A Nuclear Worrier : Brentwood: Harold Willens, who launched the nuclear freeze initiative in California in 1981, has worked ever since to halt the spread of weapons.


Harold Willens is no nuclear warrior--he’s a nuclear worrier.

Over the years, this writer, retired businessman and former Marine, now approaching his 80th birthday, has done more than most to boost the public’s awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons.

In 1981, when the United States and Soviet Union were in the thick of the nuclear arms race, Willens launched the nuclear freeze initiative in California. His goal was not only to educate people about nuclear arms, but also to call attention to the spread of such weapons to unstable countries.

The measure was Proposition 12, a non-binding initiative of fewer than two dozen words that called for an end to the manufacture, research and proliferation of nuclear weapons. It was passed in November, 1982, with 51% of the vote, and helped move the nuclear arms issue higher on the national agenda.

“Friends criticized me for raising and spending $4 million for something that would not become law, but something much more important happened: breaking through the iron curtain of misinformation and misunderstanding and the remarkable opportunity to educate about the spread of this cancer on the international body politic we call the world,” Willens said from his home in Brentwood.


Willens saw firsthand what one bomb can do when he was a Marine intelligence officer during World War II. Trained to read, write and speak Japanese, he arrived in Hiroshima weeks after the bomb was dropped.

At the time, he said, he did not object to the use of the bomb because he considered the alternative--the invasion of Japan--unacceptable.

“There was no epiphany at that ime. I was stunned by the destruction of one bomb, but I was also awed and felt great relief because I was aware of the plan to invade Japan. I felt a general pride of being part of the military effort and today still think I did the right thing in that war,” he said.

The epiphany came 15 years later, when he was a guest at a think tank discussing nuclear weapons.

“A match lit up inside of me. Something intellectual and visceral came together that said to me that (a) Soviet-American arms race was a time bomb which would destroy the whole world,” he said. “Rational people, like Eisenhower, opposed the use of nuclear weapons and recognized that we couldn’t survive a nuclear war, but there were those who thought we could.”

Willens did not rest after the nuclear freeze initiative won passage. After the measure’s approval, Gov. Jerry Brown planned to present it to President Ronald Reagan. But the White House turned Brown down. Then, Sen. Alan Cranston tried and he was refused.

Willens found the way.

“Helping us in that campaign was Reagan’s daughter, Patti. We became friends. I visited her and explained how if I couldn’t deliver the initiative personally, a lot of media attention would be focused on it,” Willens said.

“She reached for the phone, dialed and said, ‘I want to speak to Daddy.’ She said, ‘Hi, Daddy, I’m sitting here with Harold Willens,’ and she explains to him the responsibility he has to millions of people. Reagan referred me to Michael Deaver, who tried to talk me out of it. I told him I already have plans to stage a major march around the White House and he agreed to set up the meeting.”

Willens remembers staying up all night before the meeting, carefully preparing his presentation. Then he met with Reagan.

“We were all alone except for the photographer. I said our daughters were friends, that I was a Marine, a businessman. . . . He responded with cliches, political catechisms, and when the 15 minutes was over I left totally dejected, feeling my grandchildren didn’t have a prayer,” Willens said.

“It was unforgettable and also depressing that I had just spoken to the man who didn’t see the Russians as human beings and who had his finger on the button.”

Harold Willens was born in Russia in a small town near Kiev and came to the United States when he was 8 years old. He lived in Boyle Heights with other immigrant families--all struggling to survive the Depression.

But despite the economic deprivations, Willens found hope to be the dominant feeling among fellow immigrants. It was during those years, he says, that he developed the kind of fearlessness he would later need to take unpopular stands. Working a 60-hour, $10-a-week job, he still managed to graduate from high school.

He went on to become a wealthy man, making real estate investments and starting a machine parts and equipment supply company.

Today, Willens thinks the danger from a nuclear catastrophe is greater than in the most frigid days of the Cold War.

The reason, he says, is that during the half-century of the nuclear age, the United States has been guilty of a demeaning double standard: preaching nuclear abstention while practicing precisely the opposite.

“What’s it going to take?” he asked, “Pakistan attacking India with nuclear weapons?” The United States, Willens says, would be the logical leader of worldwide non-proliferation efforts.

To critics, he says the United States does not need a large arsenal of nuclear weapons to be secure. To the press, he says don’t lump chemical, biological and nuclear weapons together, because nuclear arms pose by far the greatest threat.

And to young people, he says be a citizen--not a resident--and don’t wait until you’re a senior citizen to do it.