GROWING ANXIETY about nuclear war has now produced the makings of a popular movement built around a call for a mutual Soviet-American nuclear freeze. The initial reaction of some in and out of the administration is hostile. It should be, if not accommodating, at least preemptive. There are many reasons to be more receptive. It's not just the self-evident truth that anxiety about nuclear warfare is, to put it mildly, a legitimate emotion and that to deny the legitimacy of such anxiety is to deny truth. It is also that, as amended over time, the original freeze proposal--whether you think it is the answer or not--has taken on many of the same characteristics and purposes that the administration's arms controllers claim for their own policy.

How does the current proposal, embodied in a congressional joint resolution, resemble the administration's approach? Both start by asserting the danger of nuclear war. Both seek deep cuts. Both accept as a method negotiation--"mutual" cuts. Both demand a "verifiable" freeze. Both would strengthen strategic "stability." Surely a good politician would want to welcome the freezers on these grounds. So would a good arms controller.

Of course, a fundamental difference remains. To the freezers, the source of trouble is the "arms race," a process seen as self-perpetuating and in itself riskier than any particular nuclear configuration. To the administration and many others the source of trouble is the "Soviet buildup," a particular configuration seen to confer advantage upon the other side. For the one, the remedy is to halt and reverse the "arms race." For the other, it is to match the Soviet buildup, at the least, on the not wholly ridiculous theory that you need something with which to pressure the Soviets to make a deal. The freezers fear the administration is pursuing an illusory goal of security through greater strength, masking its own arms buildup with unnegotiable arms control proposals. The administration suspects the freezers are incipient unilateralists ready to play on popular impatience and budget pressures to make a flabby and dangerous deal.

Intellectually speaking, no compromise is in sight. But Mr. Reagan would be foolish to let a collision come to pass. It strikes us as unreasonable at this point to expect him at this point to junk his chosen arms control policy. He would look silly and weak changing course even before the single part of his policy so far presented to the Kremlin, in the intermediate nuclear force talks at Geneva, has been tested. And certainly there is much to be said against this freeze plan, even as amended. But he cannot afford to stiff-arm citizens genuinely afraid of nuclear war; he should not want to. He can try harder to convey that he is concerned not merely with being intimidated by the Kremlin but with the continuity of the country's and the planet's life as well.