Garry Wills on the Creation of the National Security State

Here is a transcript of a talk delivered by Garry Wills, journalist and historian, at The Commonwealth Club of California on February 11, 2010, in San Francisco. The remarks draw from his book “Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State” (2010), an examination of how nuclear weapons have altered American democracy. In the book, Wills takes to task both major political parties in the U.S. for a substantial shift since 1945 in the balance of federal power – to him, an unsettling shift toward the executive branch.

Wills is informed, bold, and controversial, in keeping with the best tradition of the public intellectual (Bertrand Russell, William F. Buckley, Henry Steele Commager, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., etc.). A positive review of “Bomb Power” from The New York Times Book Review can be found here; a mixed review from the Washington Post is here.

Here is background on Wills.

Wills’ remarks at The Commonwealth Club were unscripted; they have been lightly edited here for clarity. The talk was part of the club’s “U.S. Constitution in the 21st Century” series underwritten by the Charles Geschke Family.

Here is a list of this Website’s articles on the Cold War.

Wills begins his remarks with background on the Manhattan Project, the crash effort of the U.S. government to build an atomic bomb during the Second World War. – H.F. 


The Manhattan Project was miraculous. Many of the people involved in it doubted that an atomic bomb could be built. And especially built in the short time that the President of the United States was asking them to build it. In order to do it, extraordinary powers were given to those in charge of the project. Illegal powers, throughout.

The project was entirely outside the cognizance of Congress. The money was not authorized by Congress, it was channeled through fake conduits through money laundering. The chain of command of the military was bypassed. General Leslie Groves, who was in charge of it – his superiors in the military didn’t even know what he was doing. It was so secret that most of the people at Los Alamos, in that tight little community, severely guarded and spied upon by the director, didn’t know what they were doing. I have a friend who was a girl at Los Alamos, seven and eight years old, growing up there. I said, “Did you know what your father” – a famous physicist – “was doing?” She said, “No.” “Did your mother know?” “No.” Even the people who were living there with the physicists didn’t know. Local workers who were brought in to do various kinds of maintenance, construction, the yard work, and that kind of thing, didn’t know.

There were three concentric circles at Los Alamos, patrolled by Jeep and horseback, 24 hours a day. In the innermost circle, only the top physicists could go inside. And they had to speak in code, so when they went outside, they wouldn’t tell what they were talking about. They never used the word “bomb,” they used the word “gadget.” They never called themselves physicists. They had come there under assumed names. They were told, if they came from the same university campus, to go to different cities to make their flight arrangements so nobody would know that there was this influx of physicists from one place. They could not get driver’s licenses; they could not vote because they had fake names. It’s extraordinary – they exploded a test of the Bomb at Alamogordo, and nobody knew! Sen. Truman, who was running a very energetic investigation of federal expenditures, didn’t know. When he became vice president he didn’t know. When he became president, for several days he didn’t know. Only then was he informed. It was that controlled and secret.

The director, Leslie Groves, had almost dictatorial power. He spied on everybody within the organization and he spied on people outside the project. He spied on foreigners. He sent a man to assassinate Werner Heisenberg in Europe because he thought (Heisenberg) had atomic information that the Germans could use. He had his own private air force. He took planes off the production line – all of this was done through various ruses – and trained pilots – he even reconfigured the planes to drop the Bomb, which was bigger than would go through the ordinary bomb bay. He had secret air force bases. He had Tinian Island to fly them from, toward Japan. He flew to Japan, with various dummy Bombs, the same size and weight, before the real Bombs went there. And dropped them, to think about atmospheric conditions, and the operation of the bomb bays, and the operation of the bomb sites, and that kind of thing.

All of this was done in total secrecy. Now, there were some internal spies, who let the Russians know some of what was going on. They were acting, most of them, on what they considered patriotic grounds, because Russia was our ally at the time. But the Germans never caught on. Nor did the Japanese.

