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This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. The atomic bomb altered American history down to its deepest constitutional roots, writes my guest, historian Garry Wills. He says the bomb redefined the presidency, expanded executive power, and redefined the government as a national security state with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control.

Garry Wills' new book is called "Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State." The book follows the expansion of executive power through the George W. Bush presidency and examines the early days of the Obama administration. Wills is also the author of "Lincoln at Gettysburg." He's a professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University and is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.

Garry Wills, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How did you start thinking about ways in which the atomic bomb redefined and expanded the powers of the president?

Professor GARRY WILLS (History, Northwestern University): A friend of mine grew up at Los Alamos. She was a girl my age, cut off from her friends, from comic books, from all those things. So I was aware of what a strange operation that was, where people were brought in secretly, took pseudonyms, were cut off from everything, and an amazing secrecy prevailed over 80 locales. You know, Los Alamos was not the only place -Hanford.

GROSS: You should explain what Los Alamos is, for people who dont know the name.

Prof. WILLS: Los Alamos is where they finally put the bomb together. But Hanford and Oakridge where other place where uranium was processed and other processes went on. They had, as I say, 80 various locales working on this huge project with thousands of people involved, and all of the world's leading physicists, except for the ones within the German domain. And they were all brought in secretly. Nobody knew where they were, how they got there. It was amazing that they kept the secret from the ones that they worried about, namely the Germans and the Japanese. They didnt keep it from the Russians because they were our allies, and they had people sympathetic with them at Los Alamos and other places. So there were leaks out, but not to the people that they were really worried about.

GROSS: So you knew a girl who grew up in Los Alamos and was - lived in that kind of secrecy?

Prof. WILLS: That's right. And she didnt know what her father was doing. He was a famous physicist. And she asked her mother later if she knew, and she didnt know. They were so good at keeping the secret. When they had finished the day, they locked up all their papers, they erased all the billboards, they never referred to the bomb. They called it a gadget. They didnt call themselves physicists. It was an extraordinary discipline.

GROSS: Now you make the case in your book "Bomb Power" that Los Alamos, the whole Manhattan Project basically became a model for covert activities in the United States.

Prof. WILLS: That's right. What they had was an autocratic director, General Groves, and he had almost infinite power over these famous people that he had gathered. He spied on them. He ordered them to do this, to do that. He had his own little air force. He had his own intelligence service abroad. He considered assassinations of Native Americans and foreign nationals. It was an extraordinary - it was all secretly funded. The Congress had no idea where all this money was going.

Harry Truman, who was investigating money corruption during World War II, didnt know what was going on. In fact, he became vice president and didnt know what was going on there. He had to be told only when he became president that there was such a thing as the project to develop an atom bomb.

This extraordinary secrecy was unconstitutional, as a lot of war measures are. But in earlier wars - for instance the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, or World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt detained Japanese-Americans - it was recognized that that was a suspension of the Constitution, and it was rectified later. In both cases, the Supreme Court said it had been unconstitutional. But all of the measures that they took at Los Alamos were never declared unconstitutional. In fact, they were adopted. As Groves had been the autocratic director there, the president became the sole, unchecked authority over the use of the atomic bomb for military purposes.

Congress had no say in the matter. The setting up of the CIA, the NSC, the NSA, all of these things were meant to keep the great secret that we had - the atomic bomb - to keep it from the Russians, to develop it, to develop the hydrogen bomb, to set up deployment areas around the world. Originally, there was the Strategic Air Command to keep planes in the air around the clock, every day, 24 hours a day, carrying bombs in case we had to drop them on somebody. Then, of course, we developed atomic submarines and satellites. And all of this immense national security apparatus grew out of the Manhattan Project and took it as its model.

GROSS: So youre saying that every layer of, like, nuclear policy and nuclear war policy added more layers of secrecy that initially, the secrecy around the Manhattan Project was so that the Germans and Japanese wouldnt find out we were making the bomb. Then there was secrecy so that the Russians and the Chinese wouldnt find out how to make a bomb. Then there was secrecy so nobody would know where the bombs were being hidden. Is that what youre saying, that every development required more secrecy?

