Saturday, April 02, 2011

Garry Wills: Bomb Power

A year ago I went to hear Garry Wills give his talk about "Bomb Power." Wills is, I'm thinking, one of those "public intellectuals" that we need more of. In this book, Wills traces the development the National Security State beginning with the creation of nuclear weapons, through 9/11, up till the Obama Administration. Ever since the Manhattan Project and WWII (1946), the President has had sole possession of the "football." The football, Wills explains, is "'the button' that would launch atomic weapons." Even will running for office, candidates have to prove that they are capable of holding onto this football By Themselves. Because only the president holds the football, or the power to launch nuclear war/destroy the world, the US government has suffered a serious breach: constitutional checks/balances have been broken. The president has become the "Commander in Chief," a position and title not given to him by the Constitution except when the country is nationalized. Only Congress can call militias, and the President does not have power over civilians. But with the shift in perception that occurred with the Manhattan Project, Americans gave an immense amount of power to the Chief Executive: "The President's permanent alert meant our permanent Submission"

Wills describes the creation of the bomb in a way pushed me closer to conspiracy theories than I've ever been. On the other hand, it also helped me understand the state of the country post-9/11: I'm about to say something that I never thought I would say. George W Bush and his henchman (or boss) Dick Cheney didn't create the Scary State we live in: they built on a pre-existing condition. The bomb was created under military auspices, which allowed vast amounts of money to be poured into the project with no governmental oversight- sometimes literally one person would know what money was going where. Military sites were set up to create the bomb, scientists were hired and housed, and justifications were created for what was going on. Los Alamos was such a completely sustaining entity that it was described as "a separate state, with its own airplanes and its own factories and [most importantly] its thousands of secrets."

Only later did the President know what was happening in regards to building the football. Only after that did The People know what was happening. The glue that held the bomb together was Secrecy. The military suddenly had a weapon to use against the people of its own country: State Secrets. When the president was holding a football and the power to know when to throw it, he must be practically omniscient, which required knowing all kinds of secrets. The flip side of this, the trick, was that the enemies of the state had to know about these secrets, or they were worthless. (Imagine the Cold War without the China or Russia knowing what the US was supposedly building up. Pointless.) Documents were hidden from the average Joe, and even from Congress and the Courts, but were common knowledge to enemy countries.

After WWII and the immense secrecy around the creation, housing, and using of the bomb could have gone away, or at least lessen, with some kind of global agreement about nuclear weapons. "'Conversion,'" Wills writes, "after a way never means reversion to the status quo ante. Conditions have been altered by the progress of the war. Going off of a war footing involves incorporating some of the new possibilities opened up by the war itself." But this new peace was based on weapons, and because it could be ended at any time by the Commander in Chief, the United States was now plunged into a state of perpetual emergency. In order to keep the bomb at the ready, the US had to make "friends" all over the world to have spots to launch the weapon. This has lead to the US becoming "involved" in relationships of various degrees of shadiness with governments of various degrees of acceptability over the last 50+ years. Regimes where bases were housed had to be propped up, and spy networks maintained: "support of the free world" is another way of saying "supporting the bomb."

And all of this happened as President after President veered further and further away from the Constitution and accumulated more and more power. George Bush didn't create this, he just exploited it. (I can't believe I just reiterated this.) There is nothing in the Constitution that should allow the President to carry the football (or the baseball). In fact, if he dies in some kind of nuclear attack, a line of succession was created in 1947, but it is not the one that is publicized. It's so secret, that no one knows who has the power of the bomb after the Commander in Chief. So when (then Vice President) Cheney went into hiding after 9/11 and then ordered the final plane to be shot down, he was jumping a chain of command that no one knew who might have the power to stop him (like Congress) knew about, and "the military chain of command was never considered." Instead, a civilian took charge over an act of war, very much outside of the Constitution. Because of the bomb, "An elaborately constructed set of institutions enforces the idea that anything executive agencies do is justified in the name of national security. The bomb instilled a structure of fear."

We are all living in this structure, and Wills has the balls to deconstruct it. We do not have to take our unconstitutional government for granted. On the other hand, we should not have false hope that new administrations will bring change. Obama's administration, as of the publishing of Wills' book, has continued right along the trajectory set since WWII: he has not declassified documents or closed down Guantanamo (read about Obama's promises). He has continued the use of signing statements- a way for the President to make an end-run around the fact that it is not his job to make laws. He's been in no rush to declassify anything (which may have something to do with the emergence of WikiLeaks).

I leave you with this disturbing tidbit from Wills:
The United States maintains an estimated one thousand military bases [b]in other countries[/b]. [emphasis mine] I say "estimated" because the exact number, location, and size of the bases are either partly or entirely cloaked in secrecy, among other things to protect nuclear installations. The secrecy involved is such that during the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy did not even know, at first, that we had nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey.