Dwight D. Eisenhower, noting that people are more avid for peace than their leaders, prophesied that "one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it."

He was quoted approvingly by several of the distinguished scientists and doctors who spoke Tuesday at a symposium organized by the Physicians for Social Responsibility on the medical consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. George Kistiakowsky of Harvard, who helped build the atomic bomb, and Jerome Wiesner of MIT, who helped design our air defense system, referred to Eisenhower as a president who understood the horrors of nuclear war.

Wiesner, during a break in the day-long examination of the "pathology" of the arms race, recalled a conversation with Eisenhower in 1957. Eisenhower complained that all the Pentagon or the Atomic Energy Commission wanted was more weapons. Said Ike, "If we had a nuclear war, we wouldn't have enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets."

Eisenhower knew from his own actions how much bolder people are than politicians when it comes to peace. He waited until he had one foot out of the White House door to make his famous speech warning about "the military-industrial complex."

It was the same with John F. Kennedy, who looked down the nuclear abyss and came up with the partial nuclear test-ban treaty. He later said that, had he understood the depth of popular support, he would have tried for a comprehensive ban.

Eisenhower's vision of a popular uprising against the arms race seems to be in progress. One of its strangest aspects is the presence in the vanguard of the medical community. Doctors have not generally been identified with social activism. Prestige, money and golf seemed to be more on their minds. But the nuclear threat has galvanized them, and their dedication and commitment has astonished and thrilled the grass-roots foot soldiers of the movement.

They prescribe a nuclear freeze to their patients and at public meetings, and they go on talk shows, write letters to editors, lobby congressmen. They are seized with the idea of trying to heal what Dr. Helen Caldicott, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, calls "a terminally ill planet." PSR has 13,000 members and chapters nationwide, including obscure dentists, small-town general practitioners and Dr. Jonas Salk.

They are not immune to the smears of hawks. The group's name should be changed to "Doctors for Death and Surrender," they have been told.

Their obsession with the issue is explained by one of their most articulate spokesman, Dr. H. Jack Geiger, professor of community medicine at City College of New York:

"Yes, we're more associated with freedom from government control, maximum fees and opposition to quality control. But we are physicians, we see death and suffering, and we can't be intimidated by it; we must confront it."

Geiger gave the audience in Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University a harrowing account of what would happen to Washington, which was smiling outside on a perfect spring morning, if a one-megaton bomb burst over it: "People would be crushed, blown, thrown, baked, grilled, broiled."

A bearded young doctor named Glen Geelhoed showed stomach-turning slides of burn victims at Hiroshima. In an attack, Washington would have hundreds of thousands of burn cases.

"We have an eight-bed burn unit in Washington; all the beds are full," he said. "George Washington University Hospital will not be here after an attack. It will be at the bottom of the crater."

The silence was broken only by the random hoots of the doctors' beepers. George Washington University Hospital offered credit to students and doctors who took the heavy course.

"The resolution is simple," Geelhoed concluded. "Thermonuclear war must be prevented." On Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was explaining to a Senate committee Ronald Reagan's new disarmament proposal, a gap-filled document that most politicians found it politic to "welcome."

Geiger said it sounded to him like a proposition to join Weight Watchers--"except that neither side will begin to diet for five or six years, during which they can eat anything they want."

Kistiakowsky said, "The likelihood of nuclear war in the meantime will be far from negligible."

How much power do people have when they try to sweep aside governments that insist on making more and more nuclear weapons? Dr. Jerome Frank, an eminent psychiatrist, put superpower leaders on the couch. They grew up in a pre-nuclear era when the nation with more arms was stronger.

"You get a feeling of helplessness," he said in one of the day's few upbeat moments. "But after you become active, you really feel better, a whole lot better."

"It will take millions of people to get rid of nuclear weapons," he said, echoing prophet Eisenhower.