Feb/Mar 2010

The American Atom

Garry Wills pins down the origins of the imperial presidency in the dark recesses of the Manhattan Project—and explains it all to Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein


One day last November, I spent the morning at Garry Wills's elegant brick home along the main street of Evanston, Illinois, pondering the Promethean scale of presidential power in the atomic age. Wills's startling new book, Bomb Power (Penguin Press, $28), argues that the prototype of the modern president is not Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan. It's General Leslie Groves—the administrator of the Manhattan Project, which Wills says was the inadvertent template for today's secret government and imperial presidency. And his reasoning will scare the hell out of you.

The Manhattan Project was the single most awesome undertaking in the history of the country, occupying some eighty facilities nationwide. Hanford, in Washington State, where project officials collected and prepared the plutonium, employed more than one hundred thousand people. The electromagnetic plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, covered 825 acres. Project administrators also commandeered an entire Pacific island as the staging ground for the fatal atomic-bomb flights. To staff the laboratories at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Groves enjoyed the kind of powers ascribed to Jesus in the Left Behind series: All of a sudden, the greatest scientists in the country and their families would suddenly disappear, Hoovered up into the desert behind a triple ring of fences, "with sentries on horseback or in jeeps patrolling the circuit twenty-four hours a day." Almost nobody was allowed to know what any of it was for, and only one man understood how to master all its parts: Groves, who "carried the whole enterprise in his head."

The power then passed to Harry Truman, who as vice president didn't even know such authority existed, and who as president, Wills maintains, never really had any choice but to vouchsafe America's hegemony in the postwar world by flexing the authority to use the bomb. From him that legacy passed to every new president, with no check or balance whatsoever. "The power over the atom is outside the constitutional order of succession under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, and outside the military chain of command," Wills argues, "a model for the covert activities and overt authority of the government." His conclusion, as awesome as a mushroom cloud itself: "The President's permanent alert meant our permanent submission."

I asked Wills how he came to be gripped by the question of the consequences of "bomb power" for the American constitutional order, and he fell into a reverie. Growing up in small-town Michigan, Wills had a firsthand view of the Manhattan Project's secular Rapture. One of his friends was the daughter of a scientist abruptly conscripted to Los Alamos. "Joan Safford—she was my age. So she was seven when the war began. And her father was commandeered as a scientist. She lived there, and she didn't know what they were doing; her mother didn't know, it was so secret. She was totally cut off from old friends.

"She said," he recalled wistfully, "she missed comic books—all kinds of thing she was used to before they went into the compound."

Back home, young Garry read his own comic books and picked up on what lay behind his school chum's disappearance. The generalized strangeness of the mobilization for total war was seeping into his boyhood diversions and family life with equal force, he recalled: "The war was everywhere. My father was in it, my uncles were in it. All my radio heroes and comic-book heroes started fighting the Germans. The Lone Ranger did, Tarzan did, Sherlock Holmes did. We were told to turn in anybody who was suspect as a Nazi or a Japanese. The secrecy at Los Alamos was just a concentration of the larger secrecy."

Bomb Power builds out the sobering political and legal consequences of that kid's intuition. Methodically, not melodramatically, the book explains how an infernal paradox—that of an unparalleled degree of military force concentrated, by law, into the solitary ambit of the presidency—from a moment when civilization hung in the balance became the logic that governs us sixty-five years later. Bomb Power goes further than many cold-war revisionist histories to argue that the unitary nuclear command codified in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 went on to determine the entire shape of American foreign policy. The infrastructure to support the "Bomb" (a word Wills always capitalizes, as if invoking the Holy Name) kept expanding: By the mid-1950s, he writes, "the nuclear production complex consumed 6.2 percent of total U.S. electrical power." The Strategic Air Command's awesome fleet made the new air force the largest by far of the uniformed services, its nuclear bombers in every airborne on twenty-four-hour alert, flying from bases across the world.

From this, he writes, all else followed: "Our anxiety over nations 'going Communist' was in large part prompted by a fear that this would shrink the area for such bases." And the CIA came, in short order, to try to allay such executive-branch anxieties: "The politics of the host countries would have to be continually checked, to make sure our secrets as well as our weapons were safe." And from there, of course, it was but a small step to the reflexive propping up of dictators: "Obtaining and securely maintaining our bases was considered more important than the moral legitimacy of the regimes granting us such access." None of it could really be overseen by Congress or by anyone else: "Anything that makes a President look weak lessens his authority for the Main Thing," Wills writes, and "makes him less imposing to potential enemies."

So something much more critical, and fundamental, evolved out of the logic of bomb power than mere bases, missiles, and rockets: a kind of unwritten para-Constitution. In Wills's view, Fat Man and Little Boy lie at the root of the abuses associated with the imperial presidency, from the proliferation of executive orders and signing statements to the Promethean self-conception harbored by individual presidents. "Let's . . . hang a few traitors," Wills quotes a speech Truman proposed to give in 1946, about striking railroad workers. Presidents could look back to Los Alamos—an "entire separate state," observed one government official, which "bore no relation to the industrial or social life of the country"—to provide the practical lessons: how to procure awesome secret budgets (scientists were paid with checks drawn on the treasury of the University of California), how to punish political enemies (take away their security clearances), and, as a bonus, how to cover up unpopular, illegal, or just simply embarrassing executive decisions.

