4/20 Talk: The Atomic Origins of America’s National Security State: How Nuclear Weapons Produced an Imperial Presidency and Degraded Democracy

Professor Christian Appy

Department of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Thursday April 20, 4:00-5:30. Laurel Hall room 205.


Christian AppyFrom the Manhattan Project to the Global War on Terror, nuclear weapons have had a pernicious impact on American political culture. The secrecy and concentrated power under which the first atomic weapons were created provided a model for the post–World War II permanent national security state, presided over by presidents invested with unprecedented power. Their exclusive authority to produce and use atomic weapons—codified by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946—led to further expansions of presidential powers not conferred by the constitution. The authority to launch globe-threatening weapons has led to a wide range of additional assertions of power unaccountable to the public or its elected representatives, including covert overthrows of foreign governments, secret bombings of foreign nations, unilateral abdication of treaties, warrantless surveillance of American citizens, and routine circumvention of Congress’s constitutional power to declare war. This lecture will argue that nuclear weapons are inherently undemocratic and must be abolished before we can begin dismantling the national security state and restoring genuinely representative government.

Professor Appy is a noted political and social historian, author most recently of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

(Penguin, 2015) and Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (Viking, 2003), which won the Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction. The Humanities Institute lecture is based on his latest research project.

The lecture is co-sponsored with the Department of Political Science,  the Asian and Asian-American Studies Institute, and Humanities Institute.


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