Bomb Power | Garry Wills (Penguin Press)

Garry Wills’s Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State is very good on the presidency and even better on national security—but none too convincing on how it all relates to the atomic bomb.

Wills’s discussion of the growth of presidential power from Truman to Obama doesn’t offer much that’s surprising, but I doubt the story’s been better told. His portraits of the various chief executives are brief, sharp, and devastating. Truman, for instance, comes across as a callow, incurious ignoramus motivated largely by political concerns and a deep lack of regard for the Constitution—a kind of proto-Bush. Eisenhower is more competent, though no more admirable. He was “ruthless,” Wills argues, targeting six foreign regimes for overthrow and actually toppling four (Iran, Guatemala, the Republic of the Congo, and, shortly after his term ended, the Dominican Republic). But perhaps the most fascinating character is Dick Cheney, who pops up as a congressman, an official in various administrations, and vice president, always single-mindedly pushing for greater presidential power. The much-bruited theory that Cheney was a stable pragmatist until he became VP and flipped out receives, in these pages, a severe and satisfying drubbing: he was always the devil.

Wills is especially adept at showing how secrecy and presidential power depend and feed on each other. The Kennedy administration’s Cuba policy, he points out, used secrecy extensively—not to deceive Fidel Castro, but to get around Congress. In fact, thanks to CIA incompetence and the massive resources needed to mount an invasion, Castro knew all about the planned Bay of Pigs operation, which is partly why it failed. Following that fiasco the Cuban leader agreed to allow Soviet missiles on his soil because he was well aware that there would be more American attempts to overthrow him. When Kennedy denounced the missiles, calling them an offensive threat, he was lying to conceal the fact that his plans to attack Cuba again gave the missiles a legitimate defensive use.

The missile standoff was broken when Kennedy agreed to remove American warheads from Turkey in return for the removal of the Russian ones from Cuba. Even this step was cloaked in lies: the president forced Khrushchev to keep quiet about the compromise so the administration could pretend it hadn’t negotiated with communists. Wills’s conclusion is damning: it wasn’t Kennedy but Khrushchev who was “restrained and responsible,” accepting public disgrace to avoid nuclear holocaust. Kennedy had “risked nuclear war to keep his secrets,” not from the Russian foe, who was complicit, but from the American people.

Inasmuch as it involved lies and nukes, the Cuban missile crisis fits nicely into Wills’s overall thesis, which blames the growth in presidential power on the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. According to Wills, the massive infrastructure required to build the bomb in secret enforced its own, Constitution-corroding logic. Hidden from Congress and even the vice president, the Manhattan Project necessitated a chain of command that circumvented regular military channels, providing precedent for the kind of extralegal executive action most notoriously employed in Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the bombing of Cambodia.

In addition, Wills argues, the president’s authority over the bomb has had a powerful symbolic effect. That he and he alone has access to the button has given the office a kind of magical glamour. The president’s role as commander in chief has taken on a new potency; his authority over the bomb enhances his authority over our safety and therefore, effectively, over everyone and everything. Wills here quotes Cheney from a December 2008 Fox News interview, in which the outgoing vice president justified torture, wiretapping, and the unitary executive precisely on the grounds that when deciding whether or not to push the button the president “doesn’t have to call the Congress; he doesn’t have to check with the courts.”

There’s no doubt that the bomb and nuclear fears are regularly marshaled in defense of unlimited executive power. And Wills makes a good case that the Manhattan Project provided institutional impetus for, and training in, federal secrecy. But his claim that the bomb “caused a violent break in our whole government” is less persuasive.

He argues, for instance, that our foreign policy following World War II was in large part predicated on our need for missile bases—a claim I don’t see any reason to dispute. But in the course of that argument he also states that the need for bases “began a long history of friendly relations with dictators.” This neatly elides America’s extended, inglorious prebomb encouragement of tyrannies abroad, starting with our support for the slave-holding regime in 18th-century Haiti and finding perhaps its most spectacular expression in our brutal and extended battle against a popular insurgency in the Philippines in the early 1900s.

Wills does mention the ambitions of prebomb presidents, but he tends to dismiss them as somehow different in kind, claiming, for example, that Wilson’s monomaniacal ambitions were thwarted because he lived “before the Manhattan Project showed modern Presidents the way.” But surely the power grabs of a Wilson or a Teddy Roosevelt suggest not that they were coveting bomb power before its time but that bomb power grew out of broader historical trends—specifically the rise of the U.S. as an imperial power and the militarization and inevitable restrictions of freedom that come about when you start trying to run the globe.

Of course, blaming imperialism for presidential overreach isn’t as sensational as blaming the bomb. It does, however, have certain advantages. If presidential power flows from the bomb, it becomes a consequence of technological advancement and therefore irreversible. Wills recognizes this himself: at the end of the book he says, drily, but also clearly with real concern, “Perhaps in the nuclear era, the Constitution has become quaint and obsolete.” But I think the historical record suggests that, on the contrary, the nuclear era isn’t so much different from times past. The postwar generation could’ve put aside the bomb and imperial ambitions, but out of fear and greed they decided they’d rather not. There’s no getting rid of fear and greed, but we can make different choices. We can reduce our nuclear stockpiles, even eliminate them altogether. It’s an ideological, not a technological issue. The bomb has the power we give it, not the other way around.