Lee Brown’s last published letter to the editor, written just days before she suffered the stroke that would in a few short weeks claim the life of this remarkable activist for peace, diplomacy and disarmament, was an urgent appeal for Senate ratification of the new START Treaty.
It was classic “Lee Brown”: sincere, smart, fact-driven and immediate.
“This treaty is crucial to creating a nuclear weapons free world — a goal favored by the vast majority of the world’s people,” argued the impassioned internationalist whose letters to newspapers, magazines and websites made her a nationally-noted campaigner on peace and justice issues. “Ninety-seven percent of nuclear weapons are held by the United States and Russia, so when these two powers commit to reducing their respective nuclear weapons stockpiles by 1,500 that is a good beginning to this long process.”
Rejecting Republican arguments that the treaty had not been sufficiently debated, Brown recalled in her late-November missive that: “since April 8, when President Obama and the Russian president signed the New START Treaty, the Obama administration has been discussing and sharing information about it. In addition to 18 Senate committee hearings, the White House has had 29 meetings, phone calls and briefings or letters involving (the leading Republican critic: Arizona Senator Jon Kyl) or his staff.”
Lee’s conclusion pretty much summed up her philosophy of political action – and life: “So now is the time for bipartisan cooperation in the U.S. Senate so the world’s people can enjoy a safer and more peaceful world.”
Born 80 years ago in rural Michigan, Lee earned a degree in Sociology from Albion College in 1952 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago a quarter century later. In between, she was a missionary and a mom, a partner to her husband Tom and always an activist.
Until her death on New Year’s Eve, Lee was part of a national network of campaigners on international issues, many with similar backgrounds, who believed passionately in the power of the individual to raise big questions and to demand that those in power answer them.
I got to know Lee in the 1990s, when her letters began to arrive at The Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was editing the editorial page and that great progressive paper’s very large "Letters to the Editor" page.
Upon her "retirement" in Madison in the 1990s, Lee began a project of renewing and extending the work of groups organized locally while thinking globally. She was particularly devoted to the United Nations Association of the United States of America, which she nurtured, prodded and promoted with an energy that was nothing short of remarkable.
With Lee and many others, I worked to establish the series of debates on foreign affairs issues between 2nd congressional district candidates. Begun in 1998, this groundbreaking initiative – the first ongoing series of foreign-policy focused debates of their kind in the country – drew broad community support and continues to this day. The forums formed a model that has been honored and expanded upon by UNA-USA activists and their allies in groups such as the League of Women Voters in states across the country.
During the Bush years, Lee’s determination to challenge undeclared wars and illicit foreign policies turned her into one of Wisconsin’s most high-profile activists. Always principled, exceptionally polite but never anything short of persevering, Lee put herself in the thick of struggles to avert and end wars, to shift U.S. policies in the Middle East and to hold President Bush and Vice President Cheney to account for their wrongdoing.
She did this by organizing debates, forums, protests and other events. Invariably the first to show up and the last to leave, Lee was the perfect organizer: detail oriented yet flexible enough to manage every unexpected development, welcoming and encouraging of others yet ever at the ready to pick up the slack.
Above all, however, she was a letter writer.
Lee’s letters, always short, smart and pointed, arrived on a steady basis in the in-boxes of editors in Wisconsin and across the country. And they formed a chronicle of principled activism on the most fundamental questions of war, peace and national priorities.
A teacher in spirit, Lee used questions to get people thinking. My favorite, repeated in many forms, asked: “Why is funding for war always secure?”
As the current debate about budgets, debts and deficits stirred, she asked it in a letter that noted the budget crises in Wisconsin, California and other states across the country.
At the same time that states complained that there was “not enough money for good schools and routine government services,” Lee noted, “During the week of June 19, the House passed the final version of a bill to provide $106 billion through September 30 for waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan… During the week of June 26 the House approved a $680 billion military budget for fiscal year 2010 that includes $130 billion for war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Making the comparison that too few in Washington did, Lee noted, “The House of Representatives has the ‘power of the purse,’ but these crises in state governments seem to play no role in setting congressional spending priorities. Somehow, however, they always have money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
That led to a classic “Lee Brown” conclusion: “Most unfortunately for us and our children, the military-industrial complex has become the military-industrial-congressional complex.”
True words from a true heart.
There will be many moves to honor Lee Brown, all of them appropriate. But if we had asked her how best to do so, Lee would have said: “Join the United Nations Association. March for peace. Organize a debate and, above all, write a Letter to the Editor.”
As we begin a new year with a new START Treaty but also with the same old military-industrial-congressional complex, we would all do well to honor Lee and the peace-and-justice cause she held so dear with some joining, marching, organizing and letter writing.