There is a simple and straightforward thesis to historian Garry Wills’s new book Bomb Power: the atomic bomb altered history down to its deepest constitutional roots by redefining the presidency with regards to the function of the Commander and Chief. He claims that 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’ which in turn redefined Congress as the ‘executor of the executive.’
Wills quickly moves the reader through episodes in the developmental history of the bomb, emphasizing how its development led to damages to both liberty and the constitutional system of checks and balances; with secrecy surrounding the project at such a premium, there was virtually no oversight from Congress. Shockingly, President Truman wasn’t even made aware of the existence of the atomic bomb until nine days after he assumed the presidency.
Wills acts as an iconoclast when examining the Cuban Missile Crisis which he asserts was caused by an overactive Kennedy Administration. That warheads were placed in Cuba as a deterrent against the use of American missiles in Turkey was not something that could go public; therefore the Soviets were portrayed as the aggressors and executive secrecy was invoked to cover up the quid pro quo of the missiles in Turkey being removed in exchange for removal of the Cuban missiles, a telling that seems absent from most accounts of JFK hagiography. And as is well known, Congress is granted the authority to declare war in the Constitution, but war hasn’t been declared after Word War II. Thus, Vietnam, Korea, Grenada, Nicaragua, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan have been wars waged without the moniker from Congress, which often retroactively approved military actions the president had already ordered.
But where Wills really begins to make a worthy point is in his lengthy screed against the centralization of power within the executive branch, often referred to as the unitary executive. While I am familiar with the excessive use of presidential signing statements that were commonplace within the administration of George W. Bush, I was unaware that up until President Reagan and his Attorney General Edwin Meese, these signing statements were mostly ceremonial expressions of the executive branch’s receipt of a law from Congress. Under Meese, the statements were transformed as a way for the executive to impose meaning on legislation by dissenting from clauses it disagreed with, interpreting mandates, etc. Essentially, the constitutional authority to write the laws were being usurped by the executive, who got the last word on legislation with these signing statements, statements that have also been used by the judiciary in ruling on the application of these laws. In essence, the executive branch can disagree with a portion of a law in a signing statement, be sued for violating the law, and then be exonerated by the court citing the signing statement in question. But the author fails to link these signing statements to the influence of the bomb, placing it within the legacy of Vietnam and the War Powers Act, but failing to note that signing statements are used for all sorts of things, not merely national security/military issues. Such an oversight drastically weakens the argument just when he is trying to contextualize the bomb's influence in the politics of the past decade.
Wills is 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 President Obama would have to decide whether to order the launch of nuclear weapons in retaliation 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, though the antiquated secrecy apparatuses remain in place. 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 used to cover incompetence, folly, criminality and military-industrial aggrandizement, all areas in which Wills points to multiple abuses.
Wills is effective in presenting the argument that the unitary executive and the secrecy with which it is free to act must be adapted to a post-Cold war paradigm in which the ability annihilate an opponent is not the solution to any problem our country faces. But Bomb Power fails to offer solutions as to where such reforms might take place, something that is lacking in what is otherwise an interesting if not a compelling read.