Now, all of that was illegal. And normally in a war-time situation, you get illegal operations. The emergency of the times brings emergency powers. Suspension of habeas corpus in the Civil War; interning of Japanese Americans in World War II – but at the end of the war there’s a return to the Constitutional order in most cases. The Supreme Court said after the Civil War that suspending habeas corpus was unconstitutional. It happened; it’s sad that it happened; but it was a war-time necessity, people thought. The same with the Japanese internment during World War II. But after World War II, there was no attempt to repudiate all of the illegalities of the Manhattan Project. Because we were happy that it had worked. President Truman called it the “greatest thing in history.” And we were determined to imitate its methods – its secrecy, even its attempt to assassinate foreign leaders – and the dictatorial control that Leslie Groves had over the project. After the war we went into an emergency of a new kind, the Cold War. We didn’t relax. We didn’t demobilize. We didn’t re-convert, as after most wars. We went from one emergency to another, from World War II to the Cold War and then eventually to the War on Terror. And presidential powers were granted very similar to those that Leslie Groves had had.

For instance, the Atomic Energy Act said that the President of the United States, for the first time in our history, could initiate war on his own without consulting anyone. The Constitution says Congress shall have power to declare war. That was obliterated. In an instant. And the rationale was this: that we’re now in the nuclear era; if another nation gets the Bomb and attacks us, there will not be time to talk about it. Either to anticipate or to retaliate. There must be an instantaneous reaction. And that can’t be trusted to Congressional committees or even to the Cabinet, or even to outside experts who might be consulted – one man can do it. The president. First time. Totally outside the Constitution.

Now as I say, there was a certain rationale for that at the outset. But when President Truman decided to go into the Korean War, Secretary of State Dean Acheson said to him, “This is not a nuclear war. Your sole prerogative to initiate war is not technically at issue, but we do not want your sole prerogative to be challenged in any way – so go into Korea on your own initiative and don’t consult Congress in any way.” Truman did (this). From that time on, there’s been no Congressional declaration of war. The president has initiated war in various ways, sometimes consulting Congress in an informal way, but there’s been no Congressional declaration of war. And after the War Powers Act, even that was not followed.

Not only did the president have a new power to initiate war on his own, something no president had had before, he was given a whole series of instruments to protect, develop, and deploy the Bomb.

The people who took over from Leslie Groves said, “Our Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs are primitive. They’re clumsy. They’re hard to deploy. They’re huge. We can make more destructive bombs which are more deployable, and we will put them up in the Strategic Air Command and so forth, but we’ve got to have a very strict secrecy around them as we did with the Manhattan Project.” And so new instruments were created. The National Security Council. The National Security Agency. The Central Intelligence Agency. All of them operating under tremendous rules of classification of secrets, and clearance of only selected people to know what was going on. We created the Strategic Air Command to have planes flying the bombs around the world; we wanted to have bases where they could land safely and refuel and be repaired, so we started creating a secret empire of sites which would be safe for us to deploy our bomb power. And then of course we had nuclear submarines, with nuclear weapons. And then we had missiles. And we wanted to have missile sites, before we had intercontinental missiles; so we had Turkey, for instance, as a site of missiles. And there were missile sites all around the world. All cloaked in secrecy. Very few Americans knew either the extent or the location of all of these sites. Only the president, presiding over this national security state that had been created for him, knew what this was all about.

Well, that changed the way we looked upon the president. The president began to seem the warmaster. When the Constitution was drawn up, we were very proud of the fact that there was civilian control of the military, that we were not going to have a man on horseback, somebody like the people in Latin America who were generals and also rulers of the country. But now, more and more, we began to think of the president as our commander in chief. Commander in chief was initially a rather modest title. It came from the British. It meant that when admirals of the British Navy, the most powerful force in the world at the time, were in various theaters of the ocean, they might have conflicting authority. They were all admirals. And so Parliament said, “Well, Admiral So-and-So will be commander in chief, for this theater, for this campaign.” He was an admiral before, he’d be an admiral after, “commander in chief” didn’t change that, it just meant that in that period of action, the others had to defer to him.

When George Washington was sent to Boston in the Revolution, there were militia generals, there were other conflicting authorities, and the Continental Congress said, “You will be the commander in chief of all the forces of whatever colonies.” And when the Constitution was drawn up, it said that the president will be commander in chief of the military. They thought that meant at war. Because they were not conceiving that there would be a standing army in peacetime. He would be commander in chief of the militias of the states when they were called into federal service. Which Congress was supposed to do. So the president is not even the commander in chief of the National Guard, the descendant of the militias, unless they are federalized. And he’s certainly not the commander in chief of civilians. But when I wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times saying, “Whatever else he is constitutionally, the President of the United States is not my commander in chief,” I got the most extraordinary mail. Saying, “If he’s not your commander in chief, you’re NOT AN AMERICAN. Get out of this country!”

