Two paperbacks are on my desk. One is "Nuclear War: What's in It for You?," written by Roger C. Molander of Ground Zero, the organization running rallies against the threat of U.S.-Soviet atomic war. The other is "Freeze! How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War," written by Senate staff members Carey Parker and Robert Shrum for publication under the names of their employer, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and the co-sponsor of his nuclear freeze resolution, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.).

Together, the two books demonstrate why the nuclear weapons protest movement is so vexing.

The case for the movement is as obvious as it is compelling. Nuclear war is the greatest threat to humanity, and reducing the risk of its occurrence is therefore the single greatest responsibility of any nation that possesses these weapons.

Every American president from the birth of the atomic age has recognized and acted on that responsibility. President Reagan signaled his recognition of that duty in his speech last November, calling for a series of negotiations on strategic and tactical nuclear arms. He has repeated the message several times in the last four months.

The protesters have perceived, however, that the Reagan administration is of two minds about arms control. Its internal debate has delayed the talks. The president asserts that "substance is more important than timing" but, having thrown his considerable weight against the Ford- Brezhnev Vladivostok agreement and the Carter-Brezhnev SALT II treaty, Reagan bears a special responsibility for the long hiatus in negotiated nuclear arms pacts.

Beyond that, one encounters a greater mass of determined resistance to arms control and a greater cynicism about the negotiating process among key officials in this administration than in any other since the nuclear age began.

So public pressure is probably needed to prod the administration toward the bargaining table.

That much can be said on behalf of the movement-- but no more than that. Its impact may be needed, but its approach is a far cry from the seriousness with which this survival issue needs to be discussed.

If you want a model of an approach that is serious--and non-sensationalist--you need look no further than Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). He is trying to nudge the United States and the Soviet Union into improving their ability to determine whether a nuclear attack is under way, to detect who launched it and to guarantee their ability to talk to each other under those threatening circumstances.

There is no emotionalism in Nunn's speeches and writing on this subject--even though he is dealing with a terribly dangerous eventuality.

Contrast that with Molander's handbook for the Ground Zero movement, which purports to be "the presentation of basic, factual information to answer technical questions and a balanced representation of both sides of policy questions subject to varying analysis and interpretation."

The prologue to that book is the rumination of an Army widow who supposedly survives a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. "The letter she had received shortly after her husband's death (two years earlier) had said Bill had died so we would all be safe. She remembered politicians saying that we needed more weapons to be safe--because the Russians had more weapons. Great. Bill had died and the government had built more weapons, and look at us now. . . .

"She recalled reading somewhere that the United States had ten thousand nuclear weapons. Ten thousand BOMBS. Had they made her feel safe--safer? She couldn't remember thinking about it at all. She'd left it up to the experts. They said ten thousand weren't enough and they wanted more--for national security, of course. She suddenly felt bitter. . . . Could I have done something? she wondered. Maybe if I had told them that ten thousand nuclear weapons didn't really make me feel safe. Maybe if a lot of people had spoken up, had cared a little more, it would have made a difference."

That is no balanced, factual presentation. That is liberal sentimentalism run amok. And there is more of that kind of emotionalism and simplemindedness in the Kennedy-Hatfield opus. The senators (or their ghosts) ask a series of questions: "Shouldn't the public keep its nose out of the experts' business of defense and arms control?" Answer: "This is supposed to be a democracy." Question: "Won't a nuclear weapons freeze give the Soviet Union an advantage, since they have more conventional forces?" Answer: "A freeze won't stop the Red Army, or start it."

It's a crummy situation. A reluctant, sometimes cynical administration is prodded toward vital negotiations by a propaganda campaign that instead of clarifying, distorts a major public policy question. On both sides, we're getting cheated of what we deserve: serious negotiations and serious debate