Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Garry Wills: Bomb Power

It's always good news for me when Garry Wills publishes a new book, as the book inevitably casts new light on a worthwhile subject. I bought Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (2010, 288p.) last Thursday, and I finished it today. In this book, Wills argues that the Manhattan Project and the Bomb that it produced created a new impetus toward an aggrandizement of presidential power and created a national security state to surround and support this increased power. As always, Wills sets forth his case with a mix of well-documented facts and pithy insights.

The Manhattan Project serves as the prototype of government secrecy. Once the Bomb became an established part of the American arsenal, the president gained new powers. When the Soviets joined the U.S. as a nuclear power, the president might have only a matter of minutes to take us into war. So much for the right of Congress—and only Congress—to declare war. Wills documents how the Cold War facilitated the growth of presidential prerogatives during the Truman administration. Indeed, Wills has interesting things to report on George Kennan (someone I've always admired). Kennan, it seems, helped let the genie out of the bottle with his "Long Telegram" and "X" article in Foreign Affairs, and Kennan spent a number of years later trying to get the genie back in the bottle. However, as Wills argues, the Truman administration was off to the races, and no president—even Obama it seems—wants to put the genie back into the bottle. Wills discusses how these developments effect more than just nuclear issues. The national security state allowed all manner of immoral and irresponsible behavior by the U.S. government. Ike toppled regimes surreptitiously in Iran and Guatemala (and Iran came back to haunt us). JFK, fueled by an infatuation with counter-intelligence and guerilla warfare, wondered into the Bay of Pigs, then the Cuban Missile Crisis, and this led to RFK's involvement in plots to assassinate Castro.

The list goes on, but, of course, the culmination lies in the presidency of George W. Bush (with plenty of warm-up during his father's and Reagan's administrations). During the Bush years we had the "dual administration" of Bush and Cheney, with Cheney and his cohorts straining every possible limit on executive prerogatives for action and deception. Interestingly, John Yoo has just published another book, and Wills takes on the crackpot legal arguments made by Yoo and his ilk (and rejected by true conservatives like Jack Goldsmith). Wills, as a major contributor to works on the Declaration and the Constitution, gives no ground on the words of the Founders and their intent.

In all, this is an important book. Wills breaks no new ground by way of revelations. Anyone who follows post-WWII American history and reads the papers knows this history. What Wills does provide is an indictment. Like a lawyer setting forth his case, he lays out the charges before us. We, the people, and those whom we entrust with the conduct of our government, have allowed our constitutional protections to erode in the face of a perceived imperative made plausible by the Bomb. Now, we the people must face the consequences of this course of conduct. No one professes optimism; however, Wills' closing words bear repeating:

"On January 25, 2002, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales signed a memo written by David Addington [Cheney's legal advisor] that called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete". Perhaps in the nuclear era, the Constitution has become quaint and obsolete. . . . Nonetheless, 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, "One fights not only in the hope of winning."" (240-241). Amen.

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