Not only is he (perceived today as) our commander in chief – when the president now gets off the helicopter or Air Force One, he’s saluted. By Marines. And he salutes back. Why is that? The military procedure is that you salute the uniform. A general out of uniform is not saluted. You only salute an officer superior to you who’s in uniform. The president’s not in uniform. Why do they salute them? Well! He’s our commander in chief! But he’s not a military officer. That was proved in a court case. After the death of George Washington, part of his estate, part of his holdings was in the state of New York. And heirs to him there said, “In Duchess County of New York, military veterans get tax exemption. So George Washington’s heirs should get tax exemption.” It went to court and the court decided, “Yes, he was a military man, when the Continental Congress commissioned him, and paid him, and pensioned him. But that was before the existence of the United States.” Which came into existence with the Constitution of the United States. Under the Constitution he was not a military officer, he was a president. And a president is not a military post. He does not get military pay. He does not get a military pension. He can’t be court-martialed as all military officers can. He can only be impeached, which is a civilian offense. So, he’s a civilian, not a military man. It was part of the genius of the Constitution that we would have civilian control of the military. A civilian as head of the military. We’ve forgotten that. We now treat him as a military officer and salute him. That’s recent. It’s since Reagan’s time. And once you start these things, you can never stop. If Obama stops saluting, he would instantly be called not an American. I was called not an American simply for saying he’s not my commander in chief. It’s like the way the president commits troops in the field; once they’re there, it’s very hard, almost impossible, for Congress to cut off funds. Because they’re accused of being unpatriotic or treasonous.

So this power of the presidency, and the bastioning of it with a vast outwork of secrecy, and a secret empire of outposts around the world, originally established to service the Bomb, has continued to grow in extraordinary ways. And in this case, they are, like Gen. Groves in the Manhattan Project, outside the Congressional and political process, and outside the military chain of command. And the proof of that is this. (The federal government has in place a line of Constitutional succession to the presidency.) But the people in the Reagan White House said, “That’s not good enough. Let’s suppose the devolution of presidential authority goes to the speaker of the house. He or she is not equipped to launch nuclear war.” (Launching nuclear war) is a very complicated process. It’s made deliberately complicated so that accidents won’t happen; there are all kinds of procedural checks and counter-checks. And in any case, with every launching you have to re-target and re-navigate what’s going to happen according to the attack that’s anticipated or occurring. So the Reagan Administration set up a procedure of their own. Outside public knowledge entirely. Outside Congress. Outside the Constitution. They had members of the White House staff, and the Cabinet, called up, and said, “Leave your home tonight, and go to (a secret) location. Do not tell your wife; do not tell anyone.” And Rumsfeld and Cheney were among the people who were instructed to do that, and they did it. And when they went to the undisclosed location, they set up a nuclear attack force. And were instructed in the procedures. So that if anything happened, they would run the war. Not the people who were constitutionally authorized to do that. And not anybody in the military chain of command. And that continued, secretly, without the Congress or the public knowing.

And the astonishing thing is that it was put into practice. When the attack occurred on the Twin Towers, Dick Cheney, still in the White House but now the vice president rather than a staff member, was there, and the president was flying around somewhere, and Cheney was informed by intelligence agencies that there were other terrorist planes up there with new targets besides the Twin Towers. He thought “planes” – plural. Not the one that went down. And he authorized the scrambling of jets to shoot them down. Without asking the president. His attitude was, “We’ve gotta stop them before they reach the target, I don’t have time even to ask the president.” Scooter Libby, standing at his elbow, said, “He did not hesitate more than a batter hesitates when he sees the pitch coming toward him.” Libby said that to praise Cheney. His decisiveness. And the 9/11 Commission verified that although Cheney called the president right after he gave the order, he didn’t talk to him before he gave it. It was what he had been trained to do. In those exercises. To respond to nuclear war. Of course, this was not a nuclear attack – it was a bad attack, but it was not a nuclear attack. He acted outside the Constitution, outside the Congress, outside the military chain of command, outside the president. That’s how far we’ve gone in our institutionalization of the same procedures that were used in the Manhattan Project for a very contained purpose. And now has spread out throughout the executive. It’s quite scary.

Thank you.

