by Gary Wills
Penguin Press, 288 pp, $27.95
WE BELIEVE funny things about nuclear weapons. We capitalize “the Bomb” in the same way that we capitalize “God.” We call it the Bomb because, presumably, ours is a monotheistic religion. We associate nuclear weapons with God-like power, with the end of the world and the apocalypse. There was, at first, good reason for this mystification. The first men who saw the Bomb were at once awed and terrified. William Laurence, a reporter for Time brought in to observe the first test (named Trinity), “was an atheist by nature, believing firmly in the inevitability of events. But even Laurence, like others on that hill, sensed he was about to share in a profound religious experience, an event bordering on the supernatural.”
James Chadwick, a British scientist working on the project, described the explosion as “[a] great blinding light lit up the sky and earth as if God himself had appeared among us…there came the report of the explosion, sudden and sharp as if the skies had cracked…a vision from the Book of Revelation.” General Thomas Farrell felt “stunned by what seemed to him the blasphemy of ordinary mortals toying with forces hitherto reserved to the Almighty.” J. Robert Oppenheimer reported that when he saw the giant mushroom cloud he thought of the words of the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
The religious overtones still exist today. We don’t call a nuclear war a “total-total war” or a “super-science war.” We don’t even use the colorful coinage that got Herman Kahn into so much trouble: “wargasm.” We use a phrase that invokes the valley in the Bible that was to be the site of the last battle at the end of days: “Armageddon.”
Our thinking about nuclear weapons is deeply rooted in religion; it is almost wholly apocalyptic. Nostradamus would have immediately understood the way some people talk about nuclear weapons. So to abolish nuclear weapons it will be necessary to find a satisfying replacement for this strange mythology. Abolition would require new beliefs and a new set of terms that change the status of nuclear weapons from demigods to some other kind of figure.
GARY WILLS’S new book—Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State—does just this. His retelling of the nuclear story recasts the weapons in a fundamental way; he remakes the Bomb from the Power of God into the Root of All Evil. His introduction’s first sentences set the theme:
This book has a basic thesis, that the Bomb altered our subsequent history down to its deepest constitutional roots. It redefined the presidency, as in all respects America’s ‘Commander in Chief’ (a term that took on a new and unconstitutional meaning in this period). It fostered an anxiety of continuing crisis, so that society was pervasively militarized. It redefined the government as a National Security State, with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control. It redefined Congress, as an executor of the executive. And it redefined the Supreme Court, as a follower of the follower of the executive. Only one part of the government had the supreme power, the Bomb, and all else must defer to it, for the good of the nation, for the good of the world, for the custody of the future, in a world of perpetual emergency superseding ordinary constitutional restrictions.
Wills is serious when he lays all of the changes and abrogations of constitutional rights at the doorstep of the atomic bomb. “All this grew out of the Manhattan Project,” he says, “out of its product, and even more out of its process. The project’s secret work, secretly funded at the behest of the President, was a model for covert activities and overt authority of the government we now experience.”
The National Security State was formed in and by the Cold War. It was modeled on entities from World War II–the OSS, the Manhattan Project, the wartime FBI, among other things. It was continued and intensified during the war on terror, with even greater secrecy, executive unaccountability, and projects like torture and extraordinary rendition. The whole structure is outside the Constitution. There had been nothing like it before in American history.
Wills retells how this exceptional state was created, and his book charts the growth of the national security state and the undermining of civil liberties that went with it.
At each step of the way, Wills tries to draw connections between the Bomb and the bad things that happened parallel to its emergence. The story begins in 1942 with the inception of the Manhattan project and examines, step by step, the abrogations of our civil liberties, the violations of the Constitution, the unjustifiable secrecy and the illegal acts from that year until the end of the George W. Bush administration. It is a hair-raising tale, some of which is familiar, but some of which is not.
Wills writes in an irresistibly readable style as befits a man who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Lincoln at Gettysburg and who has, among his writing credits, not only a translation of the unbelievably bawdy Roman epigramist Martial, but also a wonderfully smooth and contemporary translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions. And it is one of Bomb Power’s strengths that it is able to concentrate its arguments into clear, concise formulations that seem so irrefutable and obvious that it’s difficult to imagine any effective rejoinder. Here, for instance, is his condemnation of secrecy in government, an argument that is rarely heard today, but that still has extraordinary power:
Accountability is the essence of democracy. If people do not know what their government is doing they cannot be truly self-governing. But the National Security State assumes that government’s secrets are too important to be shared.
In this passage, Wills points to one of modern democracy’s fundamental cruxes: How can democracy work if so much is secret? And how should a state balance the needs of security with the demand of transparency?
WILLS’S BOOK DOESN’T attempt an answer. But he does describe how the Bomb and the emergence of the national security state have helped justify government secrecy over the last fifty years.
