William Pfaff takes issue with historian Garry Wills

Historians in the News

The imposingly versatile Garry Wills, Northwestern University historian, political polemicist, sometime philosopher, theologian and church historian, has a new book inspired by liberal disappointment with President Barack Obama, blaming his faults as well as other American presidential disorders on the atom bomb.

He argues in "Bomb Power" that possession of the bomb, product of an enormous and secret scientific undertaking, the Manhattan Project, launched by Franklin D. Roosevelt, has ever since given American presidents an intoxicating degree of unchecked personal power, so that there is "no constitutional check on his actions . . . [which amounts to] a violent break in our whole governmental system."

The president came into possession of unique power, which according to Garry Wills has meant the American people's "permanent submission" to a commander in chief with supreme global power....

Wills' argument continues with various Middle East/Africa interventions (U.S. troops in Lebanon; the intervention under U.N. auspices in Somalia), as well as in the Caribbean, where the U.S. has intervened with regularity for many years, all culminating in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan, with Pakistan and Yemen seeming candidates for future American attentions....

It is impossible to see these all as the responsibility of individual presidents, intoxicated by possession of nuclear power. I see them as developing out of an American millenarianism, kept in check in the past by isolationism and hostility toward imperial Europe, which during World War One underwent a vainglorious globalization under Woodrow Wilson -- who believed, literally, that God had entrusted both him and the American nation with missions of peaceful global reform.

Franklin Roosevelt was committed to the Wilsonian mission well before Albert Einstein sent him the fateful letter in which Einstein warned that a nuclear bomb might be feasible, and that German physicists might be working to construct one.

That -- and Bolshevism, a program of secular utopianism based on sectarian power and ambition, which provoked the cold war that ensued -- are the sources of America's imperial presidency. And however Barack Obama may eventually be judged, he is today anything but an imperial president.

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