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Reviewed by John Coffey

Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, New York: Penguin Press, ISBN 9781594202407, 2010, 288 pp., $27.95

Recognizing that the world is a dangerous place, Alexander Hamilton observed, “It is the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.”1 Garry Wills views the evolution of the presidency in more sinister terms. According to Wills, the secret Manhattan Project provided a paradigm for presidential usurpation of power across the spectrum of national security. Wills’s determinism makes “One Thing” explain “Everything.” The Bomb knocked the Constitution off the skids. “Executive power,” Wills claims, “has basically been, since World War II, Bomb Power.”2 The “forces” he describes have produced an “American Monarch.”

Wills’ overwrought reprise of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Imperial Presidency lacks three things: an appreciation of the differences between the executive and legislative authorities; historical context; and recognition of the importance of individuals in history. Let us trace his argument.

After World War II a “structure of fear” in the Executive Office drove a quest for atomic supremacy. For Wills psychology displaces historical context to explain foreign policy-making in response to a perceived Soviet threat. The 1947 Truman Doctrine announcing aid to Greece and Turkey formed a “main pillar” of the National Security State. The National Security Act of that year built the institutional structure (an Air Force, DOD, NSC, CIA). The surreptitious diversion of Marshall Plan funds for covert operations to prevent a Communist victory in the 1948 Italian elections, NATO’s “militarization” of the Marshall Plan, NSC 68, and the establishment of NSA completed the unconstitutional edifice. Executive prerogative in secret CIA funding for covert operations fails to pass constitutional muster for Wills, and the Manhattan Plan’s secrecy served as precedent in subsequent years for covering up “Anything Important” and concealing CIA “crimes” in its foreign interventions.

Despite congressional attempts in the 1970’s (e.g., War Powers Resolution, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Church/Pike CIA reforms) to limit executive power, the “imperial presidency” remained unchecked, with the Cheney/Rumsfeld ‘axis of evil’ leading a “counter-revolution” against the congressional coup of the 1970’s. The Bush II Administration launched an “extremist” assault on the WPR (unconstitutional in the first place) and in a “crescendo of presidential arrogance” brought executive usurpation to its climax. Wills might have indicted Richard Nixon, instead of George W. Bush, as Chief Usurper. In that case, however, he would have to acknowledge that our constitutional system worked, forcing the resignation of a President under threat of impeachment. Wills also elides the fact that America does have elections in which citizens have ample knowledge to judge the propriety and efficacy of a President’s actions.

Wills ruefully concludes that President Obama has brought no real change we can believe in. The modern President is “a self-entangling giant” – an ensnared Gulliver – trapped in his insidious imperial power. The author expresses forlorn hope for a return to “the quaint old Constitution” of congressional supremacy (Madison), though the eighteenth century lies far behind us.

Wills’ thesis about the modern presidency – after the Bomb, therefore because of the Bomb – rests on a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. The evolution of a powerful federal government and Chief Executive (and Economic Chief) are due far more to presidential leadership in a Civil War, two World Wars, and Great Depression than to One Thing. During the Obama administration, an unelected executive body, the Federal Reserve Board, took extraordinary steps to avert a second depression. Wills considers himself a Madisonian; yet the first significant expansion of executive power occurred with Jefferson’s extra-constitutional Louisiana Purchase.3

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase enlarged the area of the country about 140%, making the U.S. the second nation in total area and the first nation in tillable area. Jefferson justified his greatest presidential achievement by his concept of building an “empire of liberty” based on the law of nature underlying national security, preservation. Jefferson used executive power to protect freemen from aggression and secure access to Mississippi commerce in order to preserve and nurture the republic. Hamilton laid the politico-economic foundations of modern America, but Jefferson acquired the territory making a large, commercial republic possible. Joseph Story, who disliked Jefferson and all his works, later ironically remarked that the strict-constructionist Jefferson used the “implied powers” of the President championed by John Marshall.

