The political legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

August 6, 2010

How the rise of the National Security State has eviscerated democracy. The peace-loving United States remains, of course, the only nation to have actually used nuclear weapons. --PG

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Political Legacy to the United States

By Herbert P. Bix

Friday, August 06, 2010

I start from the premise that the time has come to link Hiroshima Day remembrance with what historian Garry Wills called the “quiet revolution” in governance that was set in motion by America’s development and use of atomic bombs against the citizens of two Japanese cities.

As Wills pointed out in Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (The Penguin Press, 2010), atomic destruction in Japan and the growth of secret, non-accountable government in America are inseparably linked. So today we need to reflect not only on the damages that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered from the heat-rays, the blast, and the radiation that killed an estimated 140,000 people in Hiroshima and another 70,000 in Nagasaki by the end of December 1945. We must also, more than ever, focus today on how atomic bomb possession transformed American’s global role, impacted its political class, and reshaped the nature of presidential power.

The atomic bombs that destroyed Japanese cities were the climax of a year of intense civilian bombing in Germany and especially Japan. The bombing hastened the conversion of the United States from a constitutional republic in which sovereignty supposedly inhered in the People into a National Security State in which it inhered in the President. Thereafter, overwhelming power steadily accrued to the executive branch while the Congress became its appendage. This paved the way for the illegal, secretive, aggressive use of force, and violation of constitutional norms that reached their height in the administration of George W. Bush and continue unchecked today.

This transformation occurred almost unnoticed, over a sixty-nine or seventy-year period starting around 1940-1941. That’s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a state of national war emergency, after having secretly brought the U.S. into an undeclared war against Nazi Germany with his “Destroyer Deal” in exchange for the right to lease American bases from Great Britain. Then came Pearl Harbor -- a surprise attack welcomed by many politicians at the time because they thought it would unify the nation’s deep class divisions behind a new war. Next, Roosevelt secretly authorized the Manhattan Project for the construction of atomic bombs. He kept funding for the vast, multi-billion dollar wartime project completely hidden from congressional and public scrutiny -- the first of many constitutionally illegal acts that occurred in the construction of the National Security State.[1]

It was during the last years of the Second World War that the government laid the foundations for a new American empire whose power rested on forward-deployed airplanes, warships, and bases that could deliver conventional and atomic bombs. The bases were secured by unequal military alliances and status-of-forces agreements (NATO and ANPO), or where treaties didn’t suffice and governments refused to take U.S. orders, by coups d’etat and the establishment of client regimes. Concurrently, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower accelerated a nuclear arms race: first by Truman’s decision to build up the military and produce and stockpile more and more nuclear weapons; then from 1949, when Russia broke the American monopoly on the Bomb, by his decision to build the hydrogen bomb and increase nuclear arms production and atmospheric testing. Both of these early cold war presidents expanded and consolidated the empire of bases and brought into existence a fully articulated National Security State.

Wills’ useful time-line (p. 58) shows the initial steps that gradually transformed the post-World War II governmental system and ended up lodging power in vast, secret, unaccountable but interlocking bureaucracies. Creation of a sub-structure of hidden power started with the imperial president’s assertion of a right to wage atomic, biological, and chemical warfare, and to instill fear in the public through various institutions of the executive branch. The Atomic Energy Act (1946) established under the president the Atomic Energy Commission, “a civilian body to control all domestic uses of atomic energy.” It gave the president “sole authority” over the Bomb’s use. So in the exercise of this power alone he was placed outside the constitutional order, unaccountable to anybody else.[2] The National Security Act (1947) established both the president’s National Security Council (NSC) and the CIA, which quickly began acting outside the law. “Loyalty oaths” and the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations fleshed out the early institutions of the National Security State.

These were augmented between 1947 (the start of the Cold War anti-communist ideological crusade) and the inauguration of the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952. In this period Truman established the U.S. Air Force as a separate service, charged with delivering the bombs. On his own authority Truman committed the nation to waging the Korean War, never asking Congress for a declaration of war, freeing him to use or threaten other countries with any weapon he chose. Abroad, the U.S. began assassinations and psychological warfare operations, and the overthrow of governments. At home, national mobilization in “peacetime” got underway in accordance with various NSC policy documents whose contents were also kept secret from Congress and the public.

The CIA, whose head (the Director of Central Intelligence) reported to the president, waged psychological warfare and engaged in massive foreign and domestic spying. Its agents in the Office of Special Operations committed murder, assassination, and torture. Their covert activity toppled the governments of Muhammed Mosaddeq in Iran, Jacobo Abenz in Guatemala, and Salvadore Allende in Chile, to name just a few. The president had authority over the CIA as well as the intelligence estimates that CIA officers produced. But their estimates could always be politicized and cherry-picked to give him and his policy-makers what they wanted if they wanted it badly enough. (Today we know for a fact that George W. Bush and Richard Cheney pressured the CIA and got from it in 2003 a WMD justification for launching the current unprovoked, illegal war against Iraq.)[3]

During the Vietnam War, whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg released the classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. His disclosure of “state secrets” frightened President Nixon, for Ellsberg pulled the veil from the hidden government operating on a clandestine level, with presidents lying to the public to justify aggressive war and cover-up their crimes. Until that time most Americans did not know what the various instruments of the U.S. government were doing in Southeast Asia, let alone how incompetent where Vietnam was concerned were presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon and their national policy advisers.

