The Atomic Energy Act of 1946: The Genesis of the Imperial Presidency

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.

Tags: The Atomic Energy Act of 1946, US History, Constitutional Issues, Garry Wills, imperial presidency (all tags)


1 Comment

RE: The Atomic Energy Act of 1946: The Genesis of the Imperial Presidency

One way to encourage a nuclear deemphasis is to force the Department of Defense to pay for their weapons.  Right now, the DoD gets nuclear weapons "for free" as they are funded through the Department of Energy.  (This discourages the DoE from working on clean, renewable, alternative sources of energy.)  If the DoD had to budget for their nukes, then the warheads would have to compete against other military programs desired by each service.  And, given competitive budget pressures and the low military utility of nuclear weapons, this would put the few advocates of nuclear weapons in a difficult position.


The Solano County (California) Democratic Central Committee and the Northern Solano Democratic Club have passed a resolution to transfer responsibility for nuclear matters to the DoD, thus liberating the DoE to pursue clean, renewable, alternative energy sources and forcing the DoD to pay for any nuclear warheads:



A Resolution in Support of Refocusing the Department of Energy onto Clean, Renewable, Energy by transferring the National Nuclear Security Administration to the Department of Defense



WHEREAS the United States of America is in need of bountiful amounts of reliable, safe, and secure sources of clean, renewable, non-nuclear supplies of energy for sustained economic growth in a high-technology post-industrial era and to become independent from the pressure of other nations, and


WHEREAS the Department of Energy, through the National Nuclear Security Administration, spends an inordinate amount of time, money, and resources focusing on the development and management of nuclear weapons, reactors for nuclear-powered naval vessels, and special nuclear materials used primarily by the Department of Defense without cost to the Department of Defense (they are budgeted through the Department of Energy) instead of working to help the United States to attain energy independence, and


WHEREAS the Department of Defense currently receives the advantages of nuclear research, development, testing, engineering, manufacture, and maintenance of nuclear weapons without having to account for these activities in its budget,


THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the  _______________ supports reassigning the National Nuclear Security Administration from the Department of Energy to the Department of Defense thus relieving the Department of Energy of its nuclear weapons and related responsibilities, and taking the first step toward changing the primary focus of the Department of Energy  to clean, and renewable energy,




BE IT RESOLVED THAT the ________________ supports requiring the Department of Energy to develop, create, fund, and distribute alternative sources of clean, renewable non-nuclear supplies of energy to all Americans.



by Airpower 2010-02-22 10:23PM | 0 recs


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