Wellington, New Zealand — At the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, New York-born Larry Ross thought seriously about buying a $4,000 nuclear fallout shelter for his backyard.
Mr. Ross, his wife, and six children were living in Montreal at the time. ''But the house was on a missile trajectory. If there was a nuclear bombardment of the United States, we would not escape,'' he said in an interview here.
''So we spent the $4,000 bringing the children to New Zealand. It was the country that seemed most likely to survive a holocaust.''
Today, Larry Ross is not so sure New Zealand is all that safe. He has become this country's leading antinuclear campaigner, devoting his life to ensuring that his adopted country remains the haven he believed it to be 22 years ago.
Working from his home in Christchurch, Ross heads the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone Committee. It is virtually a one-man crusade: He pours out a constant flow of newsletters, transcripts, and press releases, corresponds with some 100 peace groups overseas, and stumps the country on lecture tours.
He finances it all on donations and makes a subsistence living with sales of bumper stickers, posters, and badges.
He has had remarkable success. As of now, more than 2 million New Zealanders - 64 percent of the population - live in areas declared nuclear free by their city, town, county, or borough councils. They range from tiny townships of 100 people to the capital, Wellington. Even his critics concede that much of this is due to Larry Ross.
They are nothing more than a symbolic gesture, for defense matters are solely the concern of the national government, but Ross says the number of zones indicates the depth of feeling in the country against nuclear weapons.
Few people in New Zealand were happier with the July 14 general election result than Larry Ross, for it brought to power a Labour Party committed to declaring the entire nation nuclear free and renegotiating the ANZUS defense pact, which links New Zealand with the US and Australia.
Ross claims ANZUS is a suicide pact and says membership puts New Zealand under the US nuclear umbrella, making it a potential target in any world war.
The Labour government of Prime Minister David Lange has not yet acted and is under pressure from the US to change its policy. But Ross is confident.
''Labour's win means a lot of our work is done - now we will be pushing for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific and an international peacemaking role for New Zealand.''
Ross was born in Yonkers in 1927, son of Frederick James Ross of the New York advertising agency Fuller, Smith, and Ross. When Frederick retired, the family moved to Toronto where young Larry earned an engineering degree and then moved into advertising himself.
He was 18 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. ''I began to wonder whether man would learn to control this new force or whether it would ultimately destroy him like the genie out of the bottle,'' he recalled.
He committed himself then to fighting the bomb, eschewing political labels, and dubbing himself ''a political rationalist,'' which he defines as: ''If it works and brings justice to the majority, then let's do it.''
A close follower of American politics, he elaborates: ''I feel that I represent the true radical American tradition in that I am genuinely interested in America surviving the nuclear age. I believe true American democratic traditions will triumph in the end.''
Ironically, it is America's links with New Zealand, through the ANZUS pact, that have most worried Ross, who came here with Canadian citizenship and is now a New Zealander.
He has written a book, ''World War Three in the Southern Hemisphere,'' arguing for an independent New Zealand policy to keep it out of major power involvements. It also suggested that a neutral New Zealand could play an international relief role for Northern Hemisphere survivors of a nuclear war.
''But,'' he says sadly, ''New Zealand is not safe any more - the alliance with the US and the growth of nuclear stockpiles has ensured that.
''I have thought of going to the Ross Shelf (Antarctica), but it's too cold there. There's nowhere else to go, so I'll stay in New Zealand and fight for peace.''