Gov. Jerry Brown, his time in the nation’s capital winding down, set aside the remnants of an afternoon snack and contemplated the apocalypse.
Brown has long been concerned about nuclear weapons dangers. But the chance to converse with international experts at his first board meeting of the Nuclear Threat Initiative found the Democratic governor particularly stimulated, and mulling what he could do to stop the end of the world.
“I am not just an academic,” Brown said. “I’m looking for ways to generate more activism to build the awareness and the momentum for more discussion between these hostile powers. And I think that may involve more public activity.”
“Action!” he added later. “Alliances!”
Chief among the concerns shared by the dignitaries is the lack of discussion between the United States and Russia, which one participant from England told Brown is “the worst it’s ever been” since America started negotiating in 1969.
Despite President Barack Obama’s early pledge, progress to control arms and dismantle warheads slowed under his watch, “and now you got the sanctions. And you got NATO. And you got the defensive missiles. And you got North Korea,” Brown rued. “It’s all in a big ball.” North Korea, Brown learned at the meeting, is stashing scores of firing tubes in caves. President Donald Trump’s unpredictability, he said, doesn’t inspire confidence.
“I think the world is getting closer to the brink of destruction,” Brown said. “It’s bad. And there is goofing off on a bunch of sidebar activity, in my opinion. What we have to do is everything possible to at least start talking.”
His talk of doomsday is not new. Brown drew comparisons to the “The Scorpion and the Frog” fable in which the frog, afraid of being stung, refuses to carry the scorpion across a river. Scorpion counters that if it stung the frog, they would both perish. Still, halfway through their journey, the scorpion does sting the frog, succumbing to the laws of nature.
“Does that apply to us?” Brown asked.
In 1984, he wrote a response to former U.S. Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger in the Jesuit Thought Magazine, at the behest of a priest-educator. Brown would later recall that Weinberger, a cold warrior, quoted Moses as saying, “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live.”
“Unfortunately,” Brown wrote in his response, “Mr. Weinberger fails to explain what blessing can be found in the Reagan administration’s $220 billion plan to add 7,000 new nuclear weapons to an arsenal from which 170,000 times the firepower used on Hiroshima can already be launched.”
He likens the arms race to an addiction, where countries feel by getting more weapons they’ve relieved their anxiety, but in reality the stockpiling only stokes the fears of their adversaries, who respond by amassing a greater arsenal. And the cycle continues until “it all explodes,” or the rivals come to an agreement. “I said that in 1984, and it’s just as true today,” Brown said.
The governor returned to the essay several times while in Washington, where he pressed on about the dangers with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and former Vice President Joe Biden. In a private meeting with U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, they talked about the risk that Trump’s budget proposal, and nuclear rhetoric, will accelerate the arms race, hastening the chance of accidental nuclear war. Markey has a bill that Brown likes which would restrict the first use of nuclear weapons, and another to cap funding for the new air-launched cruise missile.
Brown, who turns 79 years old next month, described his recent advocacy as just the beginning of a “larger undertaking.” He had a daylong briefing recently at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and frequently consults academics and experts on the nuclear arms subject, and many more. He envisions his 2,500-acre family ranch west of Williams, in Colusa County, as becoming a salon of sorts.
“People may be coming to the ranch to discuss these issues,” Brown said. “It’s a great place to discuss serious matters.”