Can it be that the nuclear freeze--that uppity, leaderless movement--is going to take us back to the days of McCarthyism? Will we hear its advocates called "unwitting handmaidens of the Communist Party"--the wonderful epithet that the senator flung at the Senate elders who recommended his censure?

The freeze movement is still comparatively young and its sponsors' lists groan with heavy establishment names--Billy Graham, Averell Harriman, Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, to name a few--but already the word is out that they are doing Moscow's work.

We will shortly be observing the 25th anniversary of the death of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, who gave his name to an era when opposition to official policy guaranteed slurs on patriotism. You'll find an echo of that time in a piece of literature being circulated at freeze meetings.

"The Soviet Union Needs You!" reads the white-on-black headline. Beneath a picture of soldiers marching in Red Square under portraits of Lenin and Stalin, the legend reads, "Support a U.S. Nuclear Freeze."

It is published by the College Republican National Committee and is meant primarily for distribution on college campuses, where, interestingly enough, the younger brothers and sisters of Vietnam protesters are casting a cold eye on the freeze and joining pro-nuke forces.

Says College Republican National Committee Chairman Jack Abramoff, a recent graduate of Brandeis and future Georgetown law student: "We want to shock them out of an irrational and emotional reaction. To wake up students, we find it necessary to come out with a bold stroke.

"We don't say that everyone involved in this is a communist. But they are supporting the Kremlin line."

Twenty-two House Republicans signed the Markey-Conte freeze resolution, among them John LeBoutillier (N.Y.), a brash, conservative freshman of whom the College Republican National Committee expected better things.

"We intend to confront him," says Abramoff.

While the literature is aimed at students, several copies showed up at a turbulent Capitol Hill press conference where touring representatives of the European peace movement ran into hostile questioning by spectators masquerading as reporters. Abramoff was one.

"Why don't you talk about Afghanistan? Why don't you talk about Poland? What about yellow rain?" they were asked repeatedly. Mary McGrory FREEZE ---

"I have never seen such crude arrogance; we met nothing like it elsewhere," said one member of the delegation, the Rev. Volkmar Deile, head of the West German Action-Reconciliation organization.

The College Republicans have made it a priority to stop the freeze movement among their contemporaries. They zeroed in on the Europeace tour, sent out truth squads at every stop, put up their "The Soviet Union Needs You!" posters and made sure that the freeze proponents were asked if they were "unilateral disarmers."

That is how the administration really regards the proponents, even though the resolution they support calls for a "mutual, verifiable" freeze on U.S. and Soviet arsenals.

Signs of panic are evident in the administration as the freeze fever mounts. President Reagan was so distressed by a popular call for a halt in the arms race that he went so far as to say the Soviets have "a definite margin of superiority," a claim contested by Democratic hawks and members of his own Cabinet.

Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., in a speech touted by Reagan as the last word on nuclear policy, once again said that a freeze at current levels "would perpetuate . . . an unequal military balance . . . and reward a decade of unilateral Soviet buildup."

Haig complained that the administration policy had been "caricatured as a policy of building up arms in order to reduce them." He then gave details proving that the caricature is, in fact, the policy--"by maintaining the military balance and sustaining deterrence, we protect the essential values of western civilization."

Some Republicans believe that the freeze movement is a fad that crossed the ocean from a continent of pacifists, neutralists and pinkos--and, they hope, no more durable than Northern Ireland's peace movement. But polls show that 72 percent of the American people are in favor of the freeze movement. It has no Abbie Hoffmans to madden blue-collars. Its modest, swamped national organization portrays it in television commercials as a mainstream, grass-roots kind of thing. Members of Congress have been flooded with mail--Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) has received more letters on this topic than on all other subjects combined. At home in their districts, they stumble over city councils rushing to pass resolutions supporting the freeze.

You can't call an entire country subversive. You can call the freeze movement a commie front if you want to, but that means that three-quarters of the American public are "unwitting handmaidens." Even the College Republicans may not want to go that far.