ON NOV. 2, Americans endorsed a freeze on nuclear arms, generally by overwhelming margins, in eight of nine states where the issue was on the ballot. Obviously, Americans don't put much stock in the arguments that one side or the other is decisively ahead in the arms race, and they want an effort made to negotiate its end.

Should they get it? Or is the public misguided? Is the freeze just a "simplistic sloganeering response to a complex issue"? Or could the arms talks fruitfully make use of the Kennedy-Hatfield injunction to discuss "when and how" to halt the production, deployment and testing of nuclear weapons? And if the freeze notion is such a good idea, why aren't more experts rallying around it?

The experts are often behind the public in assessing what is possible, both technically and politically. This is the third popular uprising against the arms race. Each of the preceding two has secured the agreement sought -- agreements far more complicated and unlikely than most of the defense community experts would have predicted possible. Moreover, no major agreements have been achieved without such popular uprisings -- by the experts without the public.

In the late 1950s, when the chemist Linus Pauling and his band of outraged citizens complained about radioactive pollution from nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, the notion of any serious arms control agreement between the two sides was distant indeed. Many strategists had gotten accustomed to atmospheric testing and the "theroretical" loss of persons to cancer from fallout. It seemed, to such acclimated specialists, just to be a cost of national security preparedness, made easier by the fact that it drew people to die by anonymous lot.

The atmospheric test ban was achieved, however, in 1963, and Pauling got a Nobel Peace Prize to add to his Nobel Prize in chemistry.

In 1969, a second popular uprising was triggered by the Army's attempt to place its ABM sites too near cities. And by 1972, a second major treaty -- far more complicated than the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty -- had been negotiated to ban ABM systems. As one who worked for this treaty for a decade from 1963, I well remember being mocked by those experts who assumed that no weapons technology could be stopped. They also believed that the defense-minded Russians could never be persuaded to preclude any "defensive" weapons. They were doubly wrong.

We can now document that, in 1969, we could, from a technical point of view, have had a freeze on offensive strategic forces to complement the ABM freeze we achieved.

On Oct. 29, the Pentagon was forced, as a consequence of a lawsuit initiated by the Federation of American Scientists, to release declassified parts of a 1969 paper on the freeze. Prepared by the Arms Control and Disarmanment Agency (ACDA) director, Gerard Smith, this study was the basis of his appeal to President Nixon to propose to the Russians a freeze on strategic forces.

The analysis opens by saying it will examine those "aspects of strategic offensive and defensive forces that are subject to adequate verification" in a quantitative and qualitative freeze. It concludes that, "in view of the extent of our present and projected national intelligence resources, this essentially amounts to a proposal to 'stop where we are' with respect to strategic forces." It is worth observing that we have far better verification capabilities today than we did then.

Since 1969, the two sides have gone on well beyond the ABM treaty. With ever- growing sophistication, they managed by 1979 to negotiate a SALT II treaty that was again far more complicated than most experts would have been willing to predict some years before. But without sufficient public support, it failed to be ratified.

Will the newest revolt against the arms race produce yet another major treaty, perhaps as far beyond our current expectations as did the last two uprisings? Sometime in this decade, I think it well may.

What do the doubters say? Besides verification, the skeptics normally emphasize the definition of the freeze, the negotiability of such a treaty, and the priority that should be given to it.

On the question of definition, experts have a distressing tendency to dismiss the freeze by defining it, distorting it or, if necessary, expanding it to include something they consider outrageously unworkable. What they should be doing is dropping out of the freeze definition those things they doubt can be frozen verifiably and seeing if enough is left to constitute a workable freeze.

For example, an ACDA official argued the other day before Washington councilmen that the freeze would prevent the United States from developing countermeasures on our missile-firing submarines to Soviet antisubmarine warfare. This is false. Some freeze proponents do not even care much whether the submarines themselves are modernized to give them greater quietness, etc. While none of this is urgently necessary now or for a long time, they think of the submarines as the trucks that carry the weapons around, not as the weapons themselves; the cost of replacing the submarines will keep both powers from replacing them very often.

In sum, the game is not to design 95 unworkable freezes and then to denounce them, but to find one or more workable and verifiable freezes and then to negotiate and ratify one of them.

The freeze is a shift in the philosophy of the negotiators. In the past, they were charged to limit this or that system without regard for other weapons. Thus the so-called Reagan "reduction" plan is really a plan to reduce only our missile warheads. It would eliminate 2,500 of these warheads while we place 3,000 more warheads on our bombers and thousands of others on our ground- and sea-launched cruise missiles.

Under the freeze approach, the negotiators would fail to halt a specific weapon system only after a full and fair effort to do that had been tried and, for some specific reason, failed. The presumption would be in favor of freeze.