Questions From the Audience

Q. Hasn’t the extension of presidential powers actually been quite successful, if you look back at the Cold War, and the efforts to defend the United States? You may criticize what has happened, and deplore it, but hasn’t it actually been successful in achieving what it aimed to do?

A. What was that?

Q. To provide for the defense of the United States.

A. Well, could it have been done without the deceptions and the evasions of the Constitution? You would have to prove that to me for me to say “It doesn’t matter.” You’re saying, in effect, “All right, we scrapped the Constitution, who cares? It worked.” That was the defense of the Manhattan Project. And now that’s being extended to the whole thing. Could we not have prevailed against the Soviet Union without the national security state? With all this secrecy and classification? I don’t think that that’s proved. After all, other countries did not set up a national security state. Britain when it came out of the war, and it was more involved than we were, and more endangered than we were, was so happy to demobilize that they threw out Churchill. And went exceedingly pacific at the time.

Now, it’s true that there are certain parts of the national security state that are useful. And were meant to be useful and should have been useful. Secrecy, after all, does have a rationale. The point of secrecy is to keep information from an enemy. If you’re going to invade Europe you don’t tell them where and when D-Day is going to occur. But once D-Day has occurred, the secret’s out, and you forget about it. Now we keep secrets forever. For the whole point of keeping secrets. And the aim is not to deceive an enemy, but to deceive the Congress or the people or the press. My favorite example of that is a “Doonesbury” strip, I liked so much I asked Garry Trudeau to give me the original of it, and it hangs on my wall. He has his character Fred go to Cambodia. And Fred looks around at a flattened country, and a ruined house, and a couple standing in front of the bombed-out house. And he says, “This is an historic site! This is the locale of the secret bombing of Cambodia!” And the man in front of the house says, “Well, it was not really a secret. I said to Martha, ‘There are the bombs.'” It was not secret from them. It was secret from the Congress. Because Nixon did not want Congress to know he was invading a new country. He had started a new war with a new country without Congressional authorization. And he was using funds that Congress had authorized for Vietnam in a different place. And it worked. Secrecy does work. But it mainly works to deceive ourselves, not the enemy. And especially secrecy when it is extended (to) classification of almost everything, and the exclusion of almost everyone who doesn’t have clearance. There are many examples of that I can go into, but I’ll entertain another question first.

Go Here for a Review of “Secrets” by Daniel Ellsberg

Go Here for Description of a Key Book on the History of
U.S. Government Secrecy

Q. John Yoo spoke here recently and argued that the Constitution does permit the expansion of presidential authority, to allow enhanced interrogation techniques. What is your view of John Yoo’s theory of the Constitution?

A. I discuss it at length in “Bomb Power.” It is so laughable, that the fact that Dick Cheney and David Addington adopted it, and told the president to adopt it, is a national disgrace. John Yoo said that the president can not only initiate war – remember the Atomic Energy Act allowed him to initiate nuclear war, then the president went on to initiate other wars, which were not even in the Atomic Energy Act – but Yoo says, “Not only can the president initiate war, only the president can.” The obvious objection (to that idea) is that the Constitution says “Congress shall declare war.” Yoo said, “Well, we know what ‘declare’ means. We found out from Samuel Johnson, in his 18th century dictionary – it means ‘publicize.'” Now, it’s true that that’s one meaning that Johnson gives. But it’s not the legal meaning that’s in many, many other documents. In his original book on war powers, (Johnson is) the only authority Yoo gives. Not a legal authority. “Declare” in every legal context meant “authorize.” Think to yourself – when a minister says, “I now declare you man and wife,” is he saying, “I’m publicizing the fact that you’re sleeping together”? That’s the level of argument he used! It’s disgraceful! I’m ashamed even to think that he’s a law professor at Berkeley when he makes arguments of that absurdity.

Q. How far in your view has the subverting of the Constitution gone? Is it in the power of an individual president to change things?