Nor does Wills appreciate why the respective responsibility and composition of the executive and legislative authorities favor executive predominance in national security affairs. Hamilton argued that because the common defense is the first object of the Union, the power of defense must be constitutionally unlimited on the principle that the means must be proportionate to the end: “The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed.”4

A due dependence on the people and due responsibility made a vigorous executive compatible with republican government, Hamilton maintained, and “energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.”5 Unlike the legislative branch, the Executive can act with “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” The virtues of the two authorities differ: “In the legislative, promptitude of decision is oftener an evil than a benefit. The differences of opinion, and the jarring of parties…promote deliberation and circumspection, and serve to check excesses in the majority.”6 Dissension enfeebles the executive, whereas “vigor and expedition” are required in the conduct of war, where the executive is the “bulwark of national security.” According to constitutional scholar C. Herman Pritchett, judicial precedent upholds the president’s primacy in foreign relations and war based on the grant of executive power, authority as Commander-in-Chief, and recognized position as “the nation’s organ for foreign affairs.” These powers, Pritchett held, are “so great, in fact, that to a considerable degree they cancel out the most important grant of external authority to Congress, the power to declare war.”7

His preoccupation with an inanimate Thing leads Wills to ignore the importance of individuals in history, statesmen with different characters grappling, in concrete circumstances, with the complexities and uncertainties of policy-making in a perilous world. In Arsenal of Democracy, Julian Zelizer details the fierce partisan politics that shaped policy and party fortunes in the postwar era.8 Peter Rodman’s fine Presidential Command describes the ebb and flow of executive authority in national security policy-making. Rodman shows why the character of people, above all the Commander-in-Chief, is the paramount factor in government, and he demonstrates how effective policy-making requires personal presidential engagement.9

The Obama Administration has resisted congressional calls for wider notification of covert actions, retained core elements of President Bush’s counterterrorism policy, and dramatically increased Drone strikes in Pakistan’s FATA. Furthermore, a bipartisan foreign-policy consensus on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran has emerged between the administration and Republicans.10

The Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review reflects the same pragmatism. First, it shifts the focus from nuclear states such as Russia and China to the nuclear threat from terrorists and rogue states. The document states that the “fundamental role,” not the “sole purpose,” of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack. Preserving the nuclear “umbrella” for allies, it does not pledge “no first-use” in a conflict, but rules out nuclear retaliation against a non-nuclear country for a chemical or biological attack, provided the country complies with its international nonproliferation obligations. The USG retains discretion in nuclear use regarding the scale of a biological threat. The NPR does not remove U.S. weapons from alert status, but allows more time for the President to decide on their use and proposes to explore with Russia further ways to reduce the risk of accidental launches. Finally, the review promises major new investment in the nuclear weapons laboratories and facilities to maintain an aging arsenal.11

This continuity of policy illustrates the permanence of our national interests (and how a party in, not out of, power must protect them) as well as the imperative to deal with the world, as it exists. Only a strong President can safeguard the nation’s enduring interests and provide unity of national purpose. That, not the Bomb, is why we have a strong (not monarchical) President.

1. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 8, in Clinton Rossiter (intro.), The Federalist Papers (New York: New American Library, 1961).

2. Wills, p. 4.

3. See Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic: 1801-1815 (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), chap. 5.

4. Hamilton, Federalist No. 23.

5. Hamilton, Federalist No. 70.

6. Ibid.

7. C. Herman Pritchett, The American Constitution, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), pp. 357-58.

8. Julian E. Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security – From World War II to the War on Terrorism (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

9. Peter W. Rodman, Presidential Command: Power, Leadership and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

10. See Robert Kagan, “On Foreign Policy, Obama and the GOP Find Room for Agreement,” Washington Post, 3/5/10, A17.

11. See Mary Beth Sheridan, “New Nuclear Arms Policy Shows Limits U.S. Faces,” Washington Post, 4/7/10/, A6; Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus, “Obama to Take Middle Course in New Nuclear Policy,” Washington Post, 4/6/10, A1; David Sanger and Peter Baker, “Obama Limits When U.S. Would Use Nuclear Arms,” New York Times, 4/5/10.

John Coffey
John Coffey

John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.


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