Bomb Power: A Review of Garry Wills Newest Book
By Richard Girard
Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State is Garry Wills' latest contribution to America's broader knowledge of itself and the world at large. As always with one of Professor Wills' books, it is wonderfully well written, and nicely researched. If his viewpoint has a conservative--and by conservative I mean a good, old-fashioned Robert Taft conservative--bent to it, Professor Wills' does not depend on misinformation to make his point. In this book, his initial thesis is that our modern National Security State arose out of the Manhattan Project, and the aftermath of dropping the atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War.
I disagree with Professor Wills' selection of a starting point. I think the real start was the corporate-military complex that arose out of the Spanish-American War and the Annexation of Hawaii in 1898. This is where I believe the Monroe Doctrine went from being a Protectionist ideal to an Imperialist policy.
Suddenly we discovered we were landing Marines all over the place: from the Boxer Rebellion, to interventions primarily aimed at protecting American commercial interests in Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Morocco, China, and the rest of the world. This became a very regular occurrence in the first half of the Twentieth Century, up until the start of the Second World War. (I would suggest reading Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler's monograph War is a Racket, as a start for more information on this phenomenon.)
Professor Wills begins his book discussing the obsessive (if necessary) secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project during the Second World War, and how that fetish for secrecy spilled over into the postwar era. Suddenly, the tags of "Confidential," "Secret," and "Top Secret" were appearing all over documents of the fledgling National Security State, many of which did not deserve such an imprimatur. It is a practice that, unfortunately, continues to this day.
He then looks at the blow-back that resulted from the excesses of "Wild Bill" Donovan and his Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the clandestine war against the Axis. Quentin Tarentino exaggerated the degree that the OSS was out of control in his movie Inglorious Bastards, but only by perhaps one or two orders of magnitude. By the time the war ended in September 1945, it was obvious that the OSS was much better at being an outfit of shoot-'em up, bomb throwing cowboys, than they were at the covert gathering and analysis of secret information. The movie The Good Shepherd probably offers a better view of the disease of violent expediency that permeates so much of the world of intelligence.
Because of their excesses, the OSS as an organization was officially disbanded immediately following the Second World War. What Professor Wills then does is an excellent job of following its clandestine survival for the next two years, until it was reconstituted as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by the National Security Act in 1947. "Wild Bill" Donovan worked very hard to keep his carefully constituted nucleus of Ivy League thugs together in the interim.
Nineteen-forty-seven was the seminal year in both the Cold War and the establishment of the National Security State. By the end of that year, most of the major pieces for the Soviet-American Cold War were in place. Only a nuclear armed Soviet Union and a Communist China were lacking.
Unfortunately, this year included the beginnings of an increasingly unrestrained Executive Branch, and the dominance of the Presidency and the President's cabinet; first in foreign, and then in domestic affairs. This was most clearly evidenced by the Federal Government's increasing reliance on the use of the term "National Security," whenever one of its agencies was caught taking part in any illegal or morally questionable operation.
Professor Wills's contention--with which I agree--is that much of this lack of restraint on the part of the Executive Branch was a direct result of the introduction of nuclear weapons into the equation of our constitutionally limited, democratically representative republic. Civilian control was--just barely--maintained over America's growing nuclear arsenal, preventing the de facto creation of a fourth branch of government.
But the psychological pressures inherent in the control of the world's biggest club, has proven too much (so far) for the maintenance of truly co-equal branches as imagined by the Framers. Increasingly, the President is seen--quite wrongly Professor Wills adds--as something like an elected monarch by the American people, through his role as Commander-in Chief. There are too many Americans who believe that to oppose a President's policy is tantamount to sedition, or even treason.
This fact has enabled the American government to suppress disagreement with its policies, both at home and abroad, by simply stating that it is "in the interest of National Security" for the last sixty years. In fact (although Professor Wills does not mention this in his book), some European and Canadian historians argue that NATO was formed as much to put a brake on United States pretensions of hegemony in Western Europe, as it was to counter the Soviet military threat from Eastern Europe.
The idea of America's overbearing pretension was brought into sharp focus in 1948, with our interference in the national elections in Italy. The Truman administration applied pressure on the Italians to outlaw the Communist Party before the elections. When that did not work, millions of dollars were covertly given to non-Communist leftist factions and anti-Communist political parties, in a successful effort to minimize Communist participation in a coalition government.
This unfortunately was also the opening curtain on an American policy to oppose or depose foreign governments and political parties whose make up was not to our liking, a policy that continues to this very day (e.g., the 2009 ouster of the President of Honduras). One hundred-and-fourteen times, beginning with Mossadegh in Iran, the United States has been responsible for the murder, attempted murder, or overthrow of a foreign leader in the last sixty years. (See Greg Kintzer's book, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq; 2007) Like so many postwar intelligence actions, the actions the CIA undertook against these governments and political parties, were illegal under the Agency's charter, not to mention the laws of the United States.
And so, we come back to secrecy.