Long Live the King

Bomb Power; the Modern Presidency and the National Security State, Garry Wills, 2009

A tight history of the Presidency since WWII as the American constitutional form of government was transformed, according to Wills, into an unconstitutional Monarchy that would have been the envy of England’s King George III, against whom America rebelled.

He puts the origin of this transformation in the Manhattan project that created the Bomb. The realities of the nuclear era meant the need for instant decision making in the event of a nuclear attack. Instant decisions can only be made by a single individual, not a committee or a congress, and that individual must necessarily be the President. Will argues that this single reality transformed the Presidency and led to all the other unprecedented changes in peacetime American democracy, secrecy, and the activities that must be kept secret from the public including assassination, overthrow of governments, bombing of peaceful countries (Cambodia and Laos among others), special rendition, torture, surveillance of ordinary citizens, etc.

Groves and Oppenheimer

He begins with an extensive review of the organization of the ultra secret Manhattan Project directed by Gen. Leslie Richard Groves (played by Paul Newman in the film Fat Man and Little Boy). Groves had access to virtually unlimited resources with his AAA priority, including all the leading scientists in the country. He existed outside the military reporting structure and no one in that structure was allowed to even know what he was doing. He created his own air force complete with secret military bases. His three central facilities at Hanford (Plutonium enrichment), Oak Ridge (Uranium enrichment), and Los Alamos, (where the scientists were housed and where the bomb was created and assembled), covered thousands of acres each, and employed hundreds of thousands of workers, yet only a handful of people outside the facilities knew of their existence. Grove’s only restraints were imposed by his chief scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who needed an environment in which the scientists could collaborate and live in a suitable environment. This project, according to Wills, laid the foundations for the modern security state and the imperial presidency. Its primary legacy, of course, was the Bomb.

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James Forrestal with Truman <> <> <> <> <> <> George Kennan

Truman gets harsh treatment here. Almost all the secret apparatus of government post WWII was created under Truman. Truman and his administration, particularly George Kennan and James Forrestal, pioneered the use of fear tactics, overstating the Soviet threat, to push through changes expanding the military and powers of the President. W was to use the same tactics after the attack of 9/11. The Presidency since WWII perfected the state of permanent emergency. After the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the cold war many thought the state of perpetual emergency had ended. W and his administration cynically used the attacks of 9/11 to recreate this state of perpetual emergency telling us we must be in constant fear of future terrorist attacks and that only the powerful President can protect us.

A strange thing about this history which probably reflects the reality of the times is the absence of attention to China and its communist takeover. The focus was totally on the Soviet threat, even when massive Chinese troops poured across the border into Korea. Ironically, the insistence of the US that Taiwan represented China on the UN Security Council and the consequence boycott of the Council by the Soviets was what allowed Truman to get the UN resolution passed by the Council that he used to justify, unconstitutionally, the Korean war.

Korea was not a UN “police action.” It was not even a UN war. It was an American war, a President’s war, Truman’s war. And Truman found out what others would learn after him, that presidential wars may be easy to start, but they are almost impossible to end.

Korea was only the first in a long line of Presidential Wars, of which we are currently engaged in two simultaneously. The last war declared by Congress was WWII.

Wills spends a lot of time on secrets, mere possession of which is a source of power and authority. He quotes Max Weber:

Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret…The concept of the “official secret” is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude.

The problem with intelligence secrecy is that it excludes information of the real experts who are not members of the intelligence priesthood. McNamara later admitted that the administration knew very little about Vietnam as they made their decisions. Obama is repeating the same mistake in Afghanistan. The real experts are outside the sacred priesthood. We previously reviewed an excellent account of secrecy in the CIA who missed virtually every important world event since its inception.

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Bobby and Jack “Let’s Kill Fidel”

Will also spends much time demonstrating that the primary purpose of secrecy and secret classification has been to cover up government malfeasance and embarrassment, to cover up incompetence more often than illegal activity. Unless documents are destroyed as in the case of the CIA experiments with LSD, the secrets are usually revealed 50 or 60 years after the fact. Thus historians are getting their first looks at the top secret military plans for reacting to a nuclear attack. FUBAR doesn’t begin to describe the incoherent and inconsistent mess they are finding. This may keep historians busy, but it does little to stop illegal activities or reveal incompetence in time to correct things. The need for secrecy is always justified by the need for national security, hence Will’s “national security state”, as a state of secrets, a government conducted in the shadows.

Henry “Hit Man” Kissinger

After the Watergate and other Nixon excesses, there was Congressional push back with increased congressional oversight and a weak attempt to regain a share of war-making authority which is under the constitution the sole responsibility of Congress. Congress passed the the War Powers Resolution, CIA oversight, and constituted the FISA court of authorize surveillance. The administrations pushed right back. According to Kissinger:

It is an act of insanity and national humiliation to have a law prohibiting the president from ordering assassination.


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W Issues Signing Statement “The Law is what I say it is.”

Push back is now instantaneous, as when W simply issued a “signing statement” that he would not enforce the McCain Anti-Torture provision, even as he signed it into law. Take that Congress!

All this executive power is hard to resist as Dick Cheney (aka Darth Vader) proved on 9/11 when, without consulting W, he unilaterally (his favorite word) assumed the powers of the President and ordered the military to shoot down a civilian aircraft UA 93. There was never an inquiry into this action.

Will sites a study by Steven Kinzer, who counted 114 cases where the US denied a country the right to choose its own government. Some involved direct and indirect American assassinations. Kinzer says the long term results of these interventions were usually damaging to the US. Virtually every President since Truman with the sole exception of Jimmy Carter was responsible for these interventions. In each case the people in the countries involved knew exactly what was happening and who was behind it. The secrecy was only for the benefit of the American public.

Where is the real Leon?

He ends on a really bright note. The Obama administration has already demonstrated an unwillingness to give up the powers accumulated by past administrations. This includes continuing special rendition and interrogations. The powers just seem to swallow everyone who assume the office. An insider, commenting on the transformation of CIA’s Leon Panetta; “Its like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

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