When did American democracy lose its way?

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use, and be authorised to use, in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.  

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen.  He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call the Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.

==Dick Cheney, Fox News, Dec. 21, 2008

We Americans live under a government whose executive has the power to attack foreign countries, order assassinations and kidnapings, imprison people without trial, commit crimes and prosecute those who reveal those crimes.

When did this start?  The historian Garry Wills, in his 2010 book BOMB POWER: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, argued that it began with the Manhattan Project.  The creation of the atomic bomb set the pattern for exercise of vast power in secret, without legal authority, with national security as the justification.

General Groves, the organizer of the project, operated without authorization from Congress and outside the norma military chain of command.  He spent billions of dollars back when that was real money.  He authorized major industrial facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, plus the research and test facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico.  All this was done without knowledge of the public (although spies told the Soviet government about it.)

The original purpose was to develop an atomic weapon before Hitler’s scientists did.  When Germany was defeated, that purpose became moot. The purpose became the justification of the project’s existence.

If Groves had not had a uranium bomb to drop on Hiroshima and a plutonium bomb to drop on Nagasaki, he might have been court-martialed, or at the very least, subjected to a congressional investigation, for usurping power and wasting the government’s money.

On the contrary, the atomic bomb became the core of postwar American military strategy.  Congress lost its authority to declare or refuse to declare war.  A decision to respond to an attack, nuclear or otherwise, had to be made within minutes.

Only the President controlled the Bomb and, by extension, the fate of the world with no Constitutional check.  The President came to be regarded not as Chief Executive of one of three branches of government, but as Commander in Chief of the whole nation.

The secret Manhattan project set a precedent for the vast secret powers of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and the rest of the national security state.  Congress’s power of financial oversight was shut off by a veil of secrecy..

It is true that the U.S. government has a history of suspending civil liberties in times of war, but, prior to World War Two, life returned to normal after the war ended.

 In the nuclear age, the shooting war against Germany and Japan morphed into a global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.  And when the Soviet Union fell apart, the Cold War morphed into a supposed war against terror that had no defined enemy.

The wartime footing became a constant in American life.  Only the designated enemies changed.

Bomb Power is divided into five sections.  The first section is about the Manhattan Project and how it set a precedent for policy decisions made in secret and without accountably.

The second section is an account of the memoranda, executive orders, policy speeches and other documents showing how the Truman administration brought the national security state into being.  The administration’s original intention was to make the Central Intelligence Agency a clearing-house and coordinator of intelligence activities and to abolish the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime covert action agency.  But the OSS wound up as part of the CIA under another name.

The third section is about the President’s war-making powers.  President Truman had to respond instantly to the invasion of South Korea by North Korea.  He had no time to ask Congress to declare war, any more than he would have had time during a nuclear attack or threatened nuclear attack.  That became a precedent for a long series of undeclared wars and military actions.

The fourth section consists of four chapters on how secrecy has been used to (1) conceal mistakes, (2) deceive Congress, (3) prevent internal policy debate and (4) conceal crimes.

The fifth section takes the story beyond the end of the Cold War and up to the George W. Bush administration, which Wills believed in 2010 was the rock bottom of the American Presidency.  Wills had no way of foreseeing the rise of Donald Trump.


Bomb Power is an excellent legal and Constitutional history of Presidential power and national security during the past 75 years.  But I have to say this focus leaves a lot out.  Moreover, I doubt Wills’ basic theory.

It’s true that atomic weapons changed everything.  But their existence doesn’t necessarily explain everything.

Make a thought experiment.  Suppose that Albert Einstein had never written a letter to President Roosevelt warning of the danger of a Nazi atomic bomb.  Suppose the Manhattan Project had never been started.

