three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
By: 
Garry Wills
user_rating: 
0

The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

A-Bomb PowerGarry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, historian, and professor emeritus at Northwestern University, has made a career of challenging conventional interpretations of history in his more than 40 books. Bomb Power elaborates on an issue he first raised in A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (1999).

The Topic: The birth of the Atomic Age fundamentally altered the structure of the U.S. government. Wills argues that, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Manhattan Project without congressional authorization, he violated the Constitution and laid the foundation for a momentous reallocation of power to the executive branch. Although one could reason that the race with Hitler to develop the bomb necessitated his actions, since then both Democratic and Republican commanders-in-chief have maintained a perpetual state of emergency--from the Cold War to the current War on Terror--in order to justify their disregard for constitutionally imposed checks and balances. "Nevertheless," Wills argues, "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."
Penguin. 288 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9781594202407

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Although it breaks no new ground, Bomb Power is a powerful--and sobering--account of the step-by-step creation of government structures, unaccountable to Congress or the people, to conduct ‘permanent war in peace.' ... [Wills] makes a compelling case that the ‘unitary theory of the presidency,' which gives the executive the power to launch a pre-emptive war, bypass laws requiring court approval to conduct domestic surveillance, detain terrorists indefinitely without charging or trying them, carry out ‘renditions,' and authorize ‘enhanced interrogation techniques' that violate the Geneva Conventions, is ‘philological hocus-pocus.'" Glenn C. Altschuler

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Garry Wills argues persuasively that this concentration of power, and the concomitant expansion and secrecy of our national security state, began with the development of the atom and hydrogen bombs, and found its apogee during the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. ... While his book sometimes seems like a never-ending op-ed piece, Wills knows how to marshal his arguments, usually grounding them in the factual record." David Holahan

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Bomb Power is a well-argued denunciation of our constitutional gatekeepers that is as sad and fascinating as an account of the decline of the Roman republic. ... The fact that Bomb Power has an agenda does not detract from its merits, chief of which is that it shows that the illegalities of the Bush administration were not aberrations." Ariel Gonzalez

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"... an ambitious work, and while Wills is incapable of being anything but provocative and erudite, his book is thought-provoking but not entirely persuasive. ... Though Wills' progress to [his] conclusion isn't always as steady as one might wish, it remains a compelling one." Timothy Rutten

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Wills hits all the landmarks, but leaves the reader with the impression that the [expansion of presidential power] was premeditated, leaving unmentioned all those decisions that worked the other way: Truman's famously minuscule military budget, his suspicion of intelligence agencies, his early boycotting of the National Security Council, and the fact that nuclear weapons production was slowed after the war so that there were only seven nuclear bombs in 1947--hardly a stockpile. ... This is sobering reading, but this time the fault is not in the bomb, but in ourselves." Michael D. Gordin

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"For all the light Wills generates, however, his argument is overheated. The damage that successive administrations and congresses have done to constitutional governance since the Manhattan Project should not be blamed so narrowly on the bomb." George Perkovich

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Wills' account leaves no room for objections or other interpretations of what he calls the ‘covert activities and overt authority of the government we now experience.' He offers a one-sided, at times strident denunciation of modern presidents, none more harsh than his assessment of the Bush-Cheney years." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

Despite his provocative subject matter, Wills refuses to side with either party and condemns Republicans and Democrats alike. The critics responded likewise by evaluating Bomb Power on its approach and arguments, making historical rather than political assessments. Some saw Wills's alarming account of the unprecedented growth of the executive branch's power as rational and persuasive; others were not so easily convinced. The Los Angeles Times, for example, considered Wills's "permanent constitutional crisis" a direct result of the conflict between the Founding Fathers' lofty ideals and the demands of a hostile modern world. Although most recognized Wills's left-leaning tendencies, only the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette accused Wills of bias. These differences aside, Bomb Power is a meticulously researched, readable, and well-timed treatise on the state of the U.S. government.