Alan Cranston Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Democracy, Disarmament, and Public Education: Conversation with Alan Cranston, former U.S. Senator from California; 4/17/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Bringing New Ideas to the Public

Throughout your career you've brought issues to the public's attention. Before you left journalism, you [alerted the public] to the dangers of fascism and Hitler. Tell us about your publication of an annotated Mein Kampf and what the results were.

While I was doing my foreign correspondence work, I read Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf, the book he wrote while he was in prison before he became the dictator, outlining his plans for Germany and the terrible things he intended to do in the world. There was no English language version of it. When I quit journalism and came back to try to get involved in activities in the United States, one day in Macy's bookstore in New York I saw a display of Mein Kampf, an English language version, which I'd never seen before, which hadn't existed. I went over to look at it out of curiosity and as I picked it up, I knew it wasn't the real book. It was much thinner than the long book that I had read, which is about 350,000 words. So I bought it to see how come. And delving into it I found that it was a condensed version, and some of the things that would most upset Americans just weren't there as they were in the version I had read, the original, in German.

So I talked to an editor friend of mine in New York, a Hearst editor named Amster Spiro, and suggested that I write and we publish an anti-Nazi version of Mein Kampf that would be the real book and would awaken Americans to the peril Hitler posed for us and the rest of the world. So we did that. I spent eight days [compiling] my version of Mein Kampf from the English language version that I now had, the original German language version, and another copy that had just appeared. A book was then selling for around three dollars normal price. Hitler was getting forty cents royalty for each copy that somebody bought that wasn't [even] the real thing. We proceeded to print in tabloid the version that I wrote, with a very lurid red cover showing Hitler carving up the world, and we sold it for ten cents on newsstands. It created quite a stir. Some Nazis went around knocking down newsstands that displayed it in St. Louis and the German part of New York and elsewhere in the country. We sold half a million copies in ten days and were immediately sued by Hitler's agents on the grounds we had violated his copyright, which we had done. We had the theory that [though] he had copyrighted Mein Kampf in Austria, he had destroyed Austria with his army, so we said he destroyed his copyright at the same time. Well, that didn't stand up in court, and a Connecticut judge ruled in Hitler's favor. No damages were assessed, but we had to stop selling the book. We got what was called an injunction. But we did wake up a lot of Americans to the Nazi threat.

During the war you worked for the government under Archibald McLeish?

Yes, I did.

Tell us about that. It was bringing groups into an understanding of the American story, is that right?

I had worked for a little while before the war began, after I came back to America, for an organization called Common Council for American Unity that was trying to help immigrants adjust to American life, and America to adjust to having immigrants among us. So I was working with German Americans, Italian Americans, Polish Americans, everything you could think of. When the war began, President Roosevelt appointed Archibald McLeish to head the Office of Facts and Figures, which was soon replaced by something headed by a famous commentator of those days, Elmer Davis, called the Office of War Information. I was given the responsibility of running the foreign language division which had the task of explaining how price control worked, how the draft worked and so forth, in foreign languages via press or radio to foreign language speaking groups. Cranston worked with  Eleanor Roosevelt hoping to prevent the setting up of relocation camps for Japanese-Americans in 1942. And I also had the task of trying to explain to German Americans why we were fighting Hitler, to Italian Americans why we were fighting Mussolini, and to Japanese Americans, who unfortunately got locked up in so-called relocation camps, why that was necessary, although I don't think it was necessary, and why we were fighting Japan. So I spent a couple of years working with foreign language groups in this country on all these aspects, and many others, of the war as it affected people with different national backgrounds in our country.

After the war you got involved in the world law movement and the world federalist movement, and I'm curious what you learned from that experience, because here you were trying to shape and build institutions that didn't exist but which you had come to realize the world needed.

You mentioned The Killing of the Peace, a book I wrote while I was in the U.S. Army. I eventually declined a deferment and enlisted in the army. I took basic military training but then, because of my journalism background and the fact that I had worked in the government on things related to writing and journalism, I was pulled out of the infantry and into something called Army Talk where I was writing, explaining why we were fighting, to the soldiers this time, not German Americans, Italian Americans, but everybody who was in the army, explaining the war aims, what was going on, and so forth and so on.

During that time I managed to write a book called The Killing of the Peace about how the League of Nations was defeated in the U.S. Senate. The purpose of the book was to make it a little bit harder for isolationists to keep us out of the United Nations. I at least would expose the tactics they used and the strategies that led to the defeat of the League.

I hoped very much that we would get into the United Nations after World War II, which I knew was in the works. It turned out it wasn't really needed because there was no big fight over the United Nations charter and our belonging to it, primarily because we had the veto so we could stop it cold when we wished to -- unfortunately, I think. I think that has sort of hamstrung the body, five countries having the veto.

Anyway, the result of that book, which did get quite a bit of attention, was that I was invited to a meeting convened by one of the most incredible people I've ever met, a man named Grenville Clark. A man who should be famous but didn't seek fame, didn't want to be known at all, just wanted to quietly work as a citizen on issues when he wasn't practicing corporate law and serving on the board of overseers of Harvard. I was invited to this meeting which was called, mostly of senior people, to discuss where we stood in light of the United Nations charter being born, with the charter having been written before anybody knew there was an atomic bomb; and was the UN up to dealing with this new threat to life and limb and peace.

As I said, most of the people there were senior people, but Grenville Clark said he wanted to have a little bit of pepper among the salt, so I was invited as one of the young people. There was Norman Cousins, the young editor of the Saturday Review of Literature. There was a young man there in Naval uniform named Kingman Brewster who wound up eventually being president of Yale, and a few other very remarkable young people. I developed a relationship with Grenville Clark that led him to ask me to serve as chair of an ongoing committee to carry on this work. We felt at that meeting, by a strong majority, that the UN charter had to be strengthened and the veto modified and the UN given some authority if it was going to be up to keeping the peace. There was a follow-up meeting in Princeton which I chaired, and Albert Einstein, who was then teaching and studying at Princeton, participated. I got to know him at that time and he warned me, as he warned others, that the nuclear bomb was fully developed, which had [by then] happened, and that all life on this planet, human and otherwise, could well be exterminated, which fortunately has not yet happened. That caught my attention, and ever since I have been working in one way or another to try to prevent a nuclear war and develop the sort of a world where such events would be very unlikely to occur.

Next page: Reforming the Political Process

See also: Interview with Norman Cousins, 1984.

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