Donald Trump has threatened “Little Rocket Man” with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”—not even seen, presumably, at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. We possess, after all, many more and much better (that is, much worse) explosives than were used by President Truman in 1945, when he incinerated those cities without Congress or the American people knowing we even had them.
The fact that President Trump (“old lunatic”) has a legally absolute power to destroy Kim Jong-un (“short and fat”) over dueling insults is so scary that Senator Edward Markey and Representative Ted Lieu are trying to restrict that absolute power, so that only Congress would have the authority to declare nuclear war. This seems not only reasonable but constitutionally necessary. The Constitution in fact denies the president the power to declare war and reserves it solely to Congress.
More than that, the framers clearly opposed the massing of power in the executive—lest it become the monarchy they had opposed with a revolution. They so feared one-man rule that they entertained the idea of a double executive (based on the ancient Roman consulship) or a legislative council. The single executive was adopted largely because James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued that it would make the president more impeachable (it would be hard to fix responsibility on members of a team or a council). They thought one man would be more accountable—not anticipating post-Constitution developments like “executive privilege,” the “classification” of secrets, and “the unitary executive” that would make him less accountable.
But now that we have traveled so far from constitutional government, what can we do? The atom bomb was born as a secret project of President Franklin Roosevelt, and then deployed by Truman without any but his own authority. Truman did not even know, as vice-president, that Roosevelt was developing this new weapon until he became the chief executive himself and was let in on the secret. Then, after the bombings of Japan were sprung as a surprise on the whole world, presidential authority to keep and use the “Bomb” (soon to be a vast arsenal of hydrogen explosives) was extended undiminished in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.
Ever since, every president carries with him wherever he goes the “football” containing the codes for the immediate arming and launching of obliterative missiles. As Vice President Dick Cheney said of President George W. Bush’s war power in 2008, “He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen [that phrase again]. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call the Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.”
The symbolism of that tremendous power has put the nation on a permanent war footing—so much so that we think and talk about the president as “our commander in chief,” though the Constitution does not give him…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.