Wills's process-oriented account differs strikingly from previous historical arguments about how the cold war took shape. For the right wing, of course, America's global dominance is merely a function of the country's indubitable moral excellence, whatever executive strong-arming is required to secure it. Wills, who long ago exiled himself from William F. Buckley's National Review circle, in part over disgust for its members' plain bloodlust, can only chuckle at that firebreathing policy world now. "My old friend Frank Meyer"—the intellectual architect of modern conservative ideology—"was a Herman Kahn enthusiast," Wills recalled, evoking the bloodless neoconservative advocate of "thinking the unthinkable" in the nuclear age. "He was always saying, you know, 'We've got to learn to use the bomb! We've got it! We've got to make it work for us!'"

What, I asked, of the intellectual left's view of the cold war's origins—which maintains that atomic diplomacy grew organically out of a drive to expand the American continental empire—thereby accounting for Manifest Destiny and the colonial thrust of late-nineteenth-century US diplomacy in a broader explanatory compass? Might that history be complementary to the argument he advances in Bomb Power? "It could be," he answered with a bit of impatience, before doubling down on his elegant core contention: "But I think we're just hostage to the bomb. You know: Once we had it we had to keep it, we had to guard it, we had to deploy it—we had to have this tremendous infrastructure. It's the same way Truman was hostage to the bomb. You know: He couldn't not use it. And that was"—he pauses—"a power that imprisoned us. We were its servant. We had to worship at the altar of the bomb."

If this perspective is blunt, it also elicits some strikingly powerful insights about twentieth-century shifts in the American soul. On the sociology of American elites, for example. "I didn't explore much of the class aspect of this," Wills noted, explaining how a new bomb-born caste of military-industrial aristocrats arose that bore no relationship to the old coordinates of money and social connection. "You get into the upper class by virtue of being in intelligence—military intelligence." You become part of a priesthood by virtue of your initiation into the circle of secrets. "So you get somebody like E. Howard Hunt Hunt"—best known as a ringleader of the Watergate burglars, but during his cold-war career a Where's Waldo figure instrumental in two of the underground government's most dramatic operations, the 1954 overthrow of the Guatemalan government and the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba—"who is Bill Buckley's boss in the CIA." (That was the young aristocrat Buckley's job, in Mexico, before he went on to start National Review.) "In terms of the normal class structure, he would not be in the same circle as Bill."

Wills pointed out that the presidentially directed, extraconstitutional missions that marked Hunt's career bear an unmistakable family resemblance to Los Alamos: "a model," Wills describes it in the book, "for the covert activities and overt authority of the government" that shape our world now, "a seductive model for dealing with Russians as well as Germans, Communists as well as Nazis, terrorists as well as totalitarians," that "would steal quietly across the entire American landscape in the years to come."

I was trying hard not to flatter Garry Wills too much in his living room—he's my hero, and sometimes I feel like my own writing constitutes a (disputatious) footnote to a mere fraction of his own. But I couldn't help but share with him my amazement at how his new book suddenly clarified an aspect of American culture I hadn't even noticed before. (He smiled when I said that.) I had watched on TV, the night before our interview, the 2008 remake of the cold-war-era classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. The movie begins with shadowy government agents showing up at the door of a certain scientist and abducting her, in front of her child, in order to impress her into a massive and literally underground secret project. The dramatic conceit—that the project is fighting off an alien invasion—is not as important as realizing suddenly how the scene seems so eerily familiar. How many movies are there in which government officials, either secretly or in plain sight, simply Rapture up some part of the American population? The verisimilitude of such scenes turns on the notion that American citizens, supposedly the most zealous guardians of individual liberty on earth, will suddenly do whatever the government tells them to do at the first invocation of crisis.

That, Bomb Power argues, is the "fatal miracle" wrought by Groves at Los Alamos: not the technological miracle it set out, successfully, to produce, but the organizational logic that governed its operations. From this vantage, if Groves is the prototype for modern executive power, Dick Cheney is its apotheosis. Even before Wills turns, in his closing chapters, to a capsule history of the Cheney regime's outrages as the latest institutionalization of bomb power's grip, Cheneyism hangs over the story like a suffusing ghost.

Early on in the book comes an account of what would actually happen in the case of an executive decapitation—an extraconstitutional parallel to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, which passes power from an incapacitated president to the vice president, then down through the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate, descending into the ranks of the cabinet and ending with the secretary of education. The real procedure, Wills creatively and convincingly argues, relying on the reporting of James Mann for his 2004 book on the Bush "war cabinet," Rise of the Vulcans, was established in drills "during the Reagan presidency. Former White House chiefs of staff—primarily Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—were told to leave their homes in the middle of the night, telling no one (including their wives) where they were going. They were flown to 'undisclosed locations,' where they worked with White House national security people to set up emergency governments, working on the assumption that the president and vice president had been killed by nuclear attack. Using a cabinet member as their interim 'President,' they spent days with sophisticated communication equipment managing a response to war."

The lesson of all this power shifting in the executive branch is quite stark, in Wills's view. "If the President has the sole authority to launch nation-destroying weapons," he writes on the third page of the book, "he has license to use every other power at his disposal that might safeguard that supreme necessity. If he says he needs other and lesser powers, how can Congress or the courts discern whether he needs them when they have no supervisory role over the basis of the claim he is making?" Cheney, it seems plain, is a man whose entire moral imagination was formed by this "permanent constitutional crisis," as Wills calls it.

From Groves to Cheney and beyond: If by some miracle of diplomacy or Rapture, every last nuclear warhead should disappear from earth, this is what we still would be left with. In Evanston, Wills concluded the interview plaintively: "We're trying to introduce the rule of law into other cultures. How about a little of it in ours?"

Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland (Scribner, 2008).

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