The Atomic Energy Act of 1946: The Genesis of the Imperial Presidency
by Charles Lemos, Mon Feb 22, 2010 at 07:55:08 PM EST
The last time United States Congress passed a bill with the title "Declaration of War" was in June 1942, against Romania. Given that the United States military has engaged in actions that clearly meet the standard of war in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America, the question is why haven't we had a Congressional declaration of war since then?
In this segment from a recent lecture from the Berkeley Arts & Letter Series, historian Garry Wills, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, discusses the transformation of American politics, and of the Presidency itself, that occurred in the decades since the nuclear bomb was developed and the importance of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (pdf.) in understanding the development of the Imperial Presidency.
"The Bomb," he writes, "altered our subsequent history down to its deepest constitutional roots," redefining the presidency in ways that the Constitution does not intend. "It fostered an anxiety of continuing crisis, so that society was pervasively militarized. It redefined the government as a National Security State, with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control. It redefined Congress, as an executor of the executive."
The Atomic Energy Act of 1946, also known as the McMahon Act after its chief sponsor Senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut, was signed by President Truman on August 1, 1946. While the primary purpose of the Atomic Energy Act was to establish the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to safeguard and aid in regulating atomic resources, and to creat a five-person committee to oversee the activities of the AEC, the Act began to redefine the Constitutional powers of the Presidency usurping from Congress its Constitutionally mandated power to declare war by giving the President the extraordinary power to initiate and wage nuclear war.
The notes to the lecture:
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills examines how the atomic bomb transformed our nation down to its deepest constitutional roots -- by dramatically increasing the power of the modern presidency and redefining the government as a national security state -- in ways still felt today. A masterful reckoning from one of America's preeminent historians, Bomb Power draws a direct line from the Manhattan Project to the usurpations of George W. Bush.
The invention of the atomic bomb was a triumph of official secrecy and military discipline -- the project was covertly funded at the behest of the president and, despite its massive scale, never discovered by Congress or the press. This concealment was perhaps to be expected in wartime, but Wills persuasively argues that the Manhattan Project then became a model for the covert operations and overt authority that have defined American government in the nuclear era. The wartime emergency put in place during World War II extended into the Cold War and finally the war on terror, leaving us in a state of continuous war alert for 68 years and counting.
The bomb forever changed the institution of the presidency since only the president controls "the button" and, by extension, the fate of the world. Wills underscores how radical a break this was from the division of powers established by our founding fathers and how it in turn has enfeebled Congress and the courts. The bomb also placed new emphasis on the President's military role, creating a cult around the commander in chief. The tendency of modern presidents to flaunt military airs, Wills points out, is entirely a postbomb phenomenon. Finally, the Manhattan Project inspired the vast secretive apparatus of the national security state, including intelligence agencies such as the CIA and NSA, which remain largely unaccountable to Congress and the American people.
Wills recounts how, following World War II, presidential power increased decade by decade until reaching its stunning apogee with the Bush administration. Both provocative and illuminating, Bomb Power casts the history of the postwar period in a new light and sounds an alarm about the continued threat to our Constitution.
The full lecture is at Fora TV.