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Unpublished interview with Dr. Gray Brechin (1999)

The following interview by Russell Schoch was scheduled to run in the September, 1999 issue of the California Monthly, the magazine of California Alumni Association. Just before the issue went to press, the Executive Committee of the Association instructed editor Schoch to delete if from the magazine. No explanation for the Committee's summary execution was ever given to the subject of the interview.

An independent scholar who seems out of place in late 20th century California has written a peculiar and extraordinary account of our time and place. A man who dislikes much of modern life, including its media and its emphasis on getting and spending, has connected those dominant areas of our life and suggested some of their poisonous effects. A former student who passionately loves the Berkeley campus of the University of California has managed to say some awfully rude things about it.

Gray Brechin, '72, M.A. '76, Ph.D. '99, first discovered Berkeley when he got lost in its hills and simultaneously decided this was the place he would live. In high school, growing up in Los Altos, he walked the streets of San Francisco, looking at its architecture and noting the family names attached to the buildings. After two years at the University of Washington, he drove to Berkeley, took a wrong turn and wandered through the hills while looking for the campus, and then enrolled as an undergraduate. But he fled the chaotic campus of the late '60s ("It was horrible," he says) for Europe, returning three times to earn degrees in history, the history of art, and geography. And he has used the opening of thought unleashed in the 1960s to craft his new book, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, which the University of California Press will publish this month.

Brechin, now 51, has been a successful television journalist for KRON-TV and KQED-TV ("I'm very comfortable in front of a camera") and a print journalist, writing columns for San Francisco Focus and SF magazines. The Emmy-nominated KQED documentary on which he worked with producer Joe Kwong about the poisoned Kesterson wildlife refuge helped lead to a clean-up of that mess; and his article "Elegy for a Dying Lake," sparked the movement to save Mono Lake. In the mid-1980s, he watched, from the inside, as a Big Chill cooled the media's ability to offer critical and historically informed content; what emerged in its place he calls "consumer media." Though he's a scholar in every fiber of his being — the happiest period of his life was when he lived alone with his books in a Franciscan convent in Italy — he is wary of the academic life, which he believes is often inimical to the scholar's life.

Brechin's book on San Francisco takes off from the new urban history practiced by Mike Davis on Los Angeles (in City of Quartz) and William Cronon on Chicago (in Nature's Metropolis). "Gray's book is Nature's Metropolis with fangs," says Professor Richard Walker of Berkeley Department of Geography. After witnessing a slide show Brechin gave as he was working out the ideas for Imperial San Francisco, Walker suggested that Brechin return, once again, to the Berkeley campus and turn that slide show into what became his dissertation, and now a book.

Imperial San Francisco is a look at how our favorite city built itself up by ravaging the hinterlands — the Sierra Nevada during the Gold Rush, the Central Valley during its quest for water and wealth, and the Bay itself, poisoned by the toxic wastes left over from its (ultimately unrealized) vision of itself as an imperial city. Unlike Cronon in his book on Chicago, however, Brechin names and assigns blame for these ravishments. The names are those of the powerful families in "The City." the de Youngs, Spreckels, and Hearsts, among others. "A city doesn't do things by itself," Brechin says. "There are people in power who benefit from the growth of cities." The book is extraordinary for nothing else than its tales of sabotage, blackmail, fraud, even murder. Early readers of the book say there are several operas and perhaps a TV mini-series in its pages.

While he was writing his dissertation at Berkeley, Brechin joined photographer Robert Dawson to produce Farewell, Promised Land, published earlier this year by UC Press. That book is a sobering vision of California's environmental mess. "I look at Farewell, Promised Land as a study of the symptoms and Imperial San Francisco as a study of the disease itself," Brechin says.

For the audience of this magazine — where Brechin published one of his first articles in 1978 — the final chapter of his new book will be the most disturbing. Among the first people to examine the declassified papers of Berkeley icon Ernest O. Lawrence, Brechin draws close connections between the University and the 5.5 trillion-dollar nuclear arms race, a connection he says has been hitherto carefully hidden.

Q & A

In your new book, you tell some amazing stories about famous San Francisco families. What about Charles and Michael de Young who founded what is now the San Francisco Chronicle?
The de Young descendants own the San Francisco Chronicle and KRON-TV, although we associate the name primarily with the de Young Museum — because the family is now old money, and they don't want it known how extensive their holdings are, or about the family's shady past.

