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

Page 6 of 6

Lessons Learned

Looking back at your career, Senator Cranston, I assume that you would advise young people not to give up on politics, even in this cynical age we live in.

Yes, I would. Many forces help make the decisions in our society and in our world. The concepts and philosophy of education of science, which is having a profound impact now, views of ethics and morality and practicality, that many, by no means all, but many of the decisions are finally made by people who run for and hold for fleeting moments governmental political positions. If you don't pay attention to who's there it's going to be hard to get the right decisions finally made after all these other forces have their input.

That also involves choosing to be one of the people making the decisions.

Yes, it does. Somebody has to choose to be there who has some sensible ideas about what ought to be done.

Looking at your life, it's very clear that even as a young person just out of Stanford, values were very important -- in your work as a journalist, but also and more importantly when you entered the political realm, always having a sense of priorities, whether it was nuclear weapons or helping the disadvantaged; bringing your values to the process and making the process instrumental to your values.

Yes. It's important to recognize that many people working together can do things which individuals working alone cannot do. An individual can have a profound impact if that person has some values, has some goals, and figures out sensible ways to pursue them. But in the long run it takes common action and decision making through the processes of democracy.

One odd thing that's going on in the world right now is that democracy seems to be on the march. More and more hierarchical, dictatorial nations are falling by the wayside and being replaced by democracy. We don't yet know if that's a permanent trend, but that's what's been happening. Hierarchies generally don't seem to be working anymore, not only in countries but in corporations and in nongovernmental organizations. Unless you have a sense of values that's shared by people and turns them loose to do certain things on their own within those sets of values, the organization, whether a nation or corporation or citizen group, just doesn't work very well.

Meanwhile, right now we have the sovereignty issue, people fighting over being able to make their own decisions in their own small place in the world, or a larger place. And we have the idea of globalism. Globalism right now is not being guided by any democratic principles. A global society is emerging, but the democratic process is not yet involved in that emergence. It's basically being fostered by science and by corporations that take advantage of what science is producing to find new ways to market, to communicate, to do this, to do that. That's leading to this global society, but without democratic principles adequately involved. And that gets back to the need to turn the UN, I believe, into a body that can play a part here on behalf of the people.

What are the skills required to do political work?

I don't think there's any one definition, but to do effective political work you have to have vision and practicality, and learn how to persuade people that what you feel needs to be done does need to be done.

How would you advise students to prepare for a political career if they chose to do that?

Studying the history of politics and government, studying how the issues have been dealt with, how the abolitionists of an earlier day brought about abolition of slavery in our country, for example; how the human rights movement is developing strength all around the world. Studying all that, but then getting active in politics is part of the way to learn, to experience at a practical level how this all works in terms of issues and who gets to be in office to actually make so many of these decisions. I urge people to get involved in the Young Democrats or the Young Republicans or whatever party they choose, and volunteer in campaigns, learn how it all works, and decide whether you want to spend part of your life, or much of you life, in that engagement.

Looking back at your life, what was your greatest political disappointment?

I don't really think of any in particular, because I'm an optimist and I believe that setbacks are temporary.

What about your greatest achievement?

I think probably helping get us out of the Vietnam War. I campaigned on that issue. I did help get us out of the war. The first measure that ever passed the Senate cutting off money for the war, which was the way we finally forced our way out, was a Brooke-Cranston amendment. Brooke was a Republican senator from Massachusetts, and he and I joined in an amendment that cut off the money, that passed the Senate. It didn't pass the House but eventually that worked.

I think the longest-lasting achievement of mine relates to the environment. When you pass a bill that deals with one war, one crisis of one sort or another, some economic or social problem, the consequences are fleeting and probably what you do creates some brand new problems that then have to be dealt with or are still around. But when you pass a bill preserving a redwood forest, and I've done that, of preserving wild rivers, I've preserved many, or creating a wilderness area or a new national park, that's forever. I achieved a lot of that, and those consequences will be with the American people for century after century, if we don't blow ourselves up.

One final question. In your lifetime you have looked at these public issues from many sides. You reported on it as a journalist, you organized in California in the political movement, you were in the Senate, passing legislation. Now you're running a nongovernmental organization. Where do you think you got the most satisfaction in the achievement of the goals you sought?

Satisfaction depends upon getting things done. All through my life, beginning with the meeting with Grenville Clark and Albert Einstein, before, during, and after the Senate, I've worked on this issue whenever I could of trying to avoid a nuclear conflict and taming these weapons, getting rid of them. I got a lot done in the Senate on that front and in some organizational activities before. But the problem in the Senate was, I had to do a zillion things every day, many of them I didn't particularly want to do, some I had no particular interest in doing, but I had to do them. I had to be ready to deal with whatever issue came up in the Senate, how I was going to vote on it, which you're suppose to do while you're there. I couldn'tconcentrate to the degree that I would have liked to on the nuclear we apons threat and what to do about it. So when I left the Senate, I wound up creating the Global Security Institute to focus pretty much exclusively on the issue of nuclear weapons and how to get rid of them. And I feel now that I'm accomplishing more than I could before the Senate or during the Senate, despite the power a senator supposedly has, because I can concentrate. When you can really concentrate on one thing, which I am now doing, if you go at it intelligently, you will get a lot done. And there are many, many people I'm collaborating with who are working on this issue now, and between us, I think we're about to make a lot of progress.

Senator Cranston, thank you very much for coming to Berkeley and reflecting with us on your life and times.

Thank you, it's great to be with you.

Thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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