A. Extremely good question. It’s very difficult. We know that certain presidents, to a certain degree, have tried to reverse this. Jimmy Carter did. President Clinton for instance started a massive declassification program which Bush immediately reversed, and reclassified to a greater degree than before. We know that the War Powers Act was a Congressional attempt to rein in the usurpations of the presidency. And it was not very successful. It hasn’t been observed since. We know that the Church Committee found out about CIA assassinations and tried to rein in the CIA and it was not very successful; so much so that Sen. Moynihan had to resign his position on the Intelligence Committee out of protest at the fact that the CIA was continuing to lie to Congress and continuing to carry on sabotage of foreign governments. So it’s very difficult for a president. President Obama came in promising that he was going to be against many of these things. Against extraordinary rendition, or military tribunals, or holding prisoners without legal representation, or signing statements, or a whole series of things. But he has backed off on almost of them. CIA nominee Leon Panetta went before the Congress and said, “Well, we might have to consider detention as a tool, down the road. And we have had the idea that we’ll put some people up for civil trial, but we have to think military tribunals will be used also.” On torture Obama has said, “We’re against torture, we won’t do it again, but we’re not going to investigate it, and we’re not going to publicize (its past use).” I don’t know if you read the newspaper today, the New York Times, that we have told the British they can’t publicize the torturing of prisoners who end up in their courts because Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We won’t have free exchange of secret information with you if you reveal torture incidents.” Well, you know, we need foreign intelligence to fight terrorism. To say we’ll cut it off is to cut off our nose to spite our face.

Why is the president backtracking? Why did he issue signing statements? I don’t know President Obama, I’ve met him at the White House, but I don’t know him and I’m not a mind reader, but I can imagine the pressures on a president. When he comes in, he finds out all kinds of things he didn’t know. Where our secret bases are. What are the procedures that were built up over a long time. And I imagine that people in the CIA and other areas come to him and say, “Well, be careful now. Don’t tear down what it took us years to build up. You may need us down the road. And don’t demoralize our people. And don’t turn our assets against us.” We have so-called “assets” from all these operations – we’ve got more contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq now than we have military people. And they know a lot of secrets that they can blab. And so the pressures on him to control this kind of secret empire are very great. The CIA can be a deadly enemy to a president. When the Church Committee called for information on foreign assassinations, William Colby, who was then the director, turned them over, and he was denounced by his own people as a traitor, that he should not have turned over the information to Congress. That the Congress had no right to it. The CIA owned it and the president owned it. When Richard Helms testified before Congress about what he had done as the director, he lied to Congress, and he was praised as a hero. So, this is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster – once you create it, it can turn on you, very easily. And that can be very intimidating to a president. So can a president buck it? It would be very hard.

Q. How then could, in your view, this shift in the balance of power towards the executive be addressed? In your book you conclude on what read to me like a rather somber not-very-optimistic note, where you said some of us think the Constitution, though quaint – (a word) used ironically – remains absolutely vital, but you don’t offer the reader a reason for being hopeful or a way to act.

A. I say the odds are against us. But fighting against the odds is what makes us human. I quote Cyrano: “One doesn’t fight only to win.” And it will be hard. There are certain developments – the end of the Cold War, and the fact that we have bungled so badly in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – that make it possible to see some sort of redress. The only immediately steps I can think of is to go to the few people in Congress who have shown spine, and celebrate them and support them and promote them, in an attempt to shame others. I think for instance of Al Franken, who has just gone to Congress. He introduced a bill that said, “We now know that there were contractors in Iraq raping American women soldiers. Congress should say there will be no more money to those contractors.” When he said that, he was attacked! (People said), “You’re crippling the war effort. You’re hurting our troops. You’re doing all these things.” But he kept at his guns and the bill is going forward. There are very few people like that, but when we get them, we should hug them to us. And say, “Finally, we’ve got somebody standing up for us.”

Q. Do you think there’s a role for citizen groups in this? Or do you think the way to work is through Congress instead, in a sense, as the institution that has lost power to the executive?

A. I think there is room for citizen groups, because action from the bottom up has worked in domestic affairs. On the rights of women. On the rights of labor unions. On the rights of Native Americans. On the rights of the gays. On the rights of the handicapped. All of those started out with the odds against them, and agitation and the effort to get champions in Congress and in local government and state legislatures and in municipal councils – that has worked. It’s worked spectacularly. There has never been a time in history – our history or anybody else’s history – when the rights of human beings were better recognized than in the last few decades of our history. That hasn’t extended to foreign affairs, because most Americans are not very good at foreign affairs. Not very interested. When I travel to Europe every year I read the newspapers abroad. They’re full of foreign information. When I come back home, there are things going on, investigations going on, foreign insurgencies going on, and they’re not anywhere in the New York Times. And I’ve asked, when I’m abroad, “Why do you think that is?” And they say, “Well, we’re all involved in the world. For one thing, we’ve all been colonial powers. Uncle George served in India. So we know about that. And they were considered to be part of our governmental problem and process.” America was isolated for a long time. We were protected by our insulation, two oceans buffering us on both sides. And there was not that same kind of intimate involvement with the rest of the world. I suppose that’s one reason why we have not caught up to the same kind of pressure we could put that we put on domestic issues. But more and more, especially as terrorism becomes the problem, I think that we may wake up to those possibilities.

