Like others in these last years, I've been deeply concerned over the dynamics of the nuclear arms race and the somber promise that it holds for mankind. Feeling so, I have tried to do whatever might be possible as a private citizen to arouse interest in arms control and concern for the exceedingly probable disaster if it does not succeed. I was a member of Americans for SALT; I have had a role in the Council for a Livable World and been a cochairman of the American Committee on East-West Accord; I persuaded the BBC, in the course of a television series on the issues of our time, to do a sequence in Death Valley to show how the landscape between Hartford and Philadelphia would look after a modest nuclear exchange; I have made speeches for Physicians for Social Responsibility, our most effective organization in advising people as to the consequences of nuclear war.

At the Democratic National Convention in 1980, I joined Adm. Gene La Rocque of the Center for Defense Information and Frank Askin, a lawyer from New Jersey, to speak in favor of a resolution calling for a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze. The freeze, a straightforward and wholly practical first step, seemed by far the best way of getting the issue away from the nuclear theologians who have made weapons policy, including arms control, their exceptionally private preserve.

The convention experience was especially instructive. Harold Brown, then in his residual days as secretary of defense -- no men descend so rapidly into such well-earned obscurity as former secretaries of defense -- reproached me with extreme solemnity for appearing on so frivolous a mission. He was there to lobby for the MX missile.

Charles Robb, now governor of Virginia, was designated by the Pentagon to refute the freeze heresy; he read his speech very well, despite not previously having encountered it. My own words, like those of my colleagues, were greeted with great waves of apathy. We were resoundingly defeated.

I cite these efforts not to suggest any seniority in the present discussion but to establish my credentials for affirming that, despite much effort, we weren't getting anywhere at all until Ronald Reagan and his people came along to bail us out.

Concern for the danger of nuclear confrontation and war was, I am persuaded, just below the surface. But like the prospect of death, with which it is so largely identical, it was subject to psychological denial. Better and certainly happier not to think about it.

Needed was a major shock or series of shocks to bring the alarm into the open. This we could not provide. And this the Reagan administration, in a superbly orchestrated effort, has provided. That it was not intended does not subtract at all from the achievement.

The stage was set by the big increase in military spending, which was linked, in turn, to the assault on social expenditures. The first made the second necessary. Many in the past had sought to show military expenditures are at the expense of other public needs. The administration made the choice clear, vivid and unmistakable, a major exercise in popular education.

Then came the renewed commitment to the MX missile and the extended debate over its basing. This was admirably designed to arouse important and articulate people, and particularly western Republicans and the Mormon church. There is a wholly nonpartisan aversion to having the MX as a neighbor and target.

Next came the well-publicized decision to proceed with the neutron bomb with its thought-provoking emphasis on the destruction of people as opposed to property.

This highly substantive action was combined with more theoretical talk of a limited nuclear war, which emerged as a quite probable prospect, tolerable except to the Europeans immediately involved. The latter promptly raised their voices, which, not surprisingly, had resonance across the Atlantic, including with those who wondered in their inconvenient way if a limited war could ever be limited.

Next came the renewed emphasis on civil defense. The educational value of this is simply immense. Nothing so aroused my Cambridge, Mass., neighbors as a civil defense advisory saying that, in the event of a nuclear attack, we should all go in an or derly manner to Greenfield out near the Berkshires -- those of us who had cars. As an especially telling note, we were cautioned to take our credit cards with us.

In quick response, the Cambridge City Council took time off from its normal preoccupation with potholes, garbage collection and general fiscal astringency to publish a pamphlet condemning the whole insane business and urging prevention as the only hope.

The effort to arouse the public and keep it aroused continued. Early this summer, we had word of the plans for a five-year nuclear war from which we would emerge victorious if not quite happy and glorious. Following some criticism, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger reiterated his commitment, adding only the thought that while we might not win, we wouldn't lose.

Meanwhile, from the National Security Council came the news that it was national policy "to prevail" over the Soviets, this being one of those inspired ambiguities that is especially designed to give scope to the imagination. A NSC staff member, Prof. Richard Pipes, had earlier been quoted as saying that there could be no peace with the Soviets until, in a generous way, they abandoned their economic and social system. In other words, a state of permanent war with the Soviets.

In July came word that the administration would no longer have negotiations on the comprehensive test ban; there were doubts about verification. Better the risk from the weapons. In August, Energy Secretary James Edwards went out to Yucca Flats to celebrate the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by being present at a nuclear test. He proclaimed it "exciting" and promised more. Prof. Eugene Rostow, in charge of arms control negotiations, had earlier recurred to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Asked if he did not fear a nuclear war, he responded that Japan had survived a nuclear attack and flourished. How better could one have guided thoughts to the unfortunates who were in the two cities on those summer days and who neither survived nor flourished?

Thus the contribution of the administration. Can anyone doubt its effectiveness compared with the feeble voices previously raised? In consequence, the freeze has become a national crusade; there has been nothing comparable since the Vietnam War; as all know, it came within two votes of success in the House of Representatives. Considering the risks we had been accepting, including that of the blind delegation of power to those who make nuclear game theory and the resulting megadeaths their monopoly, can anyone be sorry? One must even marvel, in a certain way, at the political courage (or insouciance) that was involved. Not previously had anyone imagined that massive and enduring death was a salable proposition for the average American voter.

The writer is professor emeritus of economics at Harvard.