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Presidential Power and the Nuclear State

President Harry S. Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 establishing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

President Harry S. Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 establishing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. August 1, 1946. Photo Courtesy DOE, PD.

Sixty-seven years ago this week, the United States was the first country (and the only since) to use nuclear weapons in war. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped “Little Boy,” a uranium atomic bomb, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima instantly killing 80,000 to 140,000 people and seriously injuring 100,000 more. Three day laters, on August 9, 1945, the United States dropped a second plutonium atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing over 75,000 people. Although the bombings have been credited with ensuring Japanese surrender and American victory in World War II, the development of the nuclear weapons was also politically significant domestically because it increased the power of the presidency and set a precedent for government secrecy on national security matters. Nuclear weapons development has also been consequential for the rise of the national security state. Finally, the nuclear era raises important Constitutional questions regarding checks and balances of power and compatibility of nuclear weapons in democracy.

On August 6, President Harry Truman addressed the nation, announcing that the United States had developed and used an atomic weapon on Hiroshima:

The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development.

Truman’s address revealed to the public and Congress for the first time that scientists and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had secretly developed atomic weapons. Indeed, despite being vice president, Truman himself was not even made aware of the Manhattan Project until he assumed the presidency in April 1945 following Franklin Roosevelt’s death, even though as senator he presided over an investigating committee into Pentagon expenditures that included the project. With the exception of the top military commanders and scientists developing the bomb, individuals who worked at the weapons production and assembly sites were also unaware of the purpose of the project on which they worked.

President Roosevelt secretly authorized committees that would develop into the Manhattan Project via executive order on June 28, 1941. In so doing, Roosevelt and his advisors decided that the management of the project could not be entrusted to civilians. Instead, under the direction of General Leslie Groves, the project was given the cover a military operation, which allowed the president and military to hide funding for the project and to evade Congressional oversight until the bomb had already been developed and used on an enemy.

Following the war, Congress ratified presidential authority over the nuclear complex in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. As David Alan Rosenberg has argued (gated article), the Act created “a system that made atomic weapons a separate part of the nation’s arsenal, with the President of the United States the sole authority over their use.”  Section 6 of the act provided that the Atomic Energy Commission (the predecessor to the Department of Energy) must develop nuclear weapons “only to the extent that the express consent and direction of the President of the United States has been obtained,” and their “use as he deems necessary in the interest of national defense.”
This grant of power fundamentally altered Constitutional sharing of war powers granted to the President and to Congress. Furthermore, it set a precedent for presidential (and military) discretion and secrecy in the conduct of war. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the executive has increasingly made claims to authority outside of Constitutional grants of power and without sufficient Congressional checks on that power. The most recent example can be found in the decisions by President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama to use drones in the War on Terror/Overseas Contingency Operations. In addition, the Constitution intended neither a standing army, nor the permanent mobilization for war. Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 states:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States; and of the Militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States.

The power to call up the militias was granted to Congress in Article I, Section 8:

The Congress shall have provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions [and] to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States.

Yet, the development of the nuclear complex has brought with it a permanent state of war readiness. Take for example the fact that despite the end of the Cold War, thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert ready to be fired at a moment’s notice following the president’s command. We’re also spending more on nuclear weapons and maintaining the vast complex of laboratories and nuclear sites today than we did at the height of the Cold War, not to mention the clean-up that is and will continue to be required for decades to come.

Presidential agency also has its limits. Nuclear weapons have also limited presidential power in some ways. While presidents have easily authorized the creation and maintenance of the nuclear state, they have not been effective at efforts to dismantle it. Presidents from both parties, including Reagan and Obama, who have sought a world free of nuclear weapons have faced opposition from their advisors, the laboratories, the bureaucracy and from Congress.

As we remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, it also worth considering how the development nuclear weapons have altered governing relations in the state. Given the alterations of Constitutional balance of power, secrecy and costs borne by citizens, are nuclear weapons compatible with democracy? Tell us your thoughts.

Date edited: 08/06/2012 (6:29AM)


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