Q. In your book you present the Manhattan Project as a kind of original sin. The question I have is, President Obama has embraced the idea of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Admittedly not probably in his lifetime. Do you think the elimination of nuclear weapons would remove the consequences that followed from the Manhattan Project, or are those much more widespread now?

A. They are entrenched. They certainly are entrenched. It would be very hard. But that would be the beginning, obviously. It would break the tyranny of secrecy. The big secret was the Bomb, and the big secret that was kept out through these agencies was always connected with the Bomb. It may be utopian to say that the way to get rid of bomb power is to get rid of the Bomb, but I should remind you that Paul Nitze, who was a champion of the Bomb all his life, toward the end of his life said, “It’s not protecting us at all. It’s endangering us. We should get rid of it.” Certainly we should get rid of the hydrogen bomb. We should never have invented it and we shouldn’t have it. Oppenheimer said of it, “This is many, many, many times more powerful than Hiroshima. It’s unusable except with deliberate intention to commit genocide.” And of course he was vilified, and extruded from the atomic community for saying that. But that’s a start.

President Eisenhower tried to restrict the use of the atom. President Kennedy restricted testing. There have been various efforts and they are commendable and should be extended. When one problem disappears, say, the Soviet Union – (Russian nuclear weapons) didn’t disappear but (they’re) less menacing – others arise, obviously. Nuclear proliferation, and the problem of policing that, or restraining that. So, yeah, the effort to continue reducing the nuclear risk is always worth doing. It’s always difficult, and it gets more difficult as more people get the Bomb. You know that, at the outset, there were people who said, “We’ve got to restrict the spread of the Bomb.” And they came up with various plans. Oppenheimer and others said, “A universal patrol of the sources of uranium would be the way to go.” And that proposal was put together to put before the UN, and Bernard Baruch, who went there, didn’t follow that. He said, “No, we should have the right to investigate everybody’s nuclear production possibilities.” And Russia of course said, “We’re not going to have people poking around in our industrial capacity.” So they vetoed that. If it had had any chance of passage, Bernard Baruch shot it down. And Oppenheimer said at that time, “We’re done for.”

Q. Should the United States have dropped the Bomb on Japan?

A. Very good question. I think not. The rationale that was come up with, later, is that if we had not dropped the Bomb, we would have had to invade Japan, and (the effort) would have taken tremendous casualties. The strategic bombing survey used thousands of experts to go to Japan and study that question. They concluded that ability to resist in Japan had been fatally defeated. General Eisenhower and General MacArthur said invasion is not necessary; continue the blockade and continue the firebombings, we’ve brought them to their knees at this point. Their economy was wrecked, their communications and logistics for supplies were wrecked; the will to fight was wrecked. The strategic bombing survey said they had all – many of them had been displaced – Curtis LeMay, in a ruthless campaign – he said, “Their houses are all of wood and paper. All we have to do is firebomb them, and it will create a firestorm which will race through the city and destroy it.” And it did. In fact, when it came time to drop the atom bombs, Truman was told, “We have to find a virgin city, we have to find a city that has not been destroyed by the firebombs, because otherwise, we won’t demonstrate how powerful this bomb is. If there’s competing destruction, it won’t work.” Which also goes against the idea, some had said, that we dropped the Bomb on strategically important targets. Nonsense. We’d been going after the strategically important targets with our firebombs. So, the idea that you had to drop it without an invasion is I think false.

