Pulitzer Prize winner Wills (What the Gospels Meant, 2008, etc.) traces a vast distortion of the Constitution and the origins of the national-security state to the product and process of the Manhattan Project.
In 1942, Gen. Leslie Groves headed the atomic-bomb program, a mission so clandestine even Vice President Truman didn’t know it existed. The atomic bomb was something altogether new. In the mix of unconstrained authority, hidden money and absolute secrecy that attended its creation, the author detects the blueprint for a redefined, outsized presidency and the institutions and policies of the national-security state. With the bomb central to the country’s military policy, Wills argues, Americans have grown dangerously accustomed to lodging “the fate of the world” in one man’s hands. This cedes to the president war-making power that properly belongs to Congress, foreclosing any debate over White House decision-making as enfeebling the president, “too dangerous” in a nuclear world. Accordingly, presidents from Truman to George W. Bush, without informing Congress or the American people, have used executive orders, the theory of the unitary executive and the vast national-security apparatus to concentrate their power. Relying on a series of seminal speeches, memos, articles and orders, Wills explains just how the instruments for permanent war in peace were assembled. He cites a number of national humiliations—the Bay of Pigs, the secret Cambodian bombing, the Pentagon Papers, Iran-Contra, etc.—to show that presidents, regardless of party, have been permitted too much unchecked authority, bomb power, handed them by Groves and the scientists at Los Alamos. With the cult of the Commander in Chief has come the expansion of state secrets, making accountability doubly difficult. Elaborate classification and clearance systems, in place ostensibly for security reasons, have become instead a cover for government embarrassment, deception, even crime, and often cripple policy by keeping important information from knowledgeable critics.
As usual with Wills, provocatively argued and elegantly written.