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Bomb Power

Has modern warfare given US presidents too much power?

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Bomb Power:
The Modern Presidency and the National Security State
By Garry Wills
The Penguin Press
267 pp., $27.95

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Precious few Americans can recall a time not consumed by crisis, whether the Great Depression, World War II, the cold war, oil and financial shocks, or – now – terrorism and global warming. In the modern 24/7 media age, we also ingest a steady diet of lesser emergencies du jour. Most of us grew up with the concept of “The Button” – the fear that our president may be obliged to push it at any moment, in the time it takes to swat a fly, which would destroy our enemies – and very likely ourselves, as well.

In such a relentlessly scary world, it was inevitable that the powers of the US presidency would grow. After all, how many fingers can fit on the top of a button – surely not 535? In his latest book, Bomb Power, Garry Wills argues persuasively that this concentration of power, and the concomitant expansion and secrecy of our national security state, began with the development of the atom and hydrogen bombs, and found its apogee during the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Our empire, Wills writes, is unlike previous historical examples and has been shaped by the exigencies of the atom and hydrogen bombs, which were deemed crucial to keeping the Soviet Union at bay: “America ... needed secure places and ships carrying nuclear weapons, and secure regimes providing storage facilities and launching pads for our missiles.”

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