Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

In This Review

Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State
By Garry Wills
Penguin Press, 2010
288 pp. $27.95
Purchase

The Jeffersonian dirge -- lamenting the erosion of the limited government bequeathed by the founders and, usually, focusing on the growth of presidential power -- is one of the great standard themes in American political literature. Wills offers a well-honed example of this classic genre, focusing on the rise of presidential power and the national security state from the time of President Franklin Roosevelt to the Obama administration. Wills is correct in much of what he says; for virtually all of the last 60 years, the United States has lived in a state of emergency, brought on by one crisis after another. First came World War II, then the Cold War, and now the conflict formerly known as the war on terror. Wills is right that presidential power has vastly expanded during these two generations and that the existence of the atom bomb has contributed to the trend. What he spends less time examining is the persistence of freedom and political debate even in the shadow of a powerful security state. It seems unlikely that jackbooted secret police will be calling Wills to account for this spirited attack on the foundations of executive power anytime soon. Let us hope that he and his fellow Jeremiahs can continue unmolested to chastise the overmighty executive for many years to come.