Executives step up to help halt nuclear arms race

Alan Kay is a Weston, Mass., businessman who got rich by starting and later selling TRG Inc., a military research and development company. But for the past three years, ''my principal activity has been reducing the danger of nuclear war ,'' he says.

Mr. Kay is using some of the money he won selling TRG and another company to wage a battle against the nuclear arms race. Along the way he has funded antinuclear organizations and sponsored research into public opinion on nuclear war-related issues.

A growing number of business men and women are joining Mr. Kay and beginning to play an active role in the antinuclear movement, even though executives have traditionally shied away from antiwar activities. This business community ''freeze'' activity may provide a counterbalance to the well-oiled defense spending lobby.

''Business people are much more interested in the 'freeze' than they were in Vietnam,'' says Karin Fierke, co-director of the National Freeze Campaign Clearing House in St. Louis.

This interest is taking form in action around the United States. For example:

* A national antinuclear organization, Business Executives Move for National Security, is in the midst of a membership drive. The Washington, D.C.-based group is a successor to Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace, which was active in the antiwar movement of the '60s.

* The Boston Globe and Business Alert to Nuclear War, a group headed by Alan Kay, will jointly sponsor a June 16 briefing for top Boston-area business executives on freeze-related issues.

* The California ballot referendum calling for a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze is being headed by Harold Willens, board chairman of Factory Equipment Corporation.

''There is tremendous frustration on the part of almost every business executive I talk to that there has been no (organized) business voice in the antinuclear discussion,'' says Stanley Weiss, who heads Business Executives Move. Mr. Weiss is president of American Minerals Inc., a mineral processing company based in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Weiss is trying to draw managers to his organization from a wide political spectrum. ''We are trying to get a group that is nonpartisan and will not be seen as being either left liberal or right radical.''

Managers who have already signed on for the freeze movement come from a wide variety of business backgrounds. The Boston-based Business Alert to Nuclear War has members who are consultants, accountants, retailers, and middle managers in large companies, Mr. Kay says. ''They are not chief executives for the most part, although we have several CEOs from small companies.''

But leaders of antinuclear organizations, tend to hold positions in which they ''don't have to worry about what a superior officer might say,'' Mr. Willens admits.

Executives seem to be more willing to fight the proliferation of nuclear weapons than they were to oppose the war in Vietnam. ''Business people are more receptive to the freeze,'' says Ms. Fierke, the Clearing House co-director. ''There is the matter of personal survival.'' Managers are not alone in their receptivity to controls on nuclear weapons. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted May 19-23 found that 72 percent of those surveyed favored a nuclear freeze with the Soviet Union; some 21 percent of the 1,470 people questioned opposed the idea; and 7 percent had no opinion.

In a separate survey mailed out March 12 by Becker Research Corporation for Mr. Kay, 72 percent of the 1,000 respondents looked with favor on a nuclear freeze. And 81.6 percent of the respondents thought at least 1 percent of the Pentagon's budget should be spent developing and carrying out programs to reduce dependence on nuclear weapons and enhance the opportunities for peace.

But public opinion on freeze-related issues is volatile. If a freeze were to result in equal strength for the US and the Soviet Union, 87 percent of the respondents in the Times/CBS poll would favor the idea, as against 9 percent who would still oppose it. But if a freeze favored the Soviet Union, the poll found only 30 percent supported the concept, while 60 percent were opposed.

The volatility of public opinion on the issue has played a role in keeping executives from Fortune 500 companies from taking prominent roles in the freeze movement, proponents argue. ''In the main they are still sheep dressed in human clothes,'' waiting for peers to move, Mr. Willens contends.

Organizations that speak for big business give other reasons for not being vocal supporters of the freeze movement. ''We do not get involved in international issues of that type,'' says Frank Benson, a press specialist with the US Chamber of Commerce. He added that there was no pressure from members ''that I am aware of'' to take a position on a nuclear weapons freeze.

''That's not in our ballpark. We stay with major domestic policy issues,'' adds William Bradt, executive assistant to the president of the Business Roundtable.

As a result, other professions have had a much higher profile in the freeze movement than business. For example, ''the Physicians for Social Responsibility has chapters all across the country,'' Ms. Fierke notes.

Business groups focusing on antinuclear issues typically spend much of their time educating members on nuclear issues and sponsoring talks to business people. ''Informing themselves and the whole business community is a major task, '' Mr. Kay contends. In addition, members of the groups seek to build support in Washington.

Proponents of a freeze say that self-interest should win over more managers. Business people ''are concerned about protecting our assets,'' Mr. Kay says. ''Nothing goes quicker in a nuclear war than assets.''

''I own buildings on Wilshire Boulevard (in Los Angeles),'' notes Mr. Willens. ''They will be vaporized with my children and grandchildren,'' if action is not taken.

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