After the Vietnam War the National Security State underwent reorganization. Tension between the hidden or real U.S. government and Congress became visible in Senate and House investigations of the CIA.[4] In 1975 Senator Frank Church’s Committee investigated CIA crimes and tried to retrieve lost Congressional prerogatives in foreign policy by checking the president’s powers to wage war.[5] Representative Otis Pike, chairing the House Intelligence Committee, did likewise. Pike’s committee issued a final report concluding (among other things) that the total U.S. intelligence budget had been hidden from Congress, and that because of secrecy “taxpayers and most of Congress did not know and cannot find out how much they [the CIA] spend on spying activities.”[6] Under the Constitution (Art. 1, Section 9 [7]) such secret funding is plainly illegal.

But the rot produced by the American system of authoritarian decision-making, non-accountability for high officials, and weak or non-existent “congressional oversight” of the executive branch was far too advanced to be checked by any Senate or House committee. President Ford, Henry Kissinger, and the CIA undermined the Church and Pike committees. Ford and his successors, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, ignored the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, there were other scandals, such as Iran-Contra in 1986-87, which showed the extent to which secrecy had become a device for deceiving Congress. But it needs to be remembered that executive branch obsession with secrecy originally grew from the Manhattan Project, the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the need thereafter to care for atomic weapons and their means of delivery.

At the start of the 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and the National Security State resumed its expansion, eventually acquiring bases in Eastern Europe and near the southern and Central Asian borders of the Russian Federation. Meanwhile the U.S. military budget kept on growing to the dismay of many peace movement activists who had expected a “peace dividend” because they had mistakenly thought U.S. militarism was a function only of the Cold War, which it never was. Corporations doing business with the Pentagon and politicians owning their stock or taking both their dividends and campaign contributions always played an important role.

U.S. behavior in the Nineties, particularly during the G.W. Bush and W. J. Clinton presidencies, showed the recurrence of a U.S. tendency to ignore international law regarding the direct and indirect aerial targeting of civilians and their “dual use” infrastructure. This was evidenced in the U.S. and British air assault on Iraq and in their bombing of Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 with “precision”-guided weapons.

Then, during the first decade of the 21st century, the 9/11 terrorist attacks gave President Bush and his team their golden opportunity to declare a war on terror, expand the National Security State, and set aside international and domestic law constraints on the conduct of war. Thereafter, reflecting the fusion of governmental and corporate power that had been ongoing for decades, U.S. wars and intelligence-gathering were increasingly contracted out to private corporations. Official secrecy also increased and became (in constitutional scholar Glenn Greenwald’s apt words) “the religion of the political class, and the prime enabler of its corruption,” as seen in the Pentagon’s loss of billions of dollars earmarked for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thus not only was a point reached where the momentum of the power-shift from legislature to executive branch became irreversible but, more important, the Patriot Act and other legislation, enacted after 9/11 allowed the Bush and Obama Justice Departments to brutally suppress civil liberties, trample on the Constitution, and punish whistle blowers. The presidency of Barack Obama, who normalized drone-assassination as a tactic of U.S. foreign policy, has merely confirmed these facts.[7]

To resume: as developed after 1945, atomic bomb power brought the U.S.--an historically militaristic nation--much closer to modern imperial Japan in the period when Japanese officials fought their “long war” on the Asian continent.

Control over nuclear weapons concentrated power in the office of the president, strengthened his mystique as commander-in-chief, and allowed President G.W. Bush to arrogantly assert a unilateral right to disregard the moral norms that underlie the laws of war, and to use the Office of Legal Council in the Justice Department to give “[him]self legal permission to do what [he] want[ed] to do.”[8]

Last, atomic bomb power wedded the U.S. military to the veneration and massive use of force, to “shock and awe,” and to “collateral damage,” or the killing of civilians in situations where American forces could never distinguish friend from foe. Think of the Korean War, which ended in stalemate, and of the three subsequent illegal, unnecessary colonial wars of presidential choice fought in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Now that this succession of costly defeats for U.S. policy has finally started to break the back of the American middle class, we might, perhaps, expect more mass-based resistance to the National Security State, the antithesis of a constitutional republic.


1. Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (The Penguin Press, 2010), p. 99.

2. Wills, Bomb Power, pp. 31, 45, 49.

3. See Fulton Armstrong and Thomas Powers, “The CIA and WMDs: The Damning Evidence,” New York Review of Books, Vol. LVII, No. 13 (Aug. 9, 2010), pp. 53-54.

4. Glenn Greenwald, “The Real U.S. Government,” posted at, July 19, 2010.

5. Wills, Bomb Power, pp. 177, 197.

6. Cited from Gerald K. Haines, “The Pike Committee Investigations and the CIA,” posted at 360/Readings/pike.htm

7. Garry Wills, “Entangled Giant,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 15 (Oct. 8, 2009).

8. Wills, Bomb Power, p. 224.

Herbert Bix won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. This is the text of a talk given for Hiroshima Day, Aug. 6, 2010, at the First Congregational Church, Binghamton, NY.