NOBODY THOUGHT the hawks would go gentle into the good night of a nuclear freeze. But the force of their resistance surprised even them. They humiliated and embarrassed the House Democrats, and won a reprieve from the hated putdown for themselves and Ronald Reagan.

The Republicans and their Democratic allies had accepted Speaker Tip O'Neill's forecast of a freeze victory by 60 to 100 votes, a margin supposedly mandated by the November election. The president, in a recent speech, called the measure "simple-minded appeasement," but he had not lobbied hard against the inevitable.

What his people started with in the debate was only their massive resentment of an imminent affront to Reagan, the Republican Party and the political establishment. The nuclear freeze is a threat -- a threat to an awful lot of people who do not regard themselves on a footing of "rough parity" in knowledge or expertise with the ordinary citizens around the country who have taken the future of the planet into their own hands.

Congress does not like being crowded by its constituents. The nuclear freeze movement began in the universities, spread to towns meetings, its councils and county commissions. Congress was almost the last to hear about it, and the idea that people think they know enough to demand an immediate, bilateral freeze on the manufacture, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons, and hold this view against the collective disapproval of the military industrial complex, not to mention the Armed Services Committees of Congress, is for some unendurable.

A last-ditch effort by Rep. Mark Siljander (R-Mich.) which offered a way out -- to adopt language which endorsed both Reagan and the freeze -- illustrated the general abhorrence of being told what to do. It came within six votes of winning.

The Republicans could hardly count the ways in which the freeze offends them. Rep. Robert Walker, (R-Pa.) shouted his outrage at the idea of freeze advocates who regard the Soviets and us as "coequals in the arms race." It is "unseemly" he stormed. He is "proud of our nuclear policies," which are, as currently expressed by Ronald Reagan, to build up our arms and cut them later.

In the early stages, when victory seemed unattainable, the hawks made a rather dispirited defense. They invoked Munich, they rehearsed the treacheries of the Soviets, but they were simply probing. It was not until Rep. Sam Stratton (D-N.Y.), the voice of the House Armed Services and the echo of the Pentagon, got up to lead the troops that they began to make headway.

He got up with charts, to reclaim the territory of the Armed Services Committee. He spoke scornfully of people "dealing with intricate arms systems" they are "not familiar with." He made America's arsenal sound like Times Beach. He spoke of wingless B-52s, sinking Poseidons, crumbling Minutemen.

The Democrats have heard it all before, but this time it was different. Stratton found a soft spot in the lines. Chairman Clement Zablocki (D-Wis.) of the Foreign Relations Committee is not one of the intellectual giants of the House, nor one of its keener parliamentarians, and his answers about what the freeze would do were as vague as the resolution itself, which is simply a message to Ronald Reagan to stop fooling around with nuclear weapons.

The Republicans, war-whooping and exultant, began pouring through the Zablocki opening. America's defenses would deteriorate would to the point where Andrews Air Force Base would be a museum. We would be allowed only to "change the oil" and "rotate the tires" on our war vehicles, they cried. Zablocki haplessly tried to repel the attack. The freeze would allow "modernization," he said. "Modernization" is the code word for an arms buildup. He spoke of guarantees of "maintenance." He said at one point the freeze would permit the production ect for crof the MX, the B-1 and other first strike weapons; at another that it would not.

Baiting Zablocki turned out to be such great sport that the Republicans could not stop. Tip O'Neill, when the clock stood at 11, told them they were wasting their time. Nothing would change the fact that the freeze would pass.

Nothing, that is, he said, but President Reagan twisting wrists in overtime. The Republicans voted unanimously against cutting off debate, thereby giving the president at least four extra days to convince the warriors that they can win another one for the Gipper. It also put a lift in his stride and a gleam in his eye when he went up on the Hill to lunch with the speaker. One more time, he has had the luck of the Irish.