s, he might well have come to see nuclear weapons as the principal symbol of the end of American innocence. That may be why he presents the Manhattan Project, oddly, as a violation of the constitution. Perhaps he means that the invention of the bomb was an original sin, a violation of natural innocence, an all too human grab at forbidden knowledge. In his final paragraph, heavy with despair, Wills tries to explain why he remains unwaveringly committed to an irredeemably lost cause: ‘Some of us entertain a fondness for the quaint old constitution. It may be too late to return to its ideals, but the effort should be made. As Cyrano said … on ne se bat pas dans l’espoir du succès.’ But what is Wills fighting for if not success? The answer can only be to sharpen his countrymen’s awareness of everything they have lost.
Such a wistful finale takes us back to perhaps the most disconcerting passage in the book. Discussing American clandestine (and to him morally unjustifiable) programmes of sabotage, subversion and assassination, Wills remarks: ‘It may be said – it has been said – that all governments do these things. But the United States had not done so in any systematic way before the period after World War Two. And other countries do not have the United States constitution.’ The crimes committed by the US government are less excusable than the crimes of ‘other countries’, it seems, because they represent a collective disregard for the country’s better self. What torture, rendition and indefinite detention without trial desecrate, in other words, is not the constitution as ordinarily conceived but the constitution as embodying the moral innocence that Americans supposedly once enjoyed.
That an irreverent critic of American myths, and one as knowledgeable as Wills is about the universal narcissism of tribes and nations, feels drawn to the idea of American exceptionalism is revealing. His patriotism is penitent, not smug, but it nevertheless rests on a strong asymmetry or moral non-equivalence between the US and other nations. Perhaps the crimes committed during the last 65 years by American governments in the name of national security are a result not of the invention of weapons of unimaginable destructiveness, but rather of a deeply ingrained way of seeing the world, a belief in America’s ineffable connection to truth and justice, shared by no other people, which even the country’s most contrarian critics cannot shake off.