Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

By Gary Wills. Penguin Press HC. First Edition, 2010. ISBN: 978-1594202407

bombIn his book, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, Gary Wills demystifies the development of the first atomic weapon and adds to a growing body of scholarship whose broader aim is to document the expansion of executive power and the rise of the national security state. Wills artfully constructs a narrative of the Manhattan Project and links this monumental development to the excessive expansion of presidential powers, the pervasive uses of secrecy in the executive branch, and the rise of the national security apparatus. Wills begins his analysis with an inflammatory statement about the atomic bomb which summarizes his thesis: “The Bomb, altered our subsequent history down to its deepest constitutional roots, redefining the presidency in ways that the Constitution did not intend. 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. It redefined Congress, as an executor of the executive. And it redefined the Supreme Court, as a follower of the executive” (1). Wills argues that the pursuit of atomic weaponry and its ultimate materialization resulted in the transformation of the executive branch, which gave the president an alarming amount of new powers and rendered the constitutional system of checks and balances idol. Wills begins to construct a picture of how the pursuit of atomic weaponry and methods used to obtain it became a paradigm in which future presidents used when carrying out foreign policy.

General Leslie Groves was the chief organization officer of the Manhattan Project responsible for collecting previous atomic research conducted by the United Kingdom’s Cavendish facility and was tasked with the responsibility of assembling an all-star team of scientists to work on the project. Groves was granted dictatorial power over the operation and was given an AAA financial priority. Groves secured four main sites in which the research and construction of the bomb took place. Grove chose Handford Washington to purify the plutonium, Oak Ridge Tennessee to enrich the uranium, Los Almos New Mexico for the assembly sight and Tinian Islands to test delivery methods. In total, Grove’s sprawling operation required the employment of over 100,000 employees, 200 buildings, 6,500 acres, and countless trailers per site. These compounds were mini secret cities that had their own schools, churches, and estranged cultures in which families of leading scientists lived, during the duration of working on the Manhattan project (10-11). Additionally, Grove hired hundreds of spies to trail the scientists when they left the facilities, to run interference on any other states nuclear ambitions, and to prevent knowledge of the project from spreading.

This massive undertaking was fueled by two billion dollars that were siphoned-off from the surge of money that was pouring out of the military during a wartime economy. The project was such a well-kept secret by Groves that even fourth term Vice President Truman was completely unaware of the Manhattan project until it was finished and he was informed that the weapon was at his disposal (12-13). General Grove controlled nearly every aspect of the endeavor and even had the foresight to manipulate the public’s initial thoughts of the project by placing a New York Times journalist on his payroll who claimed that the bomb was a “necessary evil and scientific triumph” (29).

Wills notes that there are grave consequences as a result of the manner in which the Manhattan project was carried out. Since Roosevelt’s initial research authorization in 1939, the executive branch embarked on a journey shrouded in the utmost secrecy and the bomb was always treated as an entity that was not restricted to congressional approval. By keeping Congress in the dark, the Manhattan Project was a flagrant and deliberate violation of the constitution on behalf of the president. Such a massive operation that succeeded in keeping the project a secret became a blueprint for future administrations to use when avoiding the bureaucracy and lengthy procedures of Congress that often interfere with a president’s agenda.

Wills goes to great length describing Grove’s extensive operation to demonstrate to readers that in the process of developing an atomic arsenal the presidential title of commander-in-chief was transformed, becoming a much more robust and active duty for the executive. Before the bomb was conceived, the President had very little control over the military and the title of commander-in-chief was more of a symbolic or ceremonial title with modest duties. Yet the title of commander-in-chief was transformed when Truman first exercised the use of the weapon because it was done outside of congressional approval and was authorized by a small hand selected committee. This unrestricted use of the weapon gave the president the sole authority over the atomic bomb and appointed future presidents as the vanguard of the now most powerful weapon in history. Wills calls this presidential monopoly over the bomb and use of secret operations hidden from Congress “bomb power.” Bomb power allowed the commander-in-chief to keep more state secrets making it difficult to be held accountable by the public. Through the use of security clearance systems and the elaborate classification of documents for security reasons secrecy became a cover for the presidents deceptive, embarrassing, and sometimes even criminal behaviors (137-8).

