Cold War Paranoia and the Increased Powers of the Executive Office of the U.S. President

Cooperation between U.S. presidencies and the Congress is imperative to any successful administration. Without cooperation, bargaining, concessions, and appeasements from both sides, the creation of any beneficial policy would be impossible and improbable.

Bruce Jentleson in his book American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century, discusses the bipartisanship between the Executive and Legislative Branches. He describes how common this was throughout the Cold War, detailing how Democratic presidents and Republican congresses and Republican presidents and Democratic congresses have worked together on many foreign policy initiatives. He writes that, “…the president succeeded in getting his [domestic policy] proposals through Congress only 40 percent of the time, and the foreign policy one, in which the president’s success rate was 70 percent”. Jentleson claims that the reasoning for this was due to the fear of the Soviet threat and the overall danger of nuclear war. He also writes, “the presidency had the greater institutional capacity to conduct foreign affairs. Only the presidency possessed the information and expertise necessary for understanding the world, could move with the necessary speed and decisiveness in making key decisions, and had the will and the capacity to guard secrecy”. 

Naturally, this is an interesting theory and it makes sense that the U.S. public, elected representatives of the public, and state governments would see things in this light. I for one agree with Jentleson’s assertion that a fear of Communism and a fear of Nuclear war were the primary causes of the increased executive power we see in the Presidency today.

This fear of Communism began in the early 20th century, rather immediately after the First World War with the Palmer Raids. The raids were started after an Italian anarchist detonated a bomb too early on the front steps of the U.S. Attorney General’s (AG) house in the District of Columbia. While Anarchism and Communism are quite different political ideologies, have very little to do with one another and most Anarchists treating Communism with the same disdain they treat those of any other political ideology, many American officials and members of the public failed to see this distinction.

Nonetheless, in response, AG A. Mitchell Palmer gave the Bureau of Investigation (a precursor of the FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation) the ability to go after Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, and virtually any left-wing or unionized group in the United States, doing this through, “[a] mass roundup and deportation of alien radicals”. The New York Times and other news agencies reported on the deportations positively and further increased this fear of Communism in the American public’s eyes, being fed deliberate misrepresentation and false information by future longtime Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. While many of these raids resulted in persons being beaten (being thrown down stairs, having lacerated scalps and black eyes) and held in horrendous conditions (“eight hundred persons were held six days in a small, airless corridor on the top floor of the [Detroit] Federal Building, with a single clogged toilet and only occasional food and water…the actual size was 448 square feet, a little less than half a square foot per alien”), the fact that the media seemed to hold up the raids as a good thing and that much of the country was against Communism, endorsed the idea that Communism approved of bombing campaigns (even though the bombings were started by radical anarchists). This fear of Communism again became a prominent point with the Red Scare of the 1950’s, in which Joe McCarthy accused various people in the U.S. government of being Communists, despite having no evidence whatsoever. While his entire campaign was eventually discredited on national television in front of the whole of the U.S. public, the fear of Communism and the damage that was done (both to individuals and the rule of law) remained steadfastly in the halls of power and the mind of the public. Communism’s encroachment upon half of Germany and much of Eastern Europe was significant too as they became seen as power hungry and desiring to conquer much of the world. 

The threat of nuclear war was also incredibly frightening and arguably did more to imbue the Executive Office with increased power than the threat of Communism. While the atom bomb was and has only ever been used twice in military conflicts, the effect it had upon warfare and upon foreign policy is undeniable and massive.

The first atom bomb to ever detonate in war was Little Boy, which, “exploded at 8:16:02 Hiroshima time, 43 seconds after it left the Enola Gay, 1,900 feet above the courtyard of Shima Hospital…with a yield equivalent to 12,500 tons of TNT…Of 76,000 buildings in Hiroshima, 70,000 were damaged or destroyed, 48,000 totally…[While there remains the question of how many died] more recent estimates place the number of deaths up to the end of 1945 at 140,000 [out of a rough civilian population of 285,000 with 48,000 soldiers]”. The amount of power and utter destruction laid against a populace was now more severe than any other type of weapon ever created in the history of time. The fact that, with a single plane, relatively little capital (in the 1950s), and little industrial effort, a bomb of equal or greater destruction could be made was severely worrying. The fact that the Cold War eventually became an arms race of nuclear weapons worried citizens in both the United States and the Soviet Union and throughout the globe and, in turn, resulted in them and their elected officials giving increased power to the Presidency. This eventually developed into the Executive Office having the ability to control when, how, and under what circumstances a nuclear missile could be launched in retaliation or in a preemptive, first strike.

Gary Wills, a professor of history at Northwestern University, makes the claim in his book Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State that, “the development of nuclear weapons invested the president with a lot more power, and that those powers have been growing ever since”. Wills expands upon this, stating, “up to that time [when Reagan appointed Edwin Meese as U.S. AG], when Congress set up an agency, it said that it had the right to oversee the performance of that agency, as it oversees the executive power in general because, after all, it has the right to impeach any member of the executive. Well, these people said at the outset that no, once you set up the agency, its totally under the control of the president, and his power over it is unitary. That is, he has the right not only to administer these things, but to decide whether anybody can interfere with them. Now that’s been expanded”. 

Wills argues that, due to the president’s awesome powers to wield nuclear weapons, the executive office’s ability to declare wars in some cases without Congressional approval and without an official declaration, is an effect of the holding of the Football (the president’s briefcase containing the nuclear codes). Certainly, there is some credence to the idea that because of the president’s powers being expanded by the Cold War and the public’s desire to have an executive make an immediate decision that this type of thinking would permeate to other areas of presidential decision making.

Both of these areas showcases the correlation between increased executive power and responses to fear of a political ideology and fear of nuclear annihilation. The public’s desire to have a strong, authoritative executive who can make quick decisions when faced with only thirty minutes before a nuclear missile hits the United States was incredibly strong and incredibly necessary considering the very real and apparent threat of nuclear war. These fears were stoked by the Red Scares of the 1920’s and the 1950’s in which it was believed (or rather misrepresented by hardline anti-Communist governmental figures, the media, and the general public) that Communists would easily involve themselves in assassinations of foreign officials and take whatever means necessary to ensure that Communism spread. There is, to me, a clear line of increased executive power built upon general fear stemming from Cold War paranoia and overestimation.

Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham is a graduate of Norwich University's Master of Arts in International Relations program. He is currently working as an AP U.S. History Teacher in San Antonio, but intends to join the U.S. Navy as an Officer in the Summer of 2022. He has been accepted to a PhD in History program with the University of Birmingham in the UK. He has been published in the Jurist, the U.S. Army War College's War Room, Security Magazine, and the Asia-Pacific Security Magazine, in addition to many others.