Do you think the Cold War would never have taken place?  Do you think the national security state would never come into existence?  None of the reasons for conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union would have gone away

Wills does not deal with the situation to which the U.S. government was responding.  The Axis and Communist powers were not passive victims.  There is a reason why writers such as Hannah Arendt and George Orwell thought of Hitler and Stalin as equivalent figures and were as anti-Communist as they were anti-fascist.

Wills argued that what other countries do is irrelevant to making moral judgments about the United States.  Other are not subject to the United States Constitution, he wrote.  That’s true.  But you can’t explain the decisions of historical figures without understanding the circumstances in which the decisions were made.

Another thing he fails to take into account is the degree to which the postwar Presidents were prisoners of public opinion.  They acted less out of an arrogance of power than a fear of seeming weak.

President Truman launched his program to vet the loyalty of federal employees not because he thought it was necessary, but because he thought public opinion demanded it.  During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy refused Premier Khrushchev a face-saving way to back down because he feared appearing weak.  Presidents Johnson and Nixon escalated the Vietnam Conflict out of fear of appearing weak.

Fear of appearing weak is the likely reason that President Obama authorized a final surge in Afghanistan.  It’s probably the reason President Trump has failed to keep his promise to wind down military involvement in Syria.  Washington is haunted by the ghosts of Neville Chamberlain and Senator Joe McCarthy.

The most important omissions are the successes in curbing Presidential war powers and reducing the danger of nuclear war.  This has been a back-and-forth struggle, which is not over yet.

President Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment for abuse of power.  Congress then cut off funding for military operations in Vietnam.  The result was the humiliating defeat that Nixon and Johnson had feared.  But that defeat was unavoidable.  It was just a question how long it could be postponed and how many lives would be sacrificed in the meantime.

President Carter went a whole term without starting a war or plotting the overthrow of a foreign government—for which he was derided as a weakling.

Click to enlarge.  Source: FAS

While President Reagan’s administration financed murderous dictators and terrorists in Latin America and Africa, Reagan also negotiated reductions in nuclear arms with Mikhail Gorbachev.   All the Presidents from Eisenhower to the elder Bush met with Soviet leaders in order to find way to reduce the danger of nuclear war.  The abrogation of nuclear arms treaties by the younger President Bush and President Trump represent a reversal of direction and a real danger.

But getting the United States back on the path to reducing nuclear weapons will not in itself end military intervention and covert action.  This will require a rebalancing of the powers of the three branches of government, which means Congress will have to exercise the power of the purse and the federal courts will have to exercise their power to enforce the Constitution.


None of what I have written is intended to deny the value of Garry Wills’ Bomb Power.  Its great merit is to show that secret and lawless government and perpetual war, although they have existed throughout the adult lifetimes of the vast majority of Americans, are not normal.  These conditions did not always exist.  They do not have to exist.


Salute!  A review of Bomb Power by Stephen Holmes for the London Review of Books (2010)

The President and the Bomb by Adam Schatz for the London Review of Books (2017)


I thank my friend Hal Bauer for lending me this book.




Tags: , , , , ,

One Response to “When did American democracy lose its way?”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I am of the opinion that nuclear weapons would have happened eventually, even without the Manhattan Project. Such weapons had been shown to be possible simply through the general advance of physics.

    Leo Szilard patented the idea of a nuclear power plant in 1934 and caused Einstein to write that famous letter to Roosevelt. Werner Heisenberg knew how to make an atomic bomb but hid it from German leaders even as he pretended to work on it. (Even the Japanese had a small nuclear bomb research program.) Surely Soviet physicists augmented by captured German scientists would have figured it out soon enough. It was just a matter of engineering.

    It is entirely possible that the only reason Hitler didn’t get the bomb was that many of the top scientists of the day were Jews, including Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch who lost their positions and fled while they still could.

    Once the Soviets got the bomb, something I consider inevitable, we’d have had a Manhattan Project as a simple matter of national survival. The nuclear arms race would have happened anyhow but with the US playing catch-up instead of Stalin. I find that much more frightening than the reverse position.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: