During World War II, Gen. Leslie Groves supervised hundreds of exceptional people in a vast operation to create a conflict-ending weapon. Secretly, this concentration of nuclear scientists and technologists built the first atom bomb. Secretly, they tested it in the New Mexico desert. Secretly, President Truman, who had only just found out about the project, authorized the use of two such bombs against Japan. Secretly, the Army Air Force carried out the mission and destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Secrecy in wartime was one thing, but should it persist in peacetime? Almost at once, the Truman administration decided that it should, and a mania for classification set in. As the Cold War began, Truman and his successors created new secret organizations to advise them and to gather information covertly. They worked out ways to bypass congressional oversight. The National Security Council, the CIA, the expanded nuclear-weapons program—all were shrouded in secrecy. Political status accrued to anyone with authority to read classified documents. Those denied clearance became outsiders and lost credibility.

Garry Wills has opposed concentrated executive power and secrecy ever since the late 1960s, when he witnessed their abuse by Presidents Johnson and Nixon. In Bomb Power, he describes the rise of executive secrecy over the last 70 years, tracing its origins back to the Manhattan Project. He shows how the constant assertion of threats to national security has distorted the balance of powers specified in the Constitution.

Executive secrecy is, in this account, entirely malevolent because it encourages presidential recklessness and undermines the trust in citizens that democracy requires. Recent examples include the second Bush administration’s use of rendition, torture, and warrantless wiretapping, and the Obama administration’s decision, after early murmurs of dissent, to carry on with all of these policies. Recent abuses of power are just the tip of the iceberg. Wills describes an astonishing succession of presidential initiatives, all of which excluded Congress, concentrated power in the White House, and deceived voters. He describes Truman’s commitment of forces to war in Korea without congressional authorization, President Eisenhower’s secret operations in the 1950s to overthrow regimes in Iran and Guatemala and kill their leaders, President Kennedy’s plots to assassinate Fidel Castro and invade Cuba, President Johnson’s unilateral plunge into Vietnam, President Nixon’s “secret bombing” of Cambodia, President Reagan’s covert dealings with Iran and the Contras in express violation of the law, and many more.

These ventures, he argues, would have been bad enough if they had succeeded. But in most cases they didn’t. Insiders to the world of secrecy loved the idea that they had access to special high-quality knowledge, but as often as not they were the victims of wishful thinking, gulled by confidence tricksters and fake experts. Before the Bay of Pigs disaster, for instance, Cuba itself and the Cuban community in Miami were alive with gossip about the forthcoming “secret” invasion. A New York Times journalist in Miami even wrote a story about it. His editor checked with bureau chief James Reston, who told him to suppress it for reasons relating to government secrecy. Then the fiasco took place. Ironically, running the story might have shown the planners that they were living in a fools’ paradise and prompted them to call off the mission. More recently, President Bush and a tight circle of advisers accepted the false claims of Ahmad Chalabi that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that an American invasion of Iraq would be easy and popular. By circumventing the agencies that normally evaluated raw intelligence data, and by selecting a source they found ideologically congenial, they misled themselves into war and then fought it under false pretenses.

Besides concentrating power in the executive and provoking immense blunders, says Wills, government has often used secrecy to cover up embarrassing incidents. In 1948, for example, an Air Force plane crashed during the testing phase of a guided-missile system, killing five servicemen and four civilians. The civilians’ widows sued the Air Force for compensation, but it refused to turn over its report of the crash, citing national security and the need for secrecy. The Supreme Court upheld the Air Force in an important case, United States v. Reynolds et al (1953), which has been cited extensively to justify subsequent extensions of executive secrecy. In 2000, however, the daughter of one of the casualties finally managed to read the report (declassified in 1996), only to discover that no secret equipment had been on board the plane and that disclosure would have had no national-security implications. “Instead, the report told a horror story of incompetence, neglect, bungling, and tragic error” relating to the plane itself, which was unfit to fly. Wills adds, “This story was disgraceful to the Air Force, and that, not national security, explains the hard determination of the government not to let the story come out.” Did the Supreme Court revise its opinion in light of this revelation? No. Reviewing the case in 2003, in the wake of 9/11, the Rehnquist Court denied the writ of coram nobis that could have nullified the earlier decision.

To read Bomb Power is to feel a rising sense of indignation. Wills, a skilful rhetorician, knows how to guide the reader’s emotions toward his conclusion: the United States has been turned into what the Founding Fathers would have called a tyranny. Concentrated arbitrary power wielded from an all-powerful center and undermining citizens’ rights, often in secret, beyond accountability, makes nonsense of the idea of government by the people, for the people. What makes the indictment particularly effective is Wills’s evenhandedness. He’s not condemning Republican presidents and letting Democrats off the hook; neither is he condemning the Democrats and offering us the GOP as a consoling alternative. He calls down a plague on both houses and scolds a wide array of intellectual and political apologists for the accumulation of secret executive power. How did he reach the vantage from which to make such a sweeping denunciation?

Wills, born in 1934, intended to become a Jesuit priest. After a stint at the new conservative magazine National Review in the late 1950s, however, he left the seminary, married, and went to Yale for graduate school in the classics. After a few years in academia, his rising reputation as a journalist gained him a full-time job at Esquire. An ardent Barry Goldwaterite in 1964, he started to have second thoughts about race, poverty, and anti-communism as he covered the riots and antiwar demonstrations of the mid- and late 1960s. He sympathized with the sufferings of inner-city African-Americans, met Black Panther leaders, went to Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968, and witnessed the riots in Miami and Chicago during that year’s political conventions. When his book about Richard Nixon came out in 1970, he was added to the White House “enemies list.” His old National Review cronies denounced him for abandoning the movement.

Despite the condemnations, Wills never became a liberal or radical. He always regarded liberalism as philosophically incoherent. Rather, he began to consider neglected elements of the conservative heritage, a process he describes in Confessions of a Conservative (1979). He realized that nothing in the history of the world has been less conservative than capitalism, a system that requires a constant knocking over of the old and taking a chance on the new and untested. He also came to believe, as he wrote in Confessions, that “conservatives are bound to accept the concept of ‘historic guilt’ for racial wrongs, since those who glory in inherited values and traditions must admit accountability for historic wrongs.” He then offered an ingenious conservative defense of affirmative action to remedy these traditional wrongs, at a time when most movement conservatives condemned it.

What was the fount of this unusual conservatism? In part, it was the long tradition of Catholic teaching, to which he remained loyal despite frequent writings about papal dishonesty and Church scandals. Also in part, it was the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. In “The Convenient State,” a superb essay published before his 30th birthday, Wills had argued that the accumulated political wisdom of the ancients, the Catholic Church, and the Anglo-American people was more fully embodied in the Constitution and the Federalist than anywhere else. These documents were, he argued, more realistic about human nature, about the human propensity to be corrupted by power, and about the need for conciliation, compromise, and peace than any other source in the history of political philosophy. They drew on hard practical experience and avoided the abstract theorizing of the French Enlightenment.

After writing “The Convenient State,” Wills returned frequently to the Revolutionary era, with Inventing America (1978) on Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, Explaining America (1981) on Madison and the Federalist, and Cincinnatus (1984) on George Washington. Together these studies create a panorama of the intellectual world of 18th-century America. He shows that the Founders looked backward to the accumulated political wisdom of experience, remembered the fate of other republics in history, and were decidedly tradition-oriented for a band of revolutionaries. Meanwhile, Wills continued to write on contemporary politics, with books on Presidents Nixon (Nixon Agonistes, 1970), Kennedy (The Kennedy Imprisonment, 1982), and Reagan (Reagan’s America, 1987). No other author of our times has mastered both 18th- and 20th-century American history so thoroughly or brought them into such close contact, using the Founders’ standards to judge the moderns.

Wills is a skilful reader of texts with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of English usage. Entire chapters of his Revolutionary-era books are devoted to single words and their changing usage. When necessary, Wills can use these skills to devastating effect. In Bomb Power, for example, he shreds the flimsy historical argument made by John Yoo, the Bush administration lawyer who argued that the president can take the country to war on his sole initiative. Yoo argued that in the 18th century, the word “declare” meant merely to publicize something that was already happening, so that the Constitution, when it specified that Congress has the right to declare war, was not being given the right to decide whether or not the nation should fight. Wills offers an impromptu seminar on the history of the word “declare” that makes Yoo’s arguments appear pathetically threadbare.

Yoo was also the lawyer who wrote a memorandum in 2002 seeking to justify the torturing of prisoners by waterboarding. The U.S. anti-torture statute specifies that interrogation becomes torture if it is “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” Yoo argues that if the interrogator’s primary intention is to extract information from a suspect and that the inflicting of severe pain is merely a by-product, then he “lacks the requisite intent” to be convicted of torture “even if … [he] … knows that severe pain will result from his actions.” Wills retorts that this kind of “philological hocus-pocus” in practice permits the interrogators always to deny that they are torturers merely by claiming that the severe harm was incidental to their quest for information.

The pleasure of reading Garry Wills comes from his ability always to find something new and stimulating to say on apparently exhausted topics; he rarely settles for the conventional wisdom on any issue. It’s tempting, once you’ve grown up, to have a stock response to every situation and to enjoy knowing what you think about the chronic political questions that are never settled once and for all. Wills won’t let you rest in your convictions, and no matter what your place on the political spectrum he’s forever throwing out little nuggets of unsettling wisdom to make you doubt your own complacency.

Bomb Power arrives at an interesting moment. The new president’s honeymoon has ended, and he can’t make Congress pass his legislation. Each party has stymied the other. As you read Wills, there might well be a nagging voice at the back of your head saying, “It’s hard enough getting anything done as it is—do we really want to reduce presidential power and give more authority to Congress? Surely that’s just a recipe for absolute deadlock.” Or if you’re a foreign-policy hawk, the voice is probably saying, “Times have changed, and the secret powers are essential now in view of the unprecedented threats we face.” Wills would probably answer something like this: “Times change, but human nature doesn’t. Power corrupted in the 1780s, and it still corrupts today. The Founders were willing to accept a certain amount of inefficiency because it was a price worth paying to forestall tyranny.” On the foreign policy question he might say, “How can we possibly know how severe the threats facing us are today, when so much of the vital information necessary to evaluate them is withheld from the public, when government sometimes finds it useful to manufacture scares, and when threats can sometimes be a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy?”

Wills offers no consolation or hope. The last time the federal government surrendered powers and voluntarily shrank itself was in the 1920s. There was plenty to be scared about in the world then, too, not least the rising dictatorships of Mussolini and Stalin, with Hitler just around the corner. But somehow the will to scale back government still existed, and the balance of power between state and federal governments still bore some resemblance to the Founders’ ideal. The shrinkage ended with the Great Depression, after which the growth of executive power has never stopped. President Reagan said he would be a government-shrinker, but when it came to the point, he wasn’t. He just kept adding to the volume, the executive reach, and the secrecy.

Think about Bomb Power next time you are sitting in an airport departure lounge. In the background, you will hear the canned voice over and over declaring that today, “the threat level is at orange.” It’s been at orange for years now. Ordinary travelers aren’t allowed to know why. Are plotters being foiled? If so, the foiling is taking place in secret. But if the “threat level” is still orange, there must be lots more plotters. Should you feel scared, or should you feel grateful to the secret agencies for keeping you safe? Is it possible to feel gratitude to someone or something you are not allowed to know about, even though you have paid for it? And doesn’t the thought occasionally cross your mind that this everlasting orange is as much a matter of bureaucratic convenience for somebody, somewhere, as it is an accurate description of real dangers facing real people from real enemies?


Patrick Allitt is a professor of history at Emory University. He is author of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History and Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985.

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