After detonating bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic weaponry became a vital component of U.S. military and foreign policy strategy. In the ensuing pages Wills tracks the reckless use of bomb power by nearly every administration after the Truman era, indicting various presidents claiming that it became common practice to “lodge the fate of the world in the hands of the president” (46). In support of this argument, the author cites various national humiliations such as the Korean War, the Pentagon Papers, the secret Cambodian bombings, Iran-Contra, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis to demonstrate that the use of bomb power caused future presidents to brush congress aside reducing them to spectators. Wills blames these Cold War escalations on the unchecked authority handed to the president by General Groves and the Los Alamos scientists.

The author asserts that bomb power gave rise to a national security apparatus that in previous wars was quick to disperse, but the responsibility of maintaining nuclear readiness fostered a sense of perpetual militarization centered on sustaining nuclear supremacy, which made it impossible to put the nation back on a truly peacetime basis. Maintaining a nuclear arsenal required the establishment of a worldwide web of military bases and further encouraged the Commander-in-Chief to create numerous secret committees that engaged in covert activities such as espionage, cloak-and-dagger escapades, and counter-subversion activities all without congressional approval or legislative oversight. To prove this Wills relies on a series of seminal orders, articles, memos and speeches to demonstrate that the executive branch continued to use Groves system of unchecked power and secrecy to achieve foreign policy objectives all in the name of national security. Wills blames this perpetual security state for escalating communist aggression and suggests that the demand for staging areas, storage facilities, docking privileges and launch sites—rather than fear of Communist expansion—was the real reason behind pursuing the expansionist policy of containment in the postwar era.

Bold and incisive, Bomb Power reads as a plea to modern politicians encouraging them to question current nuclear policies and incites them to chip away at the imperial presidency. Casting the history of the postwar period in a new light, Wills is balanced in his criticisms of presidents across the spectrum all the way up and through the Obama administration making historical rather than political assessments. Having illuminated the dangers of bomb power Wills offers no remedies to the issues he lays before his readers. Wills suggests that the bomb despite its omnipotent power should no longer be viewed as a solution to the complex multifaceted issues of today’s dynamic international community, if it ever was. Contemporary foreign policy strategy requires less aggressive leaders with more balanced minds. Wills is correct in asserting that the bomb presents a number of challenges to the American constitutional governance. Congress is constitutionally the sole body authorized to declare war and yet it is difficult to reconcile the fact that the president can reflectively launch a nuclear missile in a counter-strike with no immediate repercussions from Congress. Additionally, the use of secrecy and classification is a necessary tool in protecting sensitive national security secrets, but reform is clearly needed to prevent abuse.

As informative and interesting as Wills’ analysis of bomb power is, it falls short of providing readers with a truly in-depth account of how atomic weapons have impacted American politics. The book often glosses over important events such as the Cuban Missile crisis by only dedicating a handful of pages to this historically important moment. So little attention dedicated to such an important Cold War event seems inappropriate considering the book’s topic. Wills too narrowly blames the atomic bomb for the centralization of powers in the executive branch. It is hard to believe that the advent of the bomb caused every president after it to consolidate more and more power. Wills himself points out that Roosevelt issued more executive orders than any preceding president of his time, which suggests that the growth of executive power cannot solely be attributed to nuclear proliferation. Had the bomb not been dropped in 1945, would the tension of a bi-polar world order not be responsible for some of the expansion of executive powers? Would the president not be tempted to curb the global ambitions of the USSR through espionage and covert sabotage in the absence of the bomb? Where Bomb Power succeeds is in providing history enthusiasts of all levels with an accessible and interesting account of the development of the atomic bomb as well as its far reaching impacts on American politics. Readers who are interested in additional scholarship on this topic should consider pursuing the Imperial Presidency by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. which provides a much longer discussion of the topic and is often cited throughout Bomb Power.

Franco Galbo
Niagara University (Lewiston, New York)

About the author
Franco is a Western New York native who recently graduated from Niagara University with a dual degree in History and Political Science. Franco attended the Yale interdisciplinary Bioethics Institute in the summer of 2015 where he studied the ethical responsibilities of physicians in times of war and genocide. His research interest are in military history and law.

Recommended citation
Galbo, Franco. Review of Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State. Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 6, no. 1 (April 2016).



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