In the mass of newspaper clippings, letters, telegrams and telephone messages that have accumulated on my desk since the Justice Department sought and obtained a court order restraining The Progressive from publishing an article about the U.S. nuclear-weapons program, I have encountered only one real surprise.

That many Americans should instantly rally to our support in a battle against censorship and prior restraint is not surprising, nor is it surprising that others should hasten to denounce us for attempting to "give away the secret of the H-bomb." We anticipated those reactions, of course.

What is surprising is that we have received a number of responses from individuals who embrace, simultaneously, both of these positions -- who wish us the best of luck in the courts but then go on to ask, beg, urge, beseech or implore us to abandon the idea of publishing the article.

I find this surprising because, to the best of my knowledge, not one of these people who are doing the asking, begging, urging beseeching or imploring has read our unpublished article. Nor are they likely to read it so long as we are restrained from "publishing or otherwise communicating, transmitting or disclosing" it.

To my utter amazement, some of those who have participated in this unseemly rush to judgment are scientists and journalists -- members of the two vocations that supposedly regard a healthy skepticism as an essential professional attribute.

In this instance, these professional skeptics apparently share the attitude I once heard expressed by an Army colonel toward a court-martial defendant: "The son of a bitch must have done something or he wouldn't be here."

How have these professional skeptics formed their judgment that our article should not be published? They have formed it, obviously, on the basis of assertions made by the government of the United States -- assertions which we have categorically denied and which await adjudication in the courts on the basis of evidence to be presented by the government and by The Progressive.

The government contends that our unpublished article contains "secret" information which would, if published, injure the security of the United States and give an advantage to a foreign nation by encouraging nuclear proliferation.

In rebutting these assertions I operate under a handicap: I cannot disclose anything in our article that might be construed as "restricted data" -- however arbitrarily that term may be defined. Still, it seems to me that the government's assertions are demonstrably absurd.

The contention that an enterprise with The Progressive's pathetically limited resources can penetrate the "secrecy" of the nuclear establishment is, on its face, preposterous. In fact, our writer -- who had no security clearance and no access to any classified documents -- followed the normal routines of a diligent journalist. He read books and other public materials. He conducted interviews -- many of them arranged by the Department of Energy and attended by DOE officials. He used no illegal means and made no attempt to conceal his identity or his purpose.

His work could obviously be performed -- and performed more swiftly, more efficiently, and perhaps more accurately -- by any modest intelligence agency. It probably has been.

The "secret" of the hydrogen bomb is now more than a quarter century old. Hydrogen bombs have been produced and detonated by five governments -- the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and the People's Republic of China.

Why have no other nations followed suit? It is not because they lack the "secret," but because they lack something totally indispensable to the production of hydrogen weapons: a huge, sophisticated and enormously expensive industrial capability. You can't build a hydrogen bomb in your basement. No terrorist group, no crime syndicate, no struggling Third World nation can build one.

The fact that this is widely unknown or misunderstood illustrates in itself the abysmal secrecy in which the nuclear-weapons program has been wrapped.

Still, why would The Progressive want to publish information about the design and production of nuclear weapons? We are not, after all, Popular Mechanics magazine, nor is it our intent to provide anyone (including Idi Amin) with a handy-dandy do-it-yourself hydrogen-bomb kit.

Our purpose is not merely to demonstrate that there is no rational justification for the secrecy mystique that the government has invoked, but also to disseminate information that is, in our judgment, indispensable if Americans are to make informed decisions on urgent issues of public concern -- such issues as potential environmental damage, occupational health and safety risks, arms control and disarmament negotiations and federal-spending priorities.

The article we have been restrained from publishing contains no technical information that does not relate directly to such issues and that is not indispensable to informed decision making. I can offer an example without violating, I hope, the government's incredibly vague definition of "restricted data":

The pending comprehensive nuclear-test ban treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union has been opposed by the nuclearweapons establishment on grounds that there are urgent and overriding reasons for continuing underground nuclear testing. Those reasons have never been explained. What is being tested, and to what purpose? Without that knowledge, how can anyone decide on the merits of the proposed treaty?

It is conceivable, I suppose, that some readers would conclude, after careful scrutiny of our article, that the government is right and that it should not be published. But how can anyone reach that conclusion without knowing what is in the article? How can scientists or journalists -- professional skeptics -- reach that conclusion?

Perhaps, though, I am doing an injustice to those people who have asked, begged, urged, beseeched or implored us not to publish. Perhaps, by means unknown to us, they have actually read the article and arrived at an informed judgment.

If that is the case, I want to ask, beg, urge, beseech or implore them to turn themselves in immediately to the U.S. Department of Justice so that they can be restrained, as we have been, from "publishing or otherwise communicating, transmitting or disclosing" what they know.