Prof. WILLS: That's right. And then there was the policing of the Americans themselves: the loyalty programs, the classification of secrets, the security clearance process. So what was a secrecy at Hanford and Oakridge and Los Alamos became a secrecy for whole United States. That was the kind of discipline that worked for the atomic bomb, and because it worked, they thought, well, this is the way we have to keep doing it. And so none of those things were declared unconstitutional. As I say, the Congress had no oversight. It didnt authorize the funds.

In fact, Leslie Groves was outside the military chain of command. He dropped the bombs without authorization from his military superiors. The people who had appointed him were a special little group that the president had set up. And when he thought, well, I might be sick, have a heart attack, be attacked, be killed, he appointed his successor secretly. Again, it was not part of any constitutional procedure at all. It was an extraordinary departure. And because it worked, it became not only a model but an ideal so that from then on, to have clearance to get to secrets became the source of power in our government.

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills. His new book is called "Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Garry Wills, and his new book is called "Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State." And in this book, he makes the argument that it was the development of nuclear weapons that led to a lot of secrecy in even peacetime in the United States, and that the development of nuclear weapons invested the president with a lot more power, and that those powers have been growing ever since.

So you think that the whole idea of commander-in-chief has been greatly expanded since the president became the person who had the authority to launch a nuclear attack...

Prof. WILLS: Yes.

GROSS: ...and the code to do it with. And you also think that President Bush kind of expanded that idea of commander-in-chief. In what way?

Prof. WILLS: Well, he inherited a process that began under President Reagan. In President Reagan's attorney general office, there was the Office of Legal Counsel, which came up with the idea of the unitary executive. And that became a famous cause of the Federalist Society and of various people who have become Supreme Court justices.

GROSS: And the Federalist Society is a conservative - a group of conservative lawyers.

Prof. WILLS: Yes. And Edwin Meese's Justice Department had a number of young people who wanted to support President Reagan's defense of deregulation of the agencies. And up to that time, when Congress set up an agency, it said that it had the right to oversee the performance of that agency, as it oversees the executive power in general because, after all, it has the right to impeach any member of the executive. And it can't do that unless they can find out what that group is doing.

Well, these people said at the outset that no, once you set up the agency, its totally under the control of the president, and his power over it is unitary. That is, he has the right not only to administer these things, but to decide whether anybody can interfere with them. Now that's been expanded, to the dismay of some of the original people who set up this idea. And it's now said that the president, under George Bush, has the power not only to administer the agencies, but to administer the whole defense apparatus, and not only to administer it, but to initiate war on his own authority.

GROSS: Now, President George W. Bush did get a vote from Congress before the Iraq war.

Prof. WILLS: That's right. But in other cases, he did not. All of -every war that has been started has not been a declaration of war. He got some kind of approval, but not a declaration of war. And that's been, again, a repeated pattern since World War II. None of that happened before World War II. What happened at the end of World War II is that emergency measures, secrecy classification, all those things that had come in during war were extended. So we went direct from World War II into the Cold War, and then we went direct from Cold War into the war on terror.

And so as Senator Moynihan said, we should've had declassification at the end of all these emergencies. Instead, weve had an increase in the number of classified documents, the number of clearance requirements, the number of loyalty investigations. All of these things have mounted and mounted and mounted over the last 60 years.

GROSS: We did have several years between the Cold War and 9-11.

Prof. WILLS: We didnt have any suspension of the security apparatus. Once that national security apparatus got into place, it's never been cut back. The budget of the CIA, of the NSA, the NSC has grown, and its activities - especially covert activities - have grown continuously.

GROSS: Now in talking about the powers of the president to go to war, in 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, and that was supposed to make sure that Congress had a vote in whether or not to go to war. Can you explain what the War Powers Resolution was in 1973?

Prof. WILLS: Yes. The Constitution says Congress alone has the power to declare war. Well, the presidents had ignored that so long that Congress wanted to edge back into the act. So it didnt assert its true constitutional power. Wait a minute. Only we can declare war. It said, all right, if you want to go to war, Mr. President, you have to tell us so and give us a time span in which to approve. And we will either approve or disapprove, and then you will have to withdraw. But every president since that passed has ignored that War Powers Act, which was itself unconstitutional, because it ceded the power that was not in the authority of the Congress to cede. They can't say, well, we'll have a shared power of declaring war. The Constitution doesnt say that you have a shared power. It says you have all the power to declare war.

GROSS: So, in a way, the War Powers - youre saying the War Powers resolution, which looked like it was taking back power for Congress, actually gave up power by deciding to share that power with the president.