Let us admit that the two sides must want to have some kind of freeze. Without a sense that the negotiations have become historic and "live" opportunities to end the longest arms race of the past two centuries, the negotiations would indeed fail.

But if 50 to 80 percent of the American public calls for a freeze, most administrations would give it a good try. And if the Soviets, for diverse political reasons, and military ones, want to get the contest halted, negotiations might move along more swiftly than expected.

There are, of course, some experts who lack more than the vision of a new, dramatic possibility. Some simply trust the continuing arms race they have come to know more than the treaties and negotiations which, on the whole, are the exception.

For them, it seems worth pointing out that the arms race can end in three ways: nuclear war, a petering out of the arms competition, or a negotiated agreement. Since we do not want nuclear war and cannot depend upon a petering out of the contest, we must give high priority to a negotiated agreement to halt the arms race. Indeed, as Paul C. Warnke has testified, it is hard to see what arms control is all about except as a step toward some kind of freeze, albeit possibly with ongoing reductions.

There are, of course, experts who do trust negotiations but who feel that a higher priority should be given to something other than a freeze. A new House resolution introduced by Rep. Albert Gore calls on the two sides to give "first priority" to eliminating even "hypothetical" fears of a "nuclear first strike" and to seeking "stability." Is that more urgent? It is not.

With each side possessing, at the ready, about 10,000 nuclear warheads -- about 100 nuclear warheads for each of the largest 100 cities on the other side -- the notion of a nuclear surprise attack is far too hypothetical to be the first priority.

Instead, the first priority is to have the two sides agree in principle that they will try to freeze the arms race. In that context, it would make sense to focus first on those weapons that would make a freeze more difficult, and these are, of course, much the same weapons that are related to "stability." But the truth is that experts are having more and more trouble defining stability, so hypothetical is the scenario for a deliberate surprise attack.

Finally, there are arms control experts in the administration who say it would be unpatriotic not to rally around the administration's proposal. It is ironic that their leaders in the administration were totally unwilling to do precisely that in 1979.

SALT II was, after all, more than a proposal; it was a negotiated agreement. It was supported by more than half the Senate, by more than half the public and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Ronald Reagan, Eugene Rostow, Edward Rowny and Paul Nitze -- the main arms control actors -- were precisely the four leaders of the successful effort to prevent the Senate from ratifying the treaty. Should we trust these experts to do what they struggled with all their hearts to prevent their predecessors from doing?

There are, of course, other arguments; indeed, the number of arguments made against it is a tipoff, to the cynical, that there fails to be any one good reason why the freeze cannot be accomplished.

Some strain to believe that the Russians are importantly ahead while, with great intellectual dexterity, assuming that, in a continuation of arms race, the Russians will fall importantly behind.

Others blandly assume that, if the Russians are willing to agree, it must be for military reasons and, hence, must be a reason why we should not. They conveniently overlook the fact that only one military officer has ever been a member of the politburo, and then only briefly.

The Russians make up their minds on arms control agreements for basically political reasons. People who will believe that the Soviet Union, through the World Peace Council, has somehow succeeded in duping large majorities of the U.S. population will believe anything.

Now, after Nov. 2, there is no good reason for independent experts to continue standing aloof from the freeze. This is an opportunity for them to get public support for their versions of freeze agreements, and to make up for past omissions to study the freeze.

When, after the first popular uprising, President Johnson in 1964 proposed to the Russians that the United States, the Soviet Union and their allies should "explore a verified freeze of the number and characteristics of strategic nuclear offensive and defensive vehicles," few experts took the trouble to analyze this possibility.

In 1970, after the second uprising, the Senate voted, 73 to 6, that the president should propose to the Russians ". . . . an immediate suspension by the United States and by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of the further deployment of all offensive and defensive nuclear strategic weapons systems . . ." Few experts even noticed and, of them, most have now forgotten this even occurred.

And thanks to former President Carter's new book, we now know that he also proposed a freeze -- to Soviet President Brezhnev at the Vienna summit in 1979. After consulting with his advisers, he says, "We decided that a total freeze in production and deployment of all nuclear weapons would be advantageous if it could be implemented without delay and if adequate verification procedures were devised." In this case, the vast majority of experts never even knew the proposal had been made.

Now American citizens have called for a freeze. This not only creates a moral obligation on experts to study the extent to which the arms race can be frozen, but it forces them to recalculate, and expand, the limits of political feasibility.

In sum, what is happening today is a change in the terms of reference of the arms race from learning to live with it to trying to end it. Such shifts, as experts and non-experts alike will sense, are often the beginning of the solution to formerly intractable problems.