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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The Problem of Nuclear Weapons

You would think that the nuclear issue would be the easiest to get across, but you're still doing it. What is the difficulty there? No one wants a nuclear war. Nobody wants the world blown up. No one wants not to have a good life for their grandchildren. So why has this been such a difficult issue to move forward on?

First of all, when I arrived in the Senate, the Cold War was going on. It was pretty ferocious, very dangerous, and the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons was a hopeless idea. You couldn't expect the Russian leadership to do it, and you couldn't expect us to do it at that time, under those circumstances. The best we could do eventually, and this began in the late seventies, early eighties, was talk about a ceiling on the number of missiles and weapons of a nuclear nature that each of us, we and the Russians, would have. That led to the freeze movement, which was a very massive effort by American citizens to freeze things where they were so we don't keep on building nuclear weapons. We and the Russians both had many more than we needed, many more than made any sense. We had more weapons than we had targets. That became official policy under the SALT treaties, which did place a limit on the size of the Russian and American nuclear arsenal, and I helped get that through the Senate.

Then, when Ronald Reagan came along, first we had the big military buildup and his talk about the "evil empire" and even worse strains with the Russians. But then in his second term, Reagan changed. Gorbachev had come along, the world looked quite different, and he joined with Gorbachev in the START treaties, which were strategic arms reductions with them. I worked on that. Still, there was very little talk about abolition, but at that point it began to seem possible, with Russia changing as it changed under Gorbachev's leadership, to think about getting rid of these weapons. Reagan actually did more than any other president to speak for and to discuss and to explore at Reykjavik with Gorbachev, who shared his views, the idea of getting rid of these weapons. So at long last that came within the realm of possibility. Then certain things happened. Gorbachev left office. The Cold War, before he left, really ground to a halt in his negotiations with Reagan and with George Bush. Then the Soviet Union collapsed.

Then along comes Yeltsin and Clinton and they announce that we no longer target each other, we and the Russians, with nuclear weapons. So people said, "Well, why worry? It's not a major danger now." Actually, it is a larger danger now than it was before for many reasons. Although polls indicate that 85% of the American people, the Russian people, Europeans, Japanese and others, think we'd be better off if there weren't any nuclear weapons around, that is an issue that's very low in terms of priorities. The American people are much more concerned about taxes, welfare, the deficit, crime, education, drugs, and way down somewhere low is that matter of nuclear weapon danger. So our task now is to convince the American people that it's more dangerous now than it was during the Cold War, and that's a fact. It is more dangerous now.

Throughout your career you have been thinking about, working at, educating the people on the issues. What's the key to making that successful on this particular issue? Just scaring people? Or is it articulating the issues, and hoping they will come to the issue?

I don't think just scaring people is enough. That worked during the freeze days to a major extent, but we really didn't achieve that much even at that time. You have to have more, you have to give people hope and a vision of a better world. I think there's two major sides to the nuclear weapons threat and issue. One is the danger, and the danger is immense. But the other is the moral issue, the spiritual issue, the fact that we are tampering with life on this planet because of our vision of the transitory needs of the moment for the defense of our country which will be different a year from now and a decade from now. But here, right now, to preserve what we think are our national interests, we're willing to face the prospect of wiping out the human race. We're using terror -- the threat that we will turn these weapons loose and destroy a whole country or all the inhabitants of its major cities, like Moscow or St. Petersburg in Russia, and they, the people of New York, San Francisco, Washington, and so forth -- over the problems of today in a way that could wipe out all future and wipe out all the progress that humans have made thus far. That just doesn't make sense. It's a moral issue as well as a practical military issue. And that's what we have to drive home.

What do you think went wrong in the Senate that led to the failure of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty?

Lack of understanding of the issue, lack of effective leadership, miscalculations by Senate Democrats, miscalculations by the Clinton White House, and the fact that a few, very few, about five determined, ultra-radically conservative Republicans managed to manipulate things in an incredible way led to a strictly partisan vote where all Republicans voted one way, all Democrats the other; even though many of the Republicans were not happy with the outcome, but got locked in. I believe that it's possible to turn that around in the course of time, possibly this year, more hopefully next year; that eventually that treaty will be passed. But again, the public wasn't concerned. The public didn't get aroused and involved as it got involved, for example, over the Vietnam War when that became the burning issue in our country.

Will it, God forbid, take some sort of an accident, some sort of untoward event, to change people's thinking?

I hope not, because the untoward event would likely be the destruction of some city, quite possibly an American city, one or more, by a nuclear bomb. That would be a tragedy and it's not certain what the consequences would be. It might lead to a great revulsion about these weapons and a recognition we have to get rid of them. Or it might be, boy we better get more of these weapons to protect ourselves against this kind of thing, which would be a terrible response and an unreasonable one but what could be the response. Some very experienced people with impeccable credentials in security and military matters actually expect that a city somewhere in the world -- and some of them think an American city -- is likely to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon sometime in the next ten years. The three people who are of that point of view are General Chuck Horner, who commanded the allied air war in the Gulf, Ambassador Thomas Graham, who negotiated the non-proliferation treaty extension for the United States, and Ambassador Robert Gallucci, who negotiated with both North Korea and Iraq on the subject of nuclear weapons. All three of them have this pessimistic view.

What will be the cause? A rogue state, a terrorist group?

Likely that. There's the grave danger, a graver danger now than during the Cold War, of a collision between the United States and Russia, not on purpose but by accident. There have been many, many accidents where one side had momentarily thought the other had fired at it. Both of us have a very dangerous policy. We and the Russians, both still like in the Cold War, have these weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire at an instant's notice, and we both have a policy called "launch on warning" which means if you're Russia, I'm America, if I think you fired at me, if my radar or other early warning system tells me that, I'm going to fire back at you before the missiles arrive so that you haven't knocked out my capacity to retaliate.

The threat that I will do that is supposed to inhibit you. It may inhibit you from doing that purposely, but suppose there's an accident? Suppose the chaos, the deterioration in command and control, the decline in the quality of equipment, the fact that soldiers and sailors are unpaid or paid late or paid not enough is wrecking their morale? It's quite possible that if there isn't an accidental launch that could lead to a conflict, terrorists or representatives of rogue leaders like Saddam Hussein will buy or steal or bribe their way to acquire a nuclear weapon out of Russia, and that they will then have no hesitation in using it. And they won't attack us with a missile. They would attack us, as Ambassador Robert Gallucci has suggested, by sailing one bomb into San Francisco harbor or Baltimore harbor or New York harbor on a ship just sitting there. No way to know it's there. No missile has penetrated us to put it there. There it is. They bring another, Gallucci suggests, across the border with Canada, which is a very open border, and they bring it in piece by piece. Then they put it together, put it on a truck, take it into a major city like, say, Washington or Pittsburgh. And then, he says, what might well happen is the White House gets a message, "Change your policy in the Middle East or on Monday you lose Baltimore and on Tuesday you lose Pittsburgh." We don't know where the message is from, we don't know what to do about it, we don't know how to change our policy in the Middle East, and we don't want to submit to blackmail anyway. So we do nothing. And on Monday, Baltimore vanishes in a nuclear cloud. Then, he asks, what does the United States do? That's our dilemma. Our task is to prevent that by getting rid of these weapons before they're used in such ways.

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