IN THE END, it turned out not to matter much whether the House voted up or down on the nuclear freeze. It was not that the freeze was essentially a symbolic gesture or that it appears to be doomed anyway in the Republican-controlled Senate or that even Senate passage could not force a determined president to substitute a congressional negotiating priority for his own. The freeze debate had produced something of a balance or stalemate in Congress, as perhaps also in the country. The vote was bound to reflect this division.

Few who followed the long and intense debate could have ended up believing that a freeze would "stop the arms race" or mark a choice between war and peace. Most legislators seem now to accept that things are more complicated. You can conclude as much not simply from the closeness of the many votes on freeze amendments but from the balancing off of the main parts of the final resolution as well. The House endorsed a freeze, but one with a time limit: it ends if reductions are not achieved soon. That both sides claimed victory, the one saluting the freeze and the other the limit, confirms the prevailing ambivalence.

On one side, there is still little confidence that President Reagan understands the specter of nuclear terror that moves millions of Americans, or that he will conduct serious arms control talks if he is not threatened with political retribution. On the other, there is an awareness, shared even by some supporters of the freeze, that it does not represent a promising way of achieving nuclear reason and stability. It is imprecise and indiscriminate in its reach, very tough to negotiate and tends to encourage unilateral disarmament. To some on both sides, the freeze looked better--or safer to support--when there seemed little chance it would pass. As its prospects improved, one of the backstairs arguments made in its favor was that it wouldn't be