Since he visited the government's nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge, Tenn., last fall, freelance writer Howard Morland has wanted to print the details, as he understood them, of how a hydrogen bomb works.

That, at least, is what he told me earlier this year when he came to The Washington Post, and showed me a draft of what he was writing and a series of diagrams which he said illustrated the principles of how a fusion bomb would work.

His aim, he said, was to take away the cloak of secrecy around the bomb's construction and thus clear the way for an open discussion of the ills of nuclear proliferation.

That thought reportedly is contained in the opening portion of the article now being held up by the government's lawsuit.

Morland said several times that he believed that the government would not permit his story to be published.

He said he had spent more than a year researching nuclear weapons. At Oak Ridge he read technical articles in the unclassified library and interviewed employes, he said.

The Progressive's managing editor, Samuel H. Day Jr., had helped arrange Morland's trip to Oak Ridge. He was considered "on assignment," Progressive Editor Erwin Knoll said yesterday.

Morland said earlier this year at The Post that he was not certain The Progressive would publish his hydrogen bomb story faced with government opposition. He wanted to know if The Post would. I told him it was doubtful.

Moreland wrote and The Progressive printed an article in the February 1979 issue on tritium, a key element in the H-bomb.

"The making of hydrogen bombs -- and in particular the design, manufacture. and assembly of their tritium trigger components -- is the most closely held of the 'atomic secrets,'" he wrote, and went on to describe how the tritium trigger worked. He emphasized the potential health dangers of tritium to workers.

The February article, which went to press in January, was not sent to the Department of Energy by Progressive's editors for checking on the technical facts presented.

On Feb. 26, however, DOE's public affairs officer, James Cannon, was called by Progressive's managing editor and asked about a second Morland article which had been mailed to Washington from Madison, Wis., the magazine's home, the previous week.

Cannon said he hadn't received it and Day responded he would send it air express.

It was received the next day. In a letter accompanying the manuscript and attached drawings, Day asked Cannon to verify "the technical accuracy of the enclosures," which he said was material "entitled 'How a Hydrogen Bomb Works.'"

Cannon passed the article on to John Griffin, director of classification for DOE. It was understood that Day wanted a quick answer, since it was soon to be sent to the printer for publication.

On Feb. 28, DOE lawyers informed Justice Department lawyers of the situation and said that the material, in their opinion, contained secret restricted data.

On March 1, Day called Cannon and, according to Cannon's affidavit, "stated that since he had not heard from me he presumed we had no problem with the material..."

Cannon responded that DOE's legal and technical people would contact Day. They did, and the legal battle was on.

DOE was not the only apparent recipient of the Morland article.

Prof. George Rathjens of Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in an affidavit filed in the government suit that around Feb. 15 he was given a copy containing an "editor's note which in part states: 'The following report contains 'secret/restricted data.'"

Two other sources who have read the article said yesterday it contained complex technical descriptions of principles associated with H-bombs.

One other source familiar with the piece said it contained two principles that had not been published before.