cover image Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

Garry Wills, . . Penguin Press, $27.95 (278pp) ISBN 978-1-59420-240-7

The demands of nuclear weapons policy have poisoned the American polity, according to this unfocused jeremiad. Historian Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg ) argues that the project of deploying and defending against nuclear weapons transformed America into a “national security state” mired in permanent semi-emergency, with swollen military forces, unaccountable spy agencies, a Byzantine apparatus of state secrecy, and an empire of overseas bases. Worse, he writes, the aura of “bomb power” that presidents gleaned from their prerogative to initiate nuclear holocaust made the presidency into an “American monarch[y]” that sneers at constitutional restraints. Wills's is a provocative and at times insightful analysis of how presidential status and mystique hypertrophied alongside the military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, it's a rickety framework for his scattershot account of foreign and security policy in the nuclear age, which meanders from the Manhattan Project to George Bush's “war on terror” to gay marriage. It's often hard to see the connections he insinuates between nuclear obsessions and misdeeds like the 1954 CIA-organized coup in Guatemala. Wills's conception of “bomb power” is a weak explanatory principle for this sketchy take on post-war American history. (Feb.)