One particularly galling episode is the case of United States v. Reynolds et al. In 1948 a U.S. air force bomber crashed during a flight over Georgia. Several civilians were on board. When questions were raised about whether the air force had been at fault in some way–questions that proved to be entirely well-founded (the plane had a history of mechanical failure, crucial heat shields had been left off the engines, there was pilot error, etc. etc.)–the air force asserted that the mission had top secret implications and refused to release any documents about the matter. A case was brought challenging the air force’s assertion of secrecy and it eventually traveled all the way up to the Supreme Court. But there, in 1954, the air force’s assertion of national security was upheld.
United States v. Reynolds is often cited in secrecy trials now and has become a crucial support for arguments that states need to preserve secrets.
In the sixty-two cases between 1977 and 2001 where the government withheld evidence by citing United States v. Reynolds, some courts not only affirmed the decision but broadened its application by a “mosaic theory”: they said that information not directly concerned with national security may be pieced together with other pieces of the “mosaic” to [reveal secret information]. Only government experts, not lay observers or even judges, are qualified to see such technical connections.
But the United States v. Reynolds is based on a fraud. There was no secret mission affecting national security that was connected with that ill-fated flight in 1948. The air force’s assertion of compelling national security concerns—used in order to draw a veil of secrecy over the incident—was entirely specious. It was simply a matter of gross incompetence that the air force was loath to air in public.
In 2000, once these facts had come out, relatives of the civilians who lost their lives on the flight petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn United States v. Reynolds because it was based on a lie. In 2003, the court headed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist refused to hear it.
BOMB POWER is a compelling book with a clear and well-presented thesis. Gathering these many episodes together into a tale with a single arc makes an argument of extraordinary power. And the superb writing keeps the pages turning almost on their own.
On the whole, Wills’s historical judgment is sound; he is fair and does not bend the facts. But on a few occasions, he does push his argument too far. For example, his characterization of Truman’s response to the atomic bombings is overly harsh. He writes about the decision to build the H-bomb: “Truman, who boasted that he never lost a night’s sleep over dropping the first Bomb, was just as cavalier about pushing the [H-bomb] forward.”
While this is technically true—Truman did say in public that he never lost a night’s sleep over dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—calling Truman cavalier is a bit too easy and unfair when one considers both the larger pressures he faced as well as his own struggles as an inexperienced president. And his public reactions to the atomic bombings need to be matched with evidence of other, more equivocal actions. After the first two bombings, Truman cancelled subsequent bombings (before knowing that the Japanese intended to surrender) because, as he said to Vice President Henry Wallace, he couldn’t stand the thought of “killing all those kids.” Perhaps inevitably, in a book with a sweeping theme, the brush can be occasionally too broad.
There is, however, a more problematic aspect to the book. Although the points about the national security state and the ways in which it has undermined and assaulted our constitutional rights are strongly and persuasively put–and I’m completely persuaded about the harm that has been done to the American republic–I’m not persuaded that all this can be laid at the feet of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are monstrous weapons and are capable of killing millions of innocent civilians. But did they really singlehandedly bring about all of the ills related to the national security state?
There have been other democracies in history that have abrogated civil liberties during times of security crisis. Governments in South America, in Asia, and in Greece have all jettisoned democratic processes when they felt deeply threatened. And isn’t it possible to imagine the U.S. government began emphasizing secrecy and concentrating power in the hands of the executive long before the development of nuclear weapons?
This point is inadvertently illustrated by Wills himself. In a chapter dedicated to the year 1947, he captures how many of the institutions of the U.S. national security state came into being. But the Soviet Union did not test its first nuclear weapon until 1949, and it seems a stretch to blame nuclear weapons for the growth of a fear-based national security state during a time in which we weren’t yet afraid of the Russian Bomb. Nuclear weapons and the fear of nuclear war did eventually play a large role in the burgeoning of the national security state, but it was one of many of reasons for its growth. In this way, Wills’s book has at once demystified one myth about nuclear weapons and replaced it with another.
But these are minor complaints about a book that overall compels and persuades and that ought to be put into the hands of every Representative and Senator in Washington. Wills makes an undeniable argument that the national security state has compromised our values and undermined our Constitution. Despite the fact that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the cold war is now over, the kinds of inroads on personal freedoms that Wills describes multiplied considerably during the George W. Bush presidency. The topic that Wills has chosen to contemplate is especially important today.
The balance between national security and the rights of citizens is not always easy to find, but by drawing our attention to this series of encroachments beginning during the cold war, Wills’s book stands as a valuable reminder of the dangers that emerge when governments make security paramount.
Ward Wilson is an independent scholar living in Trenton, N.J. He is currently at work on a book reframing the debate about eliminating nuclear weapons, tentatively titled: An End to Fear–New Realism and Nuclear Weapons. Photo: Nuclear weapon test Romeo on Bikini Atoll (Wikimedia Common / U.S. Department of Energy).