What was San Francisco like when they arrived in the mid-19th century?
By the mid-1850s, there was already a well-defined aristocracy and elite in San Francisco — largely Southern, largely Protestant. They were extremely exclusive. German Jews had come over here early, too, and were very clannish and exclusive. So you have parallel aristocracies: the Protestants, and the German Jews, who would in turn exclude the Eastern European Jews. Later, when they started making money, the Irish Catholics form another enclave.

Michael and Charles de Young, who arrived in San Francisco as adolescents with their mother during the Civil War, didn't fit into any of those groups. They were Dutch Jews.

Spelled how?
We're not really sure. It was probably "de Jong." It was very difficult to find out anything about the de Youngs' past, though people tried. Rumors kept circulating that Mother de Young had run a whorehouse back in St. Louis, and that Charles and Michael de Young's sister had worked, gainfully, in that establishment. They were considered shady people.

What is known about the truth of these rumors?
Very little, except that they were persistent and kept cropping up so often that there may have been truth in them. All I can say is that at the time, in the 1870s and '80s, it was generally accepted.

With dire results.
Yes. A popular Baptist minister, the Reverend Isaac Kalloch, declaimed from the pulpit that the de Young brothers were the bastard progeny of Hell, the illegitimate offspring of the keeper of a whorehouse. This, for some reason, enraged Charles de Young, who shot the minister at point-blank range in front of his church.

The reverend survived?
He nearly died. But, while he was very nearly on his deathbed, he was elected mayor of San Francisco! He recuperated and actually served. But Charles kept up his vendetta against Kalloch, and it got so rough that the reverend's son, also a minister, shot Charles de Young. He was a better shot, and killed Charles.

Then Michael de Young took over the newspaper. Michael used it as a blackjack, as a tool of extortion and blackmail. Apparently not learning from his brother's fatal experience, Michael launched a very personal vendetta of his own — against the wealthy and powerful Spreckels family. The upshot of this was that Adolph Spreckels, the son of sugar king Claus Spreckels, shot Michael de Young.

This sounds like a bad soap opera! What is the importance of this shady past to the families — including the descendants of the de Youngs and the Spreckels families — who rule San Francisco today?
Its important in the sense that you realize what their current legitimacy is based upon. These people with vast wealth and power today are self-conscious aristocrats. I think its important to go back and see what these fortunes were built on — essentially blackmail, extortion, and other criminalities were at the roots of some of these family fortunes.

Let's go back to the California Gold Rush of 1849. What does this have to do with San Francisco today?
The Gold Rush is central to the whole idea of the California Dream, and the words "gold" and "golden" are inextricably linked with California. What is the California Dream but the dream of getting rich? Through the use of high technology.

Didn't the Forty-Niners use pick-axes?
That's useful to say in terms of the entrepreneurial myth — to say that, with a lot of hard work and some luck, anyone can make it.

Not true?
No. That was true only for the first few years of the Gold Rush. And no one has ever been able to identify anybody who made and kept a fortune from the placer mines of the Sierra Nevada. There was a brief period, very colorful, when some money was made — the average take was about $30 in the beginning, which of course at that time was worth a lot of money, but is still not a fortune.

A few people did make a lot of money, but then they'd lose it, usually to the city slickers — the bankers and express companies and various others. The really big money was made by using capital to make more capital. And that's what the importance of San Francisco was — to establish banks and stock exchanges — because you had to have inside information go make money. That ties in with Silicon Valley; an information economy for getting rich is nothing new; it goes back to that time [and to the very birth of banking in the Renaissance], because the people with the inside information, particularly working in the stock market, were the ones who really got rich.

And you point out that those fortunes produced costs we are paying today. What are some of the environmental costs of these fortunes passed down to us?
Well, there are the costs of maintaining the levees out in the central Valley. The costs of dredging San Francisco Bay. The fact that San Francisco Bay is irremediably contaminated with mercury. The fact that the forests around Lake Tahoe are dying off. All of these are long-term consequences of the mining in the 19th century.

