This year marks a third of a century of an ever more irrational superpower nuclear arms race, and the time has certainly come for a major effort to halt its continuation. There is no technical reason why a comprehensive treaty worthy of the notion of "freeze" cannot come into being.

In this connection, the charge by R. James Woolsey ("Nuclear Freeze: It's Not That Simple," op-ed, March 17) that a freeze is analogous to some new idea sketched on the back of a napkin betrays ignorance of the freeze's pedigree and structure.

The freeze has been proposed every six years for two decades. In 1964, at Geneva, President Johnson proposed a "verified freeze of the number and characteristics of strategic nuclear offensive and defensive vehicles." In 1970, the Senate passed a resolution, by a vote of 73 to 6, calling for "an immediate suspension . . . of the further deployment of all offensive and defensive nuclear strategic weapons" at a time when, we now know, the director of the arms control agency, Gerard C. Smith, was urging President Nixon to consider the same proposal to "stop where we are." In 1976, candidate Jimmy Carter made this proposal.

Now, in 1982, the freeze proposal has the sort of mass grass-roots support that has been absolutely necessary for successful arms control. Where the atmospheric test ban had pollution of the atmosphere, the ABM treaty had the "bombs in the back yard" dispute. Those who "wince as they see a noble instinct, the love of peace, beginning to be diverted into those full-page ads . . ." are either not serious about arms control or have forgotten its history. It is as if their aspirations have been reduced, by habituation, to simply managing the arms race.

The main obstacle to a negotiated freeze will be just this kind of skepticism about whether a freeze is thinkable and worth seeking. But the ABM treaty, which engaged some of us in 10 years of quiet and open discussions with the Russians, long faced even greater skepticism. ("Technology" could not be stopped, the ABM was "defensive," the Russians loved "defense," and nothing that far-reaching had ever happened in arms control.) The SALT II treaty is far more complicated in its provisions and definitions than many would have believed possible some years before its conclusion. Not least important in estimating what is feasible today is the enormous amount of intelligence now available about Soviet activities through technological means, and the mutually supporting quality of carefully designed control methods working at each level of arms race production, deployment and testing.

The second obstacle, and the more serious one, is not technical at all. Many arms race participants on both sides prefer the arms-length relationship that the arms race embodies. Certainly, in the United States, some fear that a treaty would undermine the Western will to support high defense budgets for conventional weapons; would tacitly establish a no-first-use-of-nuclear-weapons policy that they believe might undermine the credibility of our posture in Europe or the Persian Gulf, and would erode the readiness of our population to support intervention in nations where some feel intervention should proceed.

But common sense suggests the arms race is the greater and more permanent danger, and the time to try to stop it is certainly now. With the Soviet Union's rise to parity, Moscow is, for the first time, in a position to think seriously of a freeze. With the Soviet capacity to build more and more strategic weapons, we certainly have an incentive not to let the SALT II limits be breached.

And the attitudes of the present administration are making all of us nervous and, at the same time, stoking the fires of mass popular revolt here and in Europe. (The administration's strategic evacuation program in particular, which will divide the nation's citizenry into "evacuees" and "hosts for evacuees" is bound to have an enormously educating effect on each and every citizen.)

The freeze is not, of course, an end in itself and it should be followed by reductions of nuclear delivery vehicles carried out in such a way as to permit each side to eliminate those it considers most vulnerable.

The Kennedy-Hatfield resolution makes this quite explicit. ("Proceeding from the freeze . . . (they) should pursue major, mutual and verifiable reductions . . . through annual percentages or equally effective means in a manner that enhances stability.") It is, therefore, startling to see the freeze treated as if it were to be a permanent steady-state affair rather than a transition to a process of reductions and stabilization. And just as there can be no meaningful freeze without subsequent reductions, there really cannot be effective reductions without some kind of freeze--as was quite clear with the Vladivostok agreement, from whose loopholes the cruise missile sprang.

So those who oppose the freeze are really giving up on reductions as well. Why don't they say so? Why do they say the freeze will somehow undermine leverage for reductions! In fact, the desire to maintain the agreed freeze and to make it work will be a major new pressure to secure reductions!

The only substantive complaints made by Woolsey illustrate how hard it is to dimiss the notion of a freeze. A freeze does not prevent the one- for-one replacement of old submarines by new, quieter ones! And if, in some other fashion, anti-submarine warfare or air defenses on either side caused potential problems for a specific freeze, the two sides could, should and would agree on collateral measures to maintain it.

The Kennedy-Hatfield proposal, now the main vehicle for a freeze, urges the two sides to begin negotiations on "when and how" to proceed with this freeze and subsequent reductions. The product of these negotiations would, of course, have to be ratified by a Senate that is super- vigilant in such matters.

Why, then, would anyone compare such a treaty with Reaganite economic theories and why should this enormously serious matter be rejected in such an out-of-hand fashion? True the Kennedy-Hatfield proposal is distinguished, in Woolsey's article, from other ("total") versions of the freeze. But the general treatment gives the impression that people are more afraid of that arms control which they have not thought through than they are of the arms race they have come to accept.

If the effort to secure a freeze, and subsequent reductions, fails, as it well might, then the arms race will either explode into a totally destructive war or, in time, peter out as other arms races have, but over a long period of time. In either case, the next major grass-roots effort, after this call for a freeze, will not be so hopeful about negotiated agreements. Like the British youth today, young American activists in this field will be, next time, for unilateral halts.