Why did they drop it. Because they had to. Their attitude was, we built it to drop it. The idea – some people say, “We should have dropped it on Hiroshima and decided whether Japan was going to surrender at that point. And then dropped it on Nagasaki.” That was never the question. Truman authorized the dropping of both bombs at the same time. And Oppenheimer wanted him to drop them on the same day on two cities to make it clear how destructive they were. And Leslie Groves said, “No, we can’t do that, because we aren’t totally sure how effective it’s going to be.” The Trinity test was under very controlled conditions, it was on the ground, in a tower, with total control over atmospheric conditions, no problem of flying and anti-aircraft fire and bomb bay and bomb site malfunctions. So Groves said, “We’ve got to drop it in the first place to see if there are any problems that we can rectify when you drop the second one.” So they were always going to do that. And the aim was to – Oppenheimer said, “If we show how destructive it is, it will never be used again. People will be horrified at it.” That was the aim. They wanted it to be horrifying.

There was another motive. If they considered – some of the people said, “Oh, we’re going to have to invade, and it will cost a lot.” Well, the people who said that were people like Leslie Groves. They wanted to justify using the Bomb. Their attitude was, if there is an invasion, or even if there’s significant casualties, after we have the Bomb, and don’t use it, the American people will be so upset – especially, say, relatives of people who were killed, if not by invasion, by kamikaze planes hitting battleships or whatever – they’ll say, “My son, or husband, or brother, died and you could have prevented it by dropping this weapon that you created? After all, we gave you the money – we didn’t know we were giving it to you – but we did. And you drained off all this talent” – our top intellectuals went into this at a time when there was a great demand for intellectuals to do all kinds of other war projects – bomb sights, and radar, and diffusion artillery, and all kinds of other things. “And you used all that manpower, and all that money, all that breaking of the law, and you didn’t use it?!” It was very conceivable to them that the president would be impeached and Groves would be court-martialed. That we had made this bomb and didn’t use it. And President Truman said, in the Korean War, “It’s a weapon. We made it. We can use it. That’s what weapons are for.”

Q. The Bomb has not been used in warfare since August, 1945. Have we been lucky? Is there some deeper reason? And do you take any comfort from that fact?

A. Well, there is a nuclear stand-off. And there should be. (Use of the Bomb has been) considered, at times. The most overt consideration of it occurred during the Korean War when MacArthur foolishly pushed too far and was thrown back in a tremendous rout. The biggest retreat in the history of America. And there was a call to use the Bomb. And Truman publicly said, “I could turn the bomb over to MacArthur for use in Korea.” There was such an outcry – the British sent an immediate embassy, saying, “It’s bad enough that YOU control it; you’re going to turn control of the Bomb over to MACARTHUR?” Dean Acheson had to take Truman through a whole complicated series of withdrawals in which he kept the right to use it himself but said, “Of course, we will not turn that right over to other people.” When China first got its nuclear capacity there was a call from some people to take out the Chinese bomb. But in general there was mutual assured destruction. We were afraid to use it for fear that Russia had something just as bad and could use it against us. So it hasn’t been used. But the idea that you have to keep it ready for use with all of these deployment mechanisms and all this secrecy and all these agencies has not only been maintained but has grown. And as I say, the hydrogen bomb increased the stakes, and increased the necessity for secrecy, and protection of our capacity. The capacity has always been there and has always been considered vital. Luckily it hasn’t been used and I hope it never will be, but it’s dangerous simply to own these things. Because accidents can happen. Near-accidents have happened. Submarines with nuclear weapons can go down in the sea and be brought up by enemies. Terrorists can come across nuclear weapons that are being traded around the world. It’s an evil thing to exist. Once we have it, we probably can’t get rid of it easily, but we’re right to be scared of using it.

Q. Given the influence of the military – industrial complex of the national security state, can that actually lead to the U.S. becoming a failed state in some sense?

A. In what way?

Q. It so undermines the Constitution, it so emphasizes the priorities of military power and security, that other aspects of public life and public policy get neglected.

