As a vechicle of generalized protest, the nuclear freeze proposal has had one immediate effect: it has helped induce Ronald Reagan to start adjusting some of his arms control positions. He has toned down his statements on nuclear war and begun to explore compromise in the Euromissile talks. The freeze proposal has also become an agent of nuclear education for Congress. But in our view the proposal itself still amounts to bad public policy. This has to be said despite the improvements made in the freeze resolution in the House debate, which resumes in two weeks.

It is good that the larger strategic goal now inscribed in the resolution is "essential equivalence in overall nuclear capabilities"--a vague formula but one acceptable to many if not most conservatives. The resolution no longer assumes, simplistically, that Mr. Reagan can abandon his START priority of reductions in strategic forces and bring into being "an immediate, mutual and verifiable freeze": it acknowledges that it remains to be decided "when and how" to achieve this goal.

A larger difficulty is revealed, however, by the "special attention" the resolution now accords to "destabilizing weapons," those that give either side a first-strike capability. This language goes to a major and central defect of a freeze--that it would block new programs designed to take Soviet and American nuclear forces off a hair trigger, to create more "stability." The term "arms race" can be very loaded: weapons that are less vulnerable and therefore less prone to being fired first in a crisis can settle the superpowers down. If the freeze people are serious about the perils of "destabilizing weapons," they must do more than add to their resolution a paragraph inconsistent with its basic proposition.

The Stratton amendment, barely defeated on the House floor, illuminated a second crippling defect of the freeze--its equivocation concerning what new weapons would be permissible during the time it took (one year? several?) to negotiate this freeze. The Reagan "modernization" proposals make this question urgent. To the extent that they have addressed it, freeze advocates tend to say that each new system should be judged on its merits. But it is not easy to find new systems in which they see merit. The letter of the movement honors mutual negotiated cuts. But its spirit is patently unilateralist: no more nukes. A freeze, or a close approach to one, would undercut not only Mr. Reagan's negotiating program but also the freeze's own.

The freeze resolution welcomes "concurrent and complementary arms control proposals." Sounds fine. Imagine, however, the likeliest first Reagan arms control deal, one removing some Soviet Euromissiles but deploying some American ones. Under a literal freeze, there could be no deal. Here is one more reason to put aside the freeze. Arms controllers can do better.