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"Bomb Power," or How the Atomic Bomb Ended a War, Increased Presidential Power and Eroded the Constitution

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For those who feel the Iraq war was -- oops -- an arbitrary decision, shrouded in secrecy, by the president in 2003, you can trace its origins back to the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan in 1945. While that bomb ended World War II, it also started a chain reaction that exploded into America's permanent secret security state -- with emphasis on the word 'permanent.' Not a good thing according Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills in his compelling history of Bomb Power, The Modern Presidency and the National Security State.

It began as The Manhattan Project, a one-time secret operation with several facilities scattered around the country. The mission: build a bomb, win the war, go home. They accomplished everything except the 'go home' part. At war's end, the government expanded the operation into The Atomic Energy Commission with a mandate to build and STOCKPILE lots of nuclear weapons. And, like all self-fertilizing bureaucracies, the operation began to -- you'll pardon the expression -- mushroom into a massive cloud of covert nuclear activity. By the mid-1950s our government was employing 142,000 people in 20 sites around the country with a capital investment that EXCEEDED the combined capitalization of U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, Alcoa, DuPont, Goodyear and General Motors. The word 'massive' comes to mind.

Over the years, every president since has grown that original model into a 24/7 apparatus that covertly operates on a global geo-political scale. Given the permanently threatening and scary world around us, it seems a reasonable, if malodorous consequence. Well, no, warns Wills. It's actually more like a deeply troubling predicament that erodes our fundamental constitutional principals.

Here's how Wills lays it out: covert actions over the years by our presidents have created a significant imbalance in our quaint idea about three CO-EQUAL branches of government. The A-bomb project begat increased presidential power which begat secret operations which became permanent systems set up by executive orders with absolutely zero constitutional authority - and zero accountability. Accountability, writes Wills, is the essence of democracy. If people do not know what their government is doing, they cannot be truly self-governing. The national security state assumes that government secrets are too important to be shared and only those in the know can see classified information. And only the president has all the facts. So, we, the people, must simply trust that our presidents are acting in our best interests. And therein lies the rub.

According to Wills's research, presidents have sent troops into battle without congressional authorization over 200 times including the undeclared wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.

Here is President Eisenhower, not the benign, smiling, golfer Ike, but a sometimes ruthless leader who successfully has his CIA eliminate various unacceptable heads of state like the Congo's elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, and the leaders of Guatemala and Iran -- where he puts the Shah into power which leads to the downfall of Jimmy Carter.

Not to be outdone, Wills reminds us about President Kennedy's secret authorization to overthrow Vietnam's Diem government, and his administration's attempt to 86 Cuba's Castro which leads to Castro's Russian missiles which gives us the Cuban Missile Crisis which brings the world to the brink of WW III.

Then, there's Lyndon Johnson and his whole Gulf of Tonkin war fabrication, Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia and the Reagan administration's covert Iran-Contra black ops that becomes a huge nationally televised black oops.

Wills' major concern in Bomb Power is the odious rise that he sees of the so-called 'unitary executive' concept first created by Ronald Reagan's Attorney General, Edwin Meese and nailed tight by Vice President, Dick Cheney.

A swell bit of bureaucratese, 'unitary executive' simply means the president RULES because the president has the final authority over Congress. Think 'signing statements' which allows the chief executive to change the meaning of Congress's duly enacted laws. Then there's Cheney who, writes Wills, instructed David Addington to have the Justice Dept. rule that the president, alone, has ALL AUTHORITY OVER WAR -- which is exactly opposite of the constitutional grant that gives that authority to Congress. The founding fathers did fear a monarchy so there was a move in Philadelphia to diffuse the presidency with an executive counsel, a three-headed leadership chosen from three different parts of the country. But, in their infinite wisdom, they settled on our single executive system because a single executive would certainly be held more accountable. Oops.

If you have a choice between the print/digital or audio version of Bomb Power, this is one of the few times when the eyes (288 pages) beats the ears edition (7 hrs, 48 min). Narrator Stephen Hoye's unctuous delivery is out-of-sync with the material.