Ford had a better idea. Gerald Ford, that is.

He wanted the country to approve the nuclear weapons accord he worked out at Vladivostok. But Jimmy Carter rejected that agreement, and spent years negotiating a slightly different package, SALT II. Now we are being urged to push for a freeze on nuclear weapons. We could do better, however, if we ratified SALT II, the bird in the hand. SALT II, which is still pending before the Senate, wouldn't freeze the Soviet arsenal; it would reduce it.

The nuclear freeze debate is very helpful. It has reached right down into town meetings and alerted far more people to the dangers of a runaway arms race. But there are three key problems with making a freeze our official negotiating position.

First, it would simply be one more jolting change in our negotiating stance. We already have an "A" for lack of consistency; let's not try for an Ap.

Where once we had a nonpartisan foreign policy, we have now made arms control the most partisan of foreign policy issues. Ford negotiated the Vladivostok accords. He did a good job. We should have ratified Vladivostok. But, no, along came Jimmy Carter saying he could do better. The ceilings on weapons were too high, he said. Chuck Vladivostok, and I will work out a better deal. So we chucked Vladivostok, and years later Carter came up with SALT II. It was a good package. But, then, Ronald Reagan came along saying he could do a better job. The ceilings in SALT II were too high, he said. Chuck SALT II, and I will work out a better deal.

The freeze people are now agreeing with Ronald Reagan's wish to chuck SALT II and pursue the better deal. But why? SALT I, Vladivostok, SALT II--each is of limited duration. None was designed as the final word. Each was designed as a stepping stone, an earnest of good intentions to prepare the ground for broader arms control measures. An important step in this continuing process would be to ratify SALT II so we could move on to SALT III (or START I, or whatever acronym).

The second problem with the freeze concept has already been pointed out--correctly for a change--by President Reagan. A freeze clamps down on the strategic issues that make Kremlin planners sweat, but it doesn't address those issues that make American planners sweat. To have any hope of negotiating successfully, each side must have something the other would like to get at. Otherwise, there is no incentive to make a deal.

We are worried that the huge numbers of Soviet MIRVed missiles or their inventory of very large missiles could successfully wipe out our land-based ICBMs in a first strike. We want reductions in either or both of those categories. The freeze simply leaves those threatening missiles in place.

On the other hand, what worries the Soviets is what we are preparing to do. We are working on a new Trident D5 sea-based missile that will make their land-based missiles vulnerable. Then there's the MX missile, which would also make their land-based missiles vulnerable. Third, we are developing sea-launched cruise missiles, and fourth, we are working on the Pershing II missile, which could be launched from Europe to hit Soviet targets in a matter of minutes. The Russians want to get at all four of these weapons. For us to get what we want, we need both a freeze and reductions. For the Soviets to get what they want, all they need is a freeze. At that point, there is no incentive for them to talk about reductions.

The third problem with the freeze proposal is that two moves away in this chess game we are presented with nothing but bad alternatives; we can give up either our knight or our bishop. Either way we get rooked. The freeze is proposed as an open-ended policy to last until reductions are agreed upon. The Soviets will have every incentive to hold religiously to the freeze while stonewalling on the reduction talks. Any proposal to drop the freeze will be seen by freeze advocates as a step backward and perceived around the world as American perfidy--while the Soviets sit quietly at the negotiating table behind their Cheshire grins. We will be forced either to stick with the freeze and its disadvantages or to play the role of ogre and resume the arms race. Neither is to our benefit. Neither advances the cause of arms control.

The freeze debate is the best thing to come down the pike in years, because it is awakening the public concern about nuclear weapons. Arms control is, after all, a very political process. The Kennedy-Hatfield resolution before the Senate helps to focus the political issues and give the public a flag around which to rally.

The freeze proponents say the freeze is only the first step; the second step is to get reductions in nuclear weapons. Fine. But how about going straight to the second step? Let's ratify SALT II.

Under SALT II, the Soviets would have to dismantle about 10 percent of their most threatening weapons. That's a reduction in arms. And reductions are what both the freeze advocates and the Reagan White House have declared as their goal.

We are following the SALT II numerical restrictions right now. Every time we build a new missile submarine, we dismantle an old one. The Russians are doing the same thing; every time they build a new missile sub, they dismantle an old one. The only provision that hasn't been put into effect--and which won't go into effect until and unless there is a ratified treaty--is the one that would limit the total number of strategic delivery vehicles (missile launchers and heavy bombers) to 2,250 on each side. Under that provision, the Soviets would have to get rid of more than 250 of their missiles or bombers. The United States is already under the ceiling.

SALT II also forbids either side from developing and deploying more than one new type of ICBM; that's one new type after ratification. That would put a real brake on the arms race.

The Reagan people ought to like SALT II. The administration, after all, is abiding by SALT II just as if it were ratified. And there is not a single weapons system in Reagan's five- year defense plan that is inconsistent with SALT II. In fact, the plan looks as if it were drafted with ratification of SALT II in mind.

Freeze advocates may find some drawbacks to SALT II. Granted. There are drawbacks to any policy one can think of. But SALT II has two key advantages over a freeze. First, it goes beyond a freeze and provides for reductions. Second, it has already been worked out with the Russians. It has been signed and sealed. Unlike the freeze proposal, we don't have to invest time negotiating the fine print with Moscow.

Freeze advocates say they want a freeze now followed by efforts toward reductions. If we ratify SALT II, we get reductions now and can then sit down at the negotiating table to pursue broader and deeper reductions.