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Ex-Senator Alan Cranston pushing hard to abolish nuclear weapons Global crusader 

Eric Brazil / SF Examiner 19nov00

alan cranstonLOS ALTOS HILLS - Former U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston has become an abolitionist.

With the same relentless, disciplined energy that characterized his 40-year career in Democratic politics, Cranston is leading a global crusade for the abolition of all nuclear weapons.

Cranston, who retired from the Senate in 1992 after four terms, now devotes full time to running the Global Security Institute, which he founded to advance the case for abolition.

Free of the partisan pressures of elective politics, he is able to take a detached view of the ongoing soap operatics of the presidential vote count in Florida. "There's never going to be a satisfactory solution from the point of view of the loser," he said. "The party that loses will be a sore loser, (and) the winner may have a very tough time leading and getting much done.''

So, under the political radar for the past eight years and even against the din in Florida, Cranston, in a rare interview, said that he relished pursuing an agenda he found truly meaningful.

In a long conversation in the capacious, book-and-memorabilia-lined study at his Los Altos Hills home, Cranston, 86, acknowledged that consciousness raising in the United States on the nuclear weapons abolition issue was a formidable task.

"Concern about nuclear weapons is about No. 18 (in the polls)," he said. "They just don't think it's a serious problem, and young people don't have any memory of the Cold War."

In fact, the threat posed by nuclear weapons "is more dangerous now than it was during the Cold War," because "terrorists and rogue state leaders are not under the restraints they were then," Cranston said.

Besides, he said, "there has been no significant change in nuclear policy by the U.S. and Russia since the end of the Cold War. . . . They still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert status that can be fired in 45 seconds.

"Launch on warning is still followed by both countries, and they follow the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD). It boggles the mind, but they do," he said.

Peace and the establishment of some sort of world authority to deal with issues that transcend the capability of individual nations have been consistent themes in Cranston's career.

As a young foreign correspondent, Cranston saw firsthand the rise of Hitler and Mussolini and warned against the rise of Nazism and Fascism. His 1945 book, "The Killing of the Peace," examined the Senate decision to keep the U.S. out of the League of Nations. He wrote it to avert a similar fate for the United Nations.

The Global Security Institute, headquartered at the Presidio - and at Cranston's home office - has persuaded more than 100 international civilian leaders, including 44 past and presidents and prime ministers, to sign on to its nuclear weapon elimination initiative.

The institute's full-page ad appearing last month in the New York Times, calling on the American government to "commit itself unequivocally" to negotiate worldwide reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons, made it clear that Cranston had attracted a powerful constituency.

Signators included former President Jimmy Carter, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Nobel Laureates Kenneth Arrow and Elie Weisel, Coretta Scott King, astronaut Sally Ride, international financier George Soros, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, retired Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Andrew Goodpaster and Ann Landers.

Abolishing nuclear weapons "is not some wild idea that a few people have," Cranston said. "America is committed to abolition under the nonproliferation treaty . . . signed and ratified when Nixon was president." The problem is that the treaty has not been adhered to, and both the United States. and Russia retain some 15,000 nuclear weapons - down from a maximum of 30,000 - but still an unconscionable number, he said.

Cranston said that the institute's short term goals were "taking the weapons off hair trigger alert and reducing the arsenals."

Down the road, "there should be a worldwide ban on the production of fissionable materials that you need to produce a bomb and an inventory that can be watched every step of the way, to make it hard for rogues and terrorists to get a bomb," he said. The authority to monitor and enforce such a security system doesn't exist, but "we have committed ourselves to the goal. It just hasn't been worked out yet."

In addition to the practical matter of avoiding a deadly calamity, either accidental or terrorist-caused, there is a moral issue, Cranston said.

"You can't mobilize support just out of fear . . ." he said. "We are now relying on terror for security, saying if you don't like it, we will wipe out millions of your people with a nuclear bomb. And that's what terrorists do."

As a practical matter, "it's difficult to believe that nuclear weapons can be around forever and never be used. It's up to us to take the lead for their abolition. We created them. We're the only nation that has used them. We have more than any other nation, and we're the only real super power now. So we have to lead the way," he said.

Cranston was born in Palo Alto and reared near his current home. At Stanford University he ran a 48-second quarter mile and was a member of the mile relay team, the nation's fastest. He later set world speed records for seniors in the 100-yard dash.

Cranston survived prostate cancer, and he looks every one of his 86 years - but looks deceive. Although he gave up competitive running a few years ago, he still lifts weights and retains a trim physique.

It is a fact buried in the tangled modern political history of California that it was Cranston who virtually reinvented the Democratic Party in 1952 after the defeat of presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. In a nonstop, no-sleep campaign, Cranston barnstormed the state to create the California Democratic Council, a federation of local Democratic Clubs that provided the muscle for the party's 1958 sweep of statewide offices.

Elected to the Senate in 1968 after two terms as state controller in Sacramento, Cranston quickly rose to a leadership position and was elected Democratic whip seven times.

"I don't miss the Senate. I had 24 years there, and that was great," he said. These days, "I get more done on this issue (abolishing nuclear weapons) than I could in the Senate because I can concentrate."

As a senator, Cranston played a leading role in moving the SALT, START and Panama Canal treaties through the Senate, and he drafted the first bill cutting off money for the Vietnam War. But he believes that his longest-lasting achievements were environmental bills. "Redwood National Park, wild rivers, parks on the sea coast, the Alaska land bill. . . . I'd like to have gotten more done on the peace front than I did, but I was there mostly during the Cold War," he said.

Cranston also drafted the Desert Protection Act and managed to push it through the House, only to see it die in the Senate, because his California Republican colleagues - Sens. S.I. Hayakawa, Pete Wilson and John Seymour - insisted on weakening it.

California's Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein "had the good fortune to have (Sen.) Barbara Boxer with her, and she didn't have to water it down," he said. "She will be remembered for the desert bill more than I will, but I'll be a footnote."

In his last year in the Senate, Cranston became enmeshed in the so-called Keating Five scandal, in which in he received a reprimand from the Senate Ethics Committee for overzealous fund-raising. He received $865,000 from financier Charles Keating for voter registration efforts to help Democrats. Simultaneously, he lobbied administration banking officials on behalf of Keating, who later went to jail for securities fraud.

Cranston always maintained that his role was mischaracterized, but he declined an opportunity to clarify it or criticize his colleagues or the press. It's water under the bridge, he said.

Cranston is doing a lot of writing these days, but not on his memoirs. "I don't have time for it," he said.

Instead, he is focusing on an issue that has been an abiding passion, one that led him as a young man to become president of the United World Federalists: sovereignty.

"When they created our country, the Founding Fathers said sovereignty doesn't belong to the nation, it belongs to the individual, and we exercise some sovereignty in San Francisco, some in Sacramento, some in the nation, but the one place where you don't have sovereignty - you have chaos - and that is in the world," he said. Consequently, "some small amount of sovereignty should be placed in world institutions," he said.

"We already know that in some cases - the Postal Union, the Telegraph Union, SALT treaty, START treaty, the European Union - but it's not done in the thoughtful, organized way it must be done," he said. Creating world institutions to deal with issues too big for nations to handle "isn't visionary or idealistic, it's practical, the only way we know how to avoid chaos."

For most of his life as a public man, Cranston carried a quotation from the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu in his wallet, until it became too tattered to read. By then he had memorized it, and it guides his life still, he said.

"A leader is best when people barely know that he exists. . . . Of a good leader, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say 'we did this ourselves.' "

"I've tried to live this," Cranston said, "but it's hard to do in elective politics."

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