Your new way of looking at urban history suggests that there are two ways of looking at man's relationship to his environment. What are they?
One might be called the progressive view; it's generally identified with modernism. It's anthropocentric and it's technocentric — the idea that technology will pull us out of any fix that it puts in. Technology has made life constantly better, and it's going to solve whatever problems we have; therefore, we need more of it. The people who are becoming rich off this system don't encourage any examination of the dark side of technology, the problems that it might bring about.

Such a look represents the other side, what Lewis Mumford called the biocentric view. And that is to look at the human race as part of nature that relies upon nature for its sustenance and our life. Therefore, we cannot grow infinitely.

There is a disease, of course, called cancer that grows out of control and ultimately kills its host. And that's what we're doing to our planet. If I want to do anything with the book, it's to diagnose that disease, which I think is consuming the planet and killing it.

And the disease is?
It's us. It's the human race and its demands upon the planet, which are satisfied by using remote-control technology. And even if you don't care about wiping out the wildlife and the native plants and everything else — it ultimately does come back to us in the form of disease. When Bob Dawson [photographer of Farewell, Promised Land] and I were traveling around California, we'd visit these cancer clusters of young children out in the Central Valley — and nobody knows why they're occurring. But I've got a pretty good hunch.

Which is?
They live in a bath of chemicals out there. It's practically a chemical factory masquerading as a rural farm region.

Why would Walnut Creek have one of the centers of the highest breast cancer rates in the world?
Oh, there are enormous amounts of chemicals in Walnut Creek, and there's the Concord Naval Weapons Station, which probably has hydrogen bombs, although the government will neither confirm nor deny it. The reason Walnut Creek has such a high rate is because what is known as the Cancer Coast — the Carquinez Strait. I have a map in the book of the prevailing winds coming in through the Golden Gate — and that is in essence why the most heavily polluting, most dangerous industries were placed along the Carquinez Strait, because of the prevailing winds. The wealthiest people live in the west part of the Bay Area, along the coast in Marin or San Mateo or Santa Clara Counties; the poorest people live downwind. And they're the ones who have to suffer the effects of pollution.

In my book, I go back to a case in 1872, when a smelter was proposed for Oakland. The local mining magnates fought it off, saying that in fact the smelter fumes were not only immediately deleterious but in fact worked their way into the system so slowly that no one could make a cause-and-effect correlation. They were perfectly aware that, for the purpose either of medicine or a law case, you couldn't make a connection between the cause and its effect; but they knew that they didn't want that to happen to their families.

Now, those who set off the bombs, the atmospheric tests, the whole radiation industry, I think they knew the same thing too. They knew you could never trace the diseases back to the actual cause, at least some of them knew that.

Now we're headed toward Berkeley, which you discuss in the last chapter of your book. Why, to begin at the beginning, was the University of California located in the bucolic East Bay, rather than in San Francisco?
Initially, the New England ministers who set up the College of California deliberately set it up outside of San Francisco to isolate the students from the "brutalizing vulgarity," as they called it, of San Francisco. In Europe, the universities are set up right in the center of their cities. Americans have always had an ambivalent attitude toward cities, regarding them, as Jefferson did, as centers of corruption.

I want to jump from the founding of this University to the connection you draw between it and the arms race. That is not a connection many people would make.
If you mention the atomic bomb to most people, and the Manhattan Project, they generally think of the University of Chicago, because the first reactor was built there, underneath Stagg Field. It's been very surprising to me that people don't associate the University of California with The Bomb. And I think that lack of association is not accidental, that the University and in particular its Board of Regents have not wanted its very close association with the development of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb and the subsequent arms race to be known.

From my research, I've found that they realized that they had severe public relations problems right from the beginning. What was a public university — dedicated to free discourse — doing in a top-secret, government-funded weapons research and development program?

Winning the war?
Yes, but I'm talking about the arms race, the atmospheric tests, and the fall-out after the war.

We don't think of the University being involved in the arms race after World War II.
Well, that's because it's been so thoroughly covered up! The University is generally recognized as being critical to the creation of the bomb at Los Alamos. But very few people realize that very important work was done here. And then the arms race really got going.