A. Well, we can limp on with a crippled Constitution for a very long time. The proof of that, as I say, the Constitution is surviving very well in things like domestic human rights. Probably what we have to fear more is economic failure. That we are spending foolishly around the world. And neglecting the fact that our dependence on oil is crippling; our use of our military is backfiring. Consider: President Obama said, “I’m not against war, I’m against dumb war.” Well Afghanistan is a very, very dumb war. We’re throwing all that manpower and money and womanpower and materiel into a country that is unstable and corrupt and based on a narcotic economy. There’s no way we’re going to build a secure base even for ourselves much less for them. Our military is over-extended. You have multiple deployments. You have the National Guard being used for purposes it was never originally intended for. You have our equipment being ground down. Joseph Stiglitz is very good on simply the costs of what we’ve done to our tanks and planes and artillery. How long can we go on doing that? It’s a dumb war because terrorism is a crime, not a country. It metastasized. It’s all around. It crosses border. It has to be sought down in its separate cells by the use of excellent intelligence by ourselves and our friends, and targeted actions against the terrorists. Terrorism now gets launched out of London! That’s not going to be affected really by invading Afghanistan. So I think that the drain on our economy, and the oil dependence, and the fact that we keep having to fight to maintain our oil dependence on the Middle East – all those factors may be more eventually destructive of us than the fact that we have ignored the Constitution.

Q. A question about Israel, which has never admitted that it has the Bomb. What do you think of this as a tactic for its security?

A. It keeps its secrets all right. But not really – we all know they have the Bomb! It’s hard to compare our national security state with other countries. Because they don’t have the United States Constitution. They may be democracies but they’re quite different democracies. England for instance doesn’t have a First Amendment. And it’s very hard to judge. Some of the countries that are getting the Bomb are autocracies. North Korea, or Iran if it gets it. So Israel’s strategy is based on the fact that it’s a small country surrounded by big countries, big enemies. And its only recompense is the outsized-force of the atom. By the way, that’s the same calculus that Fidel Castro made (in 1962). Fidel Castro initially didn’t want to accept the missiles onto his island because why would he want that to be the center of a nuclear conflict when that whole island would disappear in the blink of an eye? It would evaporate if there were nuclear war. So the idea that Cuba would launch a nuclear war, and instantly die, makes no sense. Why did Castro accept the missiles? It’s because he knew what the American people didn’t know – it’s again, secrets are kept not from the enemy but from us – he knew that Operation Mongoose and other things were trying to assassinate him, sabotage his crops, mine his harbors – all of this was going on at Bobby Kennedy’s urgent, urgent insistence. And Castro rightly thought, “The military is using these things, hoping that I will respond in some way that will justify an invasion of my island by this great big superpower on top of us.” And he thought, “The only way I can prevent that is to accept these missiles.” President Kennedy got up and said, “There is no conceivable defensive reason for these missiles. None at all. They only exist there for an offensive purpose, to invade us.” That made no sense. If they invaded us, they’d disappear! In a minute! They WERE there for a defensive purpose – they were there to deter an invasion. So President Kennedy was lying to us. As happens with our presidents constantly under the regime of secrecy. He didn’t fool Fidel Castro. And he didn’t fool Khruschev. They knew why the missiles were there. But if you’re in the position of Fidel Castro, there’s not much you can do as a small country against a big country except get the atom. And of course that’s the position of Israel.

Q. Do you think, then, the temptation for other small states too, like North Korea –

A. Absolutely. After all, we invaded Iraq because they didn’t have the Bomb. We have not invaded other countries that are threatening to us because they do have the Bomb.

Q. A rather broad final question. The context of your book is the period since World War II, and the impact of bomb power on the Constitution, crippling the Constitution, as you put it. How do you view this in terms of the whole history of the Constitution – do you think there may be a pendulum swing, or do you think the institutions of the national security state will persist in a way that will continue to cripple the Constitution? Or do you think that the greater involvement of the U.S. in the world also presents challenges for reverting to a more equal balance of power between the branches of government?

A. Well, that’s true, more interdependence, more globalization, more technology, all of those things certainly do affect the position of the executive in the world and at home. When you talk about a swing back and forth – there have been swings back and forth in presidential power. Before World War II you had weak presidents and strong presidents; you had Jackson, and (you had) many nonentities; but we have never had a systematic denial of the right of Congress to declare war, for instance. We’ve had no declaration of war since the 1940s; we had many before then – 1812, Mexico, Civil War, World War I, World War II – they were all declarations of war. And the presidents, even the strong presidents, didn’t try to deny that Constitutional situation. So there were pendulum swings back and forth within a certain restricted arc before then. But there has not been anything like that since then. We went from commonplace declaration of war to no declaration of war. From some varying degree of executive secrecy to constantly growing, never-reversed executive secrecy over the last half-century. So I don’t think that – people who say “Oh, presidents have grasped at power before, why is this different?” Boy, is it different.