How They Got Their Bloody Way

Antonin Kratochvil/VII
Residents of Basra fleeing the city during the invasion of Iraq, March 30, 2003

Garry Wills does not tell us which came first in the conception of his new book—baffled wonder that American presidents got away with going to war in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Iraq on their own say-so? Or the moment in late 2008 when then Vice President Dick Cheney reminded viewers watching Fox News of the extraordinary authority conceded to American presidents since the invention of the Bomb?

Cheney put his finger on a core truth about the modern presidency. Only the president can order the use of a nuclear weapon on an enemy he identifies, at a moment he chooses, for reasons he finds adequate. This power is not only theoretical; to give it practical effect the president is always accompanied by an aide carrying a briefcase containing the authorization codes without which no American nuclear weapon can be armed for use.

Cheney has a long history as a champion of presidential power. There is not much he thinks a president cannot do, and his attitude is widely shared by modern Republicans, who have given it the dignity of a theory with a name—the unitary executive. But strip away the persiflage, Democrats say, and we’ve seen the unitary executive before. It grants every president what Richard Nixon thought he had—a free hand in any matter where national security was at stake, and he did mean free. “When the president does it,” Nixon explained to aides during the Watergate crisis, “it’s not a crime.”

Democrats didn’t let Nixon get away with it then and they don’t want to let modern Republicans get away with it now. But on the core point that Cheney made to Fox News there is not much argument. The president has been conceded life-and-death authority over use of the Bomb. “He doesn’t have to check with anybody,” said Cheney.

It is Wills who places the emphasis on Cheney’s words. For him, this is the crux. A long book might be written about authority for nuclear use, listing many limits and qualifications, but in the end such a book would go along with Cheney. American presidents, and the leaders of other nations in their turn, acquired immense power at once from the invention of the Bomb, and expanding power later to manage the elaboration of ever-swifter and more accurate delivery systems for it.

It does not stop there. Wills argues that the “world of perpetual emergency” created by the power of the Bomb presses many other authorities on the presidency, of which the most significant is control of information. Restricting knowledge of the development of the Bomb was rule one of the man who managed its invention, General Leslie Groves. He wanted the scientists to “stick to their knitting,” make the gadget work, but let others decide what…

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