Nuclear Warfare and the American Presidency

Garry Wills discusses Bomb Power.

By + More

The invention of the nuclear bomb was a scientific triumph, but it also marked the beginning of an increasingly imperial American presidency that has subverted the Constitution and kept secrets from citizens. It has worked not to protect national security but to retain power. So argues Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills in his new book, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State. He recently spoke with U.S. News about the legacy of the Manhattan Project, how Nikita Khru­shchev was actually the rational actor in the Cuban missile crisis, and why President Obama has continued the secret practices of the Bush administration, such as the option of extraordinary rendition and not releasing torture photos. Excerpts: 

You argue that the bomb dramatically increased presidential power. How so? 

Normally, after a war there's a rush to demobilize and reconvert industries, bring the boys home, end it all, and that didn't happen after World War II because now we had this great big secret that we had to not only protect but to develop and to deploy. The people at Los Alamos instantly went to work creating better bombs. Of course, then they were put in bombers and kept the bombs flying in the air for 24 hours to drop anywhere in the world where we felt endangered. And we started developing bases and friendly governments that would receive us when we had to land and be refueled and be repaired. This air of crisis took over. And this initial grant to the president—which went against everything in the Constitution—that he alone would have the power to initiate nuclear war with no oversight from Congress, the courts, anyone ... was quickly extended when Truman went into Korea. 

How has the model for the Manhattan Project led to executive branch unaccountability? 

The model of the Manhattan Project was unaccountable money and no accountability to Congress, since it was outside not only congressional knowledge and political authorization but the military chain of command. Now the best example of that is that in the 1960s, people decided that the Presidential Succession Act—in which if the ... government was killed by attacking the president or vice president, then there would be a succession to speaker of the House and to other members of the cabinet—wouldn't work in case of nuclear attack. They said, "The speaker of the House doesn't know how to [respond]. It's a very complicated process." So a group of cabinet and White House staffers was called and told in the middle of the night to go to an undisclosed location, and there they practiced how to respond to a nuclear attack. Now that actually happened when the twin towers were attacked. [Dick] Cheney had gone through that drill of instantaneous response without talking to Congress or anybody. He was told that there were more planes with terrorists aboard, and he scrambled Air Force jets to shoot down the planes. He did it on his own with no consultation with the president. We had not been decapitated, and it wasn't a nuclear attack. But his attitude, according to people around him, was, "They're flying. We've got to reach them before they reach their target. I haven't got time to talk to the president." Afterwards, he did tell the president, but not before. 

What are the implications of this? 

Well, uncontrollable power. No one knows—not even the president, not the Congress, not the courts, nor the military. It was outside the military chain of command. This power of instantaneous war is so established now that it leaks out in all of our war attitudes. 

What was the progression of this increasingly imperial presidency? 

First of all, the president can initiate war according to the Atomic Energy Act. Then he can initiate regular war according to [Truman Secretary of State Dean] Acheson and the Korean War. [U.S. Department of Justice attorney John] Yoo said only the president can initiate war. That's how extreme it's become, in a direct line from those earlier grants [of power].