The Imbalance of Power

How the Manhattan Project gave birth to the imperial presidency

Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, by Garry Wills, Penguin Press, 278 pp., $27.95

Garry Wills is a national treasure. His 40-odd books range from Saint Augustine to John Wayne, but the heart of his work lies with American politics, from the Founding Fathers, the Federalist Papers, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to the brilliant Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970); The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (1982); and Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home (1987). The product of a rigorous Catholic edu­cation, and a one-time conservative protégé of William F. Buck­­ley, Wills over a long career has evolved into a public intellectual. In all his work, he brings to bear his graduate training in the classics, a profound knowledge of U.S. history and constitutional thought, and, above all, a humane yet rigorous moral sensibility.

Now, at 75, Wills in his latest book explores the vast and, in his view, deplorable expansion of the executive branch since World War II. He examines the emergence of powerful and shadowy bureaucracies such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the National Security Agency. He probes the obsession with secrecy by which successive administra­tions have hidden their illegal and maladroit actions. He looks at the inflation of the president’s status from the limited function as commander-in-chief of the military prescribed by the Constitution to “Commander in Chief” of the entire nation, granted sycophantic deference by legislators, the media, and the public.

In the tradition of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency (1973), Wills measures today’s bloated presidency against the closely circumscribed office intended by the Founders. James Madison’s assertion in Federalist 51 that “In republican government the legislative authority, necessarily, predominates” becomes for Wills the standard by which the contemporary executive branch must be judged.

Wills recognizes that the process he documents long predates 1945. He notes Thomas Jefferson’s breathtaking purchase of the Louisiana Territory without congressional authorization, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and abrogation of habeas corpus as military measures, and Teddy Roosevelt’s fondness for policy-setting “executive orders.” (He might have added Andrew Jackson’s arrogant defiance of the Supreme Court in the 1832 Indian-removal case Worcester v. Georgia [“John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”]; the Wilson Administration’s constitutional violations during and after World War I; and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s expansive presidency. Boasted FDR to an aide in 1936: “There is one issue in this campaign. It is myself.”)

For Wills, however, these earlier assertions of presidential power pale in comparison to recent times when, in the name of national security, the presidency has inexorably expanded at the expense of (indeed, often enabled by) the legislative and judicial branches. While noting periodic congressional and judicial efforts to rein in executive power, such as the constraints imposed on the CIA in the 1947 National Security Act, the 1973 War Powers Act, and the Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling in the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times Co. v. United States, he also shows that just as routinely the executive branch ignored or bypassed such attempts.

Wills cites many aggrandizing actions by Republican administrations, including Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia, overthrow of Chile’s elected government, and Watergate crimes, and Reagan’s Iran-contra illegalities. Citing Peter Irons’s War Powers: How the Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution (2005) and Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (2008), he devastatingly critiques the “crescendo of presidential arrogance” in the Bush-Cheney years, including John Yoo’s now familiar but still chilling “torture memos” and Bush’s incessant use of “signing statements” to put his own spin on a law’s meaning and to define how (or whether) he chose to enforce it.

But as Wills documents the roots of the National Security State in the Truman years and the Obama Administration’s depressing echoing of the secrecy and executive-privilege claims of the Bush-Cheney years, he concludes that the long-term expansion of executive power transcends party and is so deeply entrenched that hopes of reversing it are slight. As he writes in his afterword, summing up the book’s argument:

The momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial rolling of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on [the] use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the Commander in Chief, the worldwide web of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the whole National Security State, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the Cold War and the Cold War with the war on terror—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to efforts at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers . . . have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.

As this passage—and the book’s title, Bomb Power—suggests, Wills sees the advent of nuclear weapons, and the president’s power to order a nuclear attack, as crucial to the emergence of the National Security State and the ensuing burgeoning of executive power. The super-secret Manhattan Project he calls “the seed of all the growing powers that followed.” Ever since, he contends, the Bomb has driven the steady expansion of presidential power. After all, if a president has the Zeus-like capacity to destroy entire nations and snuff out millions of lives instantaneously, all other powers are trivialized in comparison. When the 1946 Atomic Energy Act granted this cosmic authority solely to the president, Wills writes, “the nature of the presidency was irrevocably altered,” leading to a vast expansion of executive power in all directions, including a sprawling security apparatus to protect nuclear secrets. This consequence was foreseen by such early post-Hiroshima commentators as Dwight Macdonald, Lewis Mumford, and the constitutional scholar Edward S. Corwin (Total War and the Constitution, 1947), and Wills powerfully confirms and updates their warnings.


Not all extensions of executive power can be so clearly tied to the Bomb, however. The plots to assassinate foreign leaders and overthrow governments seem more linked to the imperatives of U.S. global economic interests and hegemony. Even more problematic for Wills’s argument is the expansion of federal regulatory powers through executive-branch agencies—some dating to the Progressive or New Deal eras, and others to more recent times: the Food and Drug Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, etc. These more “benign” enlargements of executive power reflect domestic political dynamics unrelated to the Bomb.

Wills might have explored more fully how growing executive power relates to the larger pattern of corporate power in Cold War America, memorably described by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 as “the military-industrial complex.” More attention to this interconnection, examined in such now-distant works as C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956), Fred J. Cook’s The Warfare State (1962), and Seymour Melman’s The Permanent War Economy (1974), would have enabled Wills to link the process he examines to broader social and economic developments in postwar America.

With this book, Wills joins a considerable company of writers who over the years have issued similar warnings, ranging from Raoul Berger’s Executive Privilege: A Constitutional Myth (1974) to such recent works as Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic (2004) and In Democracy’s Shadow: The Secret World of National Security (2005), edited by Marcus G. Raskin and A. Carl LeVan. This polemical tradition cuts across ideological lines. New Left radicals of the 1960s denounced LBJ’s Gulf of Tonkin deception and the nexus of government and corporate power they called “the Establishment.” At the same time, denunciations of expanding executive power (particularly regulatory power) have been a staple of the libertarian strand of conservative ideology pioneered by the economist and political theorist Ludwig von Mises, who as early as 1944 published Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War. Mises’ antigovernment animus, including executive-branch usurpations, lives on in such works as Murray Rothbard’s coauthored New History of Leviathan: Essays on the Rise of the American Corporate State (1972) and John Denson’s Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom (2001), published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

In his conclusion, Wills again concedes that the process he describes seems nearly irresistible. Nevertheless, he insists, Arthur Miller– fashion, attention must be paid. If citizens only realized the danger of such power, he seems to suggest, the republican system of checks and balances envisioned by the Founders, with a strictly limited executive branch, might yet be restored. But as Wills’s classical training, including an awareness of the collapse of Athenian democracy and of the Roman Republic alike, surely reminds him, the hope is slim. This is a bleak and pessimistic work from a major American public intellectual.

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Paul Boyer is the editor of The Oxford Companion to United States History and the author of By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age.


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