It was about 1947 that the first official contract for the management of the Los Alamos lab was signed by the University. Los Alamos was closely tied to the radiation lab on the Berkeley campus, and the radiation lab was of course the star of the Berkeley campus. And it was headed by the first superstar academic that Berkeley produced, Ernest Lawrence. The University traded on that all the time.

But it wasn't only Lawrence, it was also Robert Oppenheimer who was important in the University's weapons work. Although Oppenheimer was one of the star professors here — he is recognized as one of the great physicists of the 20th century, and he was picked ahead of Lawrence to head the project to develop the atomic bomb — his memory has been virtually erased at Berkeley.

There's no Oppenheimer Hall of Science here, that's true.
When I go up to the Lawrence Hall of Science, there is only the slightest mention of the atomic bomb. And there is only one mention of Oppenheimer I've been able to find, and that is in the caption of a photograph of him and Lawrence. It is almost like a Soviet purge.

Why did this happen?
I think it was largely politics, the right-wing nature of the regents at the time. They suddenly realized they had a real embarrassment on their hands: Oppenheimer had been hauled before a committee and been branded a security risk.

What lessons do you draw from Oppenheimer's erasure from Berkeley's past?
I think what has been erased along with Oppenheimer's name is the University's connection with the bomb. As I said, very few people connect the atomic bomb — let alone the hydrogen bomb that followed, and the "Star Wars" technology that followed after that — with the University of California. Instead, Lawrence has been elevated, as the inventor of the cyclotron, and all of the good things that came as a result of the cyclotron — it was a marvelous invention for exploring physics, there's no doubt about that.

And that's what the Lawrence Hall of Science is all about?
Yes, it celebrates that. You see the evolution of the cyclotron, and you see this tinkerer named Lawrence. He's a Henry Ford, a Thomas Edison. And Americans love that. Lawrence fits into the whole American self-made-man image. At the same time, you exclude him from the legacy of the work on America's weapons of mass destruction.

What was the Manhattan Project about?
I think one of the most controversial things in my book is that I have come more and more to believe that the Manhattan Project was not about Germany. It was about the Soviet Union. I think it would have been almost impossible for Germany to have created an atomic bomb. But always in the background, for the United States, was the threat of the Soviet Union.

And you had very conservative regents who had a frothing hatred of the Soviet Union, probably greater than their hatred for Nazi Germany. Of course what Fascism is about is the perfect union of big business and big government — and that was not altogether a bad idea for many of these people.

In my book, I go into how William Randolph Hearst's media empire served as the American division of the German propaganda ministry. So there was some sympathy in this country for what was going on in Germany, and certainly in Italy, too, by those at the top. There certainly wasn't any sympathy among the elite in this country for what was going on in the Soviet Union.

So there was a clear understanding at the top that whoever could control this weapon would in fact control the world. This is the ring of power — it's Tolkein, it's Wagner. It's the ultimate power.

But the Manhattan Project was top-secret. How would the regents have known about it?
They knew about it through their membership in the Bohemian Club. Key decisions were made there, including the very decision to set up Los Alamos. Lawrence was a member, and he invited Oppenheimer to come, and General Leslie Groves [head of the Manhattan Project] was there.

So the regents knew about this from the very beginning?
Yes. I quote Rockefeller's nephew, one of the great industrialists, who said that events going on in Berkeley, during the war, would have far greater world effect than what was going on in Europe at that time.

By Berkeley did he mean Los Alamos?
He meant both, because there were experiments going on here, at the Radiation Lab, through the use of the cyclotron. Rockefeller, and many of the regents, were heavily involved in the energy industry. They saw the possibilities of nuclear energy.

The peaceful use of the atom?
Exactly. Because they understood, as very few civilians do, the importance of energy in producing industrial civilization. Because they're the ones who are providing the energy.

And these regents, who were virulently anti-communist, could rationalize the development of atomic weapons as being a patriotic duty in which the University should be involved. They could also see it as an enormous source of potential funds for themselves and for the University.

So, this calculated terror — the nuclear arms race — developed an enormous industry. The Brookings Institution has estimated that the nuclear arms race cost the United States 5.5 trillion dollars.

How, outside the regents, was the University of California involved?
Here I would go back to the founding of the Lawrence Livermore Lab. It was set up by Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller deliberately as a means of sponsoring competition with the Los Alamos lab. I'd always wondered why we had two weapons labs. Well, it was to use American principles of competition in order to come up with the very best weapons.

