Permanent Emergency: The Bomb and the Democratic Process

The atomic cloud over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945 (Hiromichi Matsuda via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1946, Congress passed an innocuous-sounding bill called the Atomic Energy Act that granted the president sole authority over the use of the atomic bomb. At the time, the bill did not seem to depart drastically from the status quo. During the Second World War, Congress had already extended the president’s war powers so that the executive branch could respond more effectively to wartime emergencies—an extension of executive power that helped Roosevelt to secretly develop the atomic weapons program and that allowed Truman to deploy the bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki with devastating, horrifying effect.

But the Atomic Energy Act and the National Security Act that followed in 1947 have had much greater implications than the war powers given to the presidency during the Second World War. As Garry Wills details in his history of the atomic bomb and the rise of the modern presidency, they helped create the security and surveillance systems that we still live with today, granting the executive branch an extraordinary amount of power to act on its own not only in times of war but also in those of peace.* The president could now build an elaborate network of cloak-and-dagger agencies (the Atomic Energy Commission, the CIA, the NSA) that were only accountable to himself and his cabinet, and he could disburse funds, administer espionage networks, and employ the most frightening of all weapons with very little congressional or judicial oversight. While our security policies needed to be expanded after the Second World War, the authority granted to these institutions dangerously threatened our democratic process. As the political scientist Robert Dahl warned in a 1953 examination of these new powers, “as a plain statement of fact, the proposition is scarcely debatable: the political processes of democracy do not operate effectively with respect to atomic energy policy.”

The permanent emergency powers were invoked during the Korean War, the botched Bay of Pigs coup in Cuba, the 1965 occupation of the Dominican Republic, and the invasions of Grenada and Panama—all military actions that were escalated without a congressional declaration of war. But perhaps one of the darkest legacies of the Atomic Energy and National Security Acts has been the past two decades, when the Bush administration embarked on one of the greatest circumventions of our democratic process, breaching civil liberties and human rights norms, employing rendition, torture, and indefinite detentions, and building an elaborate surveillance network that intercepted the communications of American citizens without warrants.

One could argue that these security powers, invoked in the wake of September 11, were unrelated to those granted after the dropping of the bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that was not how the Bush administration saw it. Many of its officials—as Wills and others have pointed out—were emboldened by the emergency powers that the bomb gave them, interpreting the threat of permanent war posed by terrorism to be commensurate with the permanent threat posed by the bomb. As Vice President Dick Cheney explained in a 2008 exit interview, “I think that what we’ve done is totally consistent with what the Constitution provides for. The President of the United States now for fifty years is followed at all times, twenty-four hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes . . . [and he can] 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. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in. It’s unfortunate, but I think we were perfectly appropriate to take the steps we have.”


From the beginning of its development, to its test runs on confiscated land in the Pacific, to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weaponry has not only dampened our democratic process, but has come to obfuscate our moral and political compasses. The incomprehensible scale of its destruction, the complexity of its technology, the bureaucratic and often secretive systems needed for its control all made the bomb appear to be beyond the citizen’s imagination, beyond his or her capacities for moral and political judgment. As citizens, we could never entirely confront the frightening power of nuclear weapons and the elaborate security and surveillance systems built to protect them. And, as a result, our sense of responsibility, our ability to judge and to dissent, has waned.

Today, we still live in this mushroom cloud of secrecy and permanent emergency. Under Obama, we may have rolled back our ground invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but we still routinely infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations with drone strikes and periodic ground raids. We have kill lists that have enabled several American citizens to be assassinated with little oversight. And until Congress elected not to renew the Patriot Act this summer—under the gathering pressure created by Edward Snowden’s leaks—we were still intensively collecting without warrant the private communications of millions of American citizens. At home as well as abroad, the privileges of “security” are often invoked to violate the civil liberties and human rights of American citizens, and this is true not only in the context of national security but also under the guise of local policing.

Is there any alternative? Is there a way for us to feel “secure” while protecting the dignity and rights of our own citizens and also those men and women living outside our borders? Can we establish a more just and more democratic set of security policies in an age not only of weapons of mass destruction but also of militant extremism? The answer is not clear. When faced with the choice between democracy and our security, politicians will almost always choose what they see as the “lesser evil,” which will often mean curtailing our civil liberties and human rights in the name of our material safety. And as citizens who do not have access to the information and action of our national security bodies, we will always find ourselves struggling to oppose their choices, precisely because they operate beyond the political norms and limits of a liberal democracy. But while we might have to live in the dark permanence of the United States’s national security state, we must at least guard against its breaches of our democratic procedures and principles as well as those against our persons. And perhaps the first step in doing so is to insist that our politicians begin to look beyond the stark binaries created by a sense of permanent emergency. We may never obtain Kant’s vision of perpetual peace, but we can at least let go of perpetual war.


David Marcus is co-editor of Dissent. A version of this article was originally published in Le Monde.

To read Dissent’s fiftieth-anniversary symposium on the moral and political implications of the bombing of Hiroshima, which includes one of the last published essays by political theorist John Rawls, click here.



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