Harold Willens, 88; Activist Wrote California Nuclear Freeze Initiative

Times Staff Writer

Harold Willens, a liberal political activist, entrepreneur and the author of California’s nuclear freeze initiative of 1981, died Monday of heart failure at home in Brentwood. He was 88.

He spent three decades supporting antinuclear causes and candidates, but he once said his efforts toward a nuclear freeze initiative brought his most surprising success.

Officially known as the California Bilateral Nuclear Weapons Freeze Initiative, it called for the U.S. government to propose to the Soviet Union that both countries halt the manufacture, research and proliferation of nuclear weapons. It also called for inspections to verify that the agreement was being honored.


Willens took up the cause in 1978 but in early 1982, only months before Californians passed the initiative with 51% of the vote, he told United Press International, “People asked me ‘Do you think this will be an issue in the ’82 elections?’ And I would say, ‘No, its much too early.’ ” He didn’t expect such widespread support.

His years as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II sparked his peace activism. Recruited into a program to learn Japanese, he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Only weeks earlier both cities had been hit by a U.S. nuclear attack. “I was in awe, if not shock, at the extent of the damage,” Willens later said.

It was some years after the sight of nuclear devastation that “a match lit up inside me,” Willens said.

Starting in the mid-1960s, he worked tirelessly for presidential candidates who supported nuclear disarmament. He was the major California fund-raiser for Eugene McCarthy in his unsuccessful bid for president in 1968, as well as for George McGovern in 1972.

In the 1976 presidential election, he campaigned for Jimmy Carter, largely for his position on nuclear disarmament. Two years later, Carter appointed Willens a delegate to a United Nations special session on disarmament.

Between official meetings the delegates talked about the next step toward disarmament. The idea of a nuclear freeze referendum for California came up. Lack of political or popular support for the idea slowed progress, Willens later recalled. It took several years to get beyond the talk stage.


Ronald Reagan was president in 1981 when a national movement finally took hold. Willens contributed $25,000 toward a budget for the freeze initiative in California, encouraged nine of his business contacts to do the same and eventually was named state chairman.

Politicians told him he was dreaming.

“I told them they underrated my entrepreneurial skills,” Willens said. “I didn’t go from poverty to affluence in the business world by taking no for an answer.”

Although he helped elect Carter, Willens said he felt betrayed when Carter refused to attend the United Nations session on disarmament, or give any meaningful support. The incident caused Willens to change his tactics. From then on, he said, “my candidate for president is the nuclear freeze.”

For years afterward, the prospect of global destruction obsessed him. “I realized that looking for a way out of this human dilemma by looking toward leaders was a fantasy.” His solution was, “Deal with it as citizens.”

In a storm of activity, Willens co-founded the Businessmen’s Educational Fund, which grew into the Washington-based Center for Defense Information for military research, persistently questioning the arms race. He sponsored conferences and joined forces with Los Angeles churches and synagogues, though he was an avowed atheist, to create the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race.

In 1984, he published a book, “The Trimtab Factor: How Business Executives Can Help Solve the Nuclear Weapons Crisis.” He first heard the term “trimtab” from a friend, the futurist Buckminster Fuller. It refers to a small lever that controls the rudder of a large ship.

The Ukrainian-born son of a tailor, Willens migrated to the United States with his parents when he was 8 and grew up in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. In his late 20s, as a married man with a 2-year-old son and a business selling condiments to restaurants, he entered UCLA and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

He later said he learned to excel in the face of obstacles, thanks to the harrowing experiences of his youth. His family escaped from Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, an ordeal that involved hiding in barns by day and walking by night. The stench of houses torched by marauders filled the air. His family was repeatedly robbed by drunken soldiers they met on the road.

That trip and the poverty of his childhood spurred him to become an entrepreneur bent on financial independence.

At 30, Willens co-founded a profitable textile machinery company, Factory Equipment Supply. He went into the real estate business during the war. Before he left for military service in 1943, he sold his food business and purchased two commercial properties on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, to leave his family in case he did not return from the war.

“I had a nice eye for property,” he said. It was his first step toward making a fortune as a commercial and industrial broker.

Some years later, when he was semiretired, Willens held most of his media interviews at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. His steely gray hair, slim, tanned figure and commitment to the Pritikin diet were often noted, along with his supercharged vigor. Fellow peace activists said it was not unusual for him to call at 7 in the morning and again at 11 that night.

In 1987, after the arms race between his homeland and his adopted country had cooled, Willens and a business associate, Wesley Bilson, went to Russia offering their expertise to sewing factories. It led to a Russian television special, “American Businessmen and Perestroika,” and the conversion of an army base near Leningrad into a children’s clothing factory.

“I’m a good example of what a person can do,” Willens told reporters in an interview in 1990 about his Russian venture. “I’ve done well, now I’ll do good. I’m a citizen, as opposed to a resident. A citizen is someone who cares about the country.”

Willens is survived by three children, Lawrence, Michele and Ronald; and seven grandchildren. His wife, Grace, died in 2000. Memorial services will be private.