EARLIER President Reagan took a smart approach to the nuclear freeze movement, attempting to co-opt it, or at least to smother it, by insisting that he understood the concerns of pro-freeze people although he did not accept the freeze itself. Campaigning in Columbus, however, he took a different line. He said the freeze movement "that has swept across our country . . . is inspired not by the sincere and honest people who want peace but by some who want the weakening of America, and so are manipulating many honest and sincere people." His campaign audience of veterans lapped it up.

Mr. Reagan was wrong. The notion that the some who want to weaken America are manipulating the many who want peace is a misstatement and a smear. What the many are responding to are the anxieties generated by the inability of the nuclear powers to cap their arsenals. They are also responding to Mr. Reagan's own loose talk about nuclear war-fighting, a display of verbal recklessness that made him for a time the freeze campaign's chief recruiter. The intention of the freeze leaders is not to "weaken" this country. It is no fairer and no more conducive to civil debate to impugn the patriotism of their cause than it is for some of them to suggest that the president is gunning the country over a nuclear precipice. He and his critics simply have different ideas of what nuclear security requires.

It's the more regrettable that Mr. Reagan spoke as he did because that kind of talk is getting around. An especially nasty example was Sen. Jeremiah Denton's attack on "Peaceday 1982," an event to take place next Sunday. On the Senate floor, Mr. Denton said that four organizations advising Peace Links, the Peaceday sponsor, are "either Soviet-controlled or openly sympathetic with, and advocates for, Communist foreign policy objectives." Several Senate wives are active in Peace Links, and the husbands quicky rose to deny any implication that their wives are traitors or dupes. They went on to defend the freeze as a valid exercise in free speech and democratic politics.

Sen. Denton got the rebuff he deserved. It is true, however, that one Peace Links advisory group, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, is a Soviet front and another, Women Strike for Peace, has connections to a second front, the Women's International Democratic Federation. They have the right. But why does Peace Links abide the taint that even the slightest connection to a Soviet stooge group imparts? Its judgment is in question. Mr. Denton should have left it at that.