This great competition between these two weapons labs in fact was kind of the mastergear that kept the arms race going because they were constantly coming up with new generations of weapons by competing with each other, and then the Soviet Union had to keep running as fast as it could and investing more and more money in order to keep up with what we were doing.

And the University of California is still managing these two weapons labs.
Yes, and thereby giving them a cloak of respectability. In a secular society, the university has taken over the role of the church — purity, righteousness, and such. The great paradox of course is that here you have two top-secret "campuses," surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards in which there is anything but free discussion. These are top-secret compounds producing super weapons. They're not regarded by the public as UC campuses. And that is no accident. The top administrators and the regents don't want these thought of as part of the University of California.

What should the relationship be between the University and the weapons labs?
It should sever the connection. The University has no business doing this. Any institution that prides itself on free discussion has no business being involved in top-secret research and weapons of mass destruction. I think that's morally abhorrent.

The argument has been that if the University of California wasn't overseeing the weapons labs, it would be much worse.
I can't imagine how it could be worse than it is. It has produced these absolutely horrendous weapons and bankrupted one nation and practically bankrupted us — it may eventually bankrupt us as well because of the costs of the clean-up. We don't even know how to clean up what these weapons labs have created.

There haven't been any atomic bombs dropped on California. What effects are you talking about?
I'm talking especially about the release of radioactivity during the atmospheric tests, and from the reactors themselves, which are constantly leaking. This has affected life on the planet in ways we have no idea of and will probably never know.

Another effect is very immediate in the Bay Area and may have something to do with the high cancer rates here. There are nearly 50,000 barrels of low- and high-level radioactive waste in the Gulf of the Farallones that were dumped from ships that had been exposed in the Marshall Islands and dragged back into San Francisco Bay; those barrels are now breaking open in the fishing grounds outside the Golden Gate.

I found in Lawrence's papers that the regents and the top scientists and politicians would fly to the Marshall Islands for bomb tests. Early in the morning they'd be sitting in their Adirondack chairs in shorts and sunglasses to enjoy the spectacle of enormous thermonuclear fireballs going off on one of the nearby atolls — upwind, of course. Then they'd have a luau, go to the PX, fly back to regent Edwin Pauley's 25-acre estate in Hawaii for a little R & R before coming back to the United States. They'd get souvenirs of these blasts, and they'd write thank-you notes to Lawrence. It was a very boy kind of thing.

I want to go back to your earlier question: It's not just that the weapons labs are providing a service to the government; they're actively promoting the weapons. That's what I find really abhorrent. They're not neutral spectators in this whole thing. The whole Star Wars project grows out of the scientists and promoters — they're scientist-promoters, in fact — at Lawrence Livermore getting the ear of Ronald Reagan and then taking it into the political arena. The official figure is that we've spent $50 billion already on Star Wars, and there's no end in sight. Of course, that's a never-ending stream of money into Lawrence Livermore as long as it can be kept going.

People have talked about the military-industrial complex. I think it should be called the military-industrial-academic complex.

Let me ask you, Gray Brechin, what do you think of the University of California?
Oh, I love this place! Anybody who criticizes the United States is asked: "Why don't you leave?" Well, often the harshest critics are the best lovers, and that's how I see myself. I think I had to become an adult to realize the extraordinary education that the University provided for me, how great a gift this was from the citizens of California. So I love the University and I love Berkeley, which is my home.

A few years ago, I was asked to give the graduation speech for the Geography Department here. I talked about John Galen Howard's buildings. I think for many Berkeley alums, their love for Cal is closely associated with the white granite buildings that Howard built. The Campanile is one of my favorite buildings in the world, because it always means I'm home. When I return to Berkeley from some place — and I think many Old Blues feel this — when you see the Campanile, it represents all that's best of the western classical tradition. Every time I see the Campanile, it's like there's a light above Berkeley, and I feel I've come home again.

And the magnificent library here, especially the Bancroft Library, allowed me to write this book — even if the book is harsh about Berkeley. I guess that's why I want the University to separate itself from its dark legacy, to acknowledge in fact that it exists. Perhaps my book will encourage discussion about this issue and this history.

 

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