Prof. WILLS: That's right. That's right. And it didnt even work. You know, they thought, well, maybe if we tried to split the pie, he'll pay attention to us. But they didnt.

GROSS: Some of the secrets that you write about aren't so secret anymore. After all, youre writing about them. How secret could they be? But did you come upon any secrets that you think developed out of the early nuclear age that you were unaware of and that really surprised you?

Prof. WILLS: Well, yes. One of the examples of - see, what happened after the war, World War II, is that they needed to have deployment areas. They needed to have friendly governments, who would allow us to base our planes, originally, and there are submarines; our listening posts for radiation, for other things of that sort. And so we had to set up friendly governments, or operate with friendly governments and make sure they stayed friendly which meant sometimes we interfered in their electoral process.

But I had not really known until I started looking at this, about Diego Garcia, an island in the Pacific in the Indian Ocean. They wanted to have a place strategically close to the Middle East, where they could have an entire base for submarines and airplanes and supplies, et cetera, with no interference by a local government. So, they took over what had previously been a British protectorate and extruded the natives, thousands of natives, just kicked them out as we had done, by the way, in the islands in the Pacific, where we tested the atomic and hydrogen bombs.

Its entirely secret. Journalists are never allowed there. Its a huge staging area. Its been used in the Tonkin Gulf and the Iraq war and others. And the people the natives who are kicked out have asked that they come back and they were not allowed. The purchasing of the materials for it was kept from Congress. The treaty that they set up with Britain to take over the island - its still technically a British protectorate, but they gave us total control over what goes on there -was not public for a long, long, long, long time. And what goes on now is still secret. Now we dont know how many of those there are around the world.

GROSS: Have you found about what it must be like for somebody who is elected president to not only inherit - you know, what we think of as the powers of the office, but to also inherit this secret world, this hidden world of powers and of military bases and secrets and just all of the stuff that youve been describing.

Prof. WILLS: Yes, I have. And a good example that it seems to me is the reaction of President Obama when he took office. Before that he had said, oh well, I wont do these things. I wont torture. I wont have renditions of people captured on foreign territory. I'll close Guantanamo. I wont do signing statements in which I declare what Congress passed something that I wont obey. And right away, he started saying, well - I mean, his people started saying, well, well have to consider renditions. Well have to continue signing statements. Well have to consider a slower closing down of Guantanamo, et cetera.

And I think thats what he gets, he gets a military and intelligence apparatus of immense extent - and they said to him, dont destroy our morale, dont undercut what weve had so much trouble building up. You need us, we need you. So, play along. And thats what the president has been doing.

GROSS: You are concerned that weve built a nation that is so entrenched in this secrecy that came along with a development of nuclear weapons and that just kept getting expanded as the nuclear arsenal got expanded. Do you think theres any turning back? You know, youve pointed out that it used to be when we reverted from war time to peace time, that all like the war time powers would be put aside and wed return to peace time. But theres always something now it's the Cold War, it's the war on terror - and secrecy keeps expanding, it never seems to shrink. So, do you think theres any turning back?

Prof. WILLS: It would be very difficult. For one thing, consider all of the classified material. To declassify that is immensely time consuming and expensive. So, its not going to happen. It just keeps growing and growing as Senator Moynihan said. And the costs of secrecy are great. They cover up our crimes, our errors. Moynihan said, for instance, when the Bay of Pigs occurred, President Kennedy was not listening to academic experts on Cuba or foundations or open polls, which told him that - which would have told him that Fidel Castro is immensely popular. You were not going to insight a rebellion against him at that stage of the game.

And Moynihan says, he would - he didnt listen to any of those things because none of them were classified. He listened to people who all had this great secret knowledge that nobody else had. And thats what made him commit this error. And he said that happens all the time with secrecy. We listen to the people with a stake, because theyre supposed to be the priesthood of the secrets. And you cut off the sources of knowledge that would criticize these inner-elite, that would make things more open and correctible.

GROSS: Well, Garry Willis, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. WILLS: Its my pleasure.

GROSS: Garry Wills is the author of the new book, "Bomb Power."

Coming up, our TV Critic David Bianculli previews the new season of "Damages," the FX series starring Glenn Close. He says its just one of the good shows returning to cable tonight.

This is FRESH AIR.

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