Has modern warfare given US presidents too much power?
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What Bush had wrought by 2008, according to Wills, began with the Manhattan Project, which Franklin D. Roosevelt set in motion in 1939. The atomic bomb was pursued under the assumptions that Germany was madly working on it, too (its less ambitious program began to peter out in 1942) and that it would be dropped in Europe. But the Nazis were defeated months before the bomb was ready. The Manhattan Project entailed unprecedented secrecy and was conducted way off the books. Vice President Harry Truman, the man who would order the bomb to be used on Japan, only learned of its existence upon Roosevelt’s death.Skip to next paragraph
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Presidents ever since, Wills maintains, have reasoned that what was good for making the bomb could be applied to other endeavors, like the Central Intelligence Agency and its covert activities. The author cites an accounting by a New York Times reporter that America has overthrown 114 governments in the past 100 years, among them Iran and Guatemala (Eisenhower), South Vietnam (Kennedy), Grenada (Reagan), Panama and Haiti (George H.W. Bush), and Iraq and Afghanistan (George W. Bush).
The book also documents the way that secrecy required for legitimate national security purposes can metastasize to cover up governmental incompetence or malfeasance. President Nixon kept Americans in the dark about his secret bombing of Cambodia for political, rather than military, reasons; the Cambodians knew all about it the minute the first one exploded.
And what Americans don’t know can hurt them, according to Wills, who argues that President Kennedy was so obsessed with bumping off Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs fiasco that secret, bungled assassination attempts induced the Cuban leader to seek missiles from the Soviets to deter America. Wills goes so far as to assert that the Cuban Missile Crisis, and our brush with thermonuclear war, was all Kennedy’s fault.
While his book sometimes seems like a never-ending op-ed piece, Wills knows how to marshal his arguments, usually grounding them in the factual record. The reader also learns delectable tidbits of historical information throughout. For example, by the mid-1950s the United States had already built more bombs than it could ever use, the equivalent in destructive power of 192,000 Hiroshimas. Among other side effects, the effort consumed 6.2 percent of the nation’s electrical power.
David Holahan is a freelance writer based in East Haddam, Conn.