One day last November, I spent the morning at Garry Wills’s elegant brick home along the main street of Evanston, Illinois, pondering the Promethean scale of presidential power in the atomic age. Wills’s startling new book, Bomb Power (Penguin Press, $28), argues that the prototype of the modern president is not Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan. It’s General Leslie Groves—the administrator of the Manhattan Project, which Wills says was the inadvertent template for today’s secret government and imperial presidency. And his reasoning will scare the hell out of you. The Manhattan Project was the single most awesome undertaking in the history of the country, occupying some eighty facilities nationwide. Hanford, in Washington State, where project officials collected and prepared the plutonium, employed more than one hundred thousand people. The electromagnetic plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, covered 825 acres. Project administrators also commandeered an entire Pacific island as the staging ground for the fatal atomic-bomb flights. To staff the laboratories at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Groves enjoyed the kind of powers ascribed to Jesus in the Left Behind series: All of a sudden, the greatest scientists in the country and their families would suddenly disappear, Hoovered up into the desert behind a triple ring of fences, “with sentries on horseback or in jeeps patrolling the circuit twenty-four hours a day.” Almost nobody was allowed to know what any of it was for, and only one man understood how to master all its parts: Groves, who “carried the whole enterprise in his head.”
more from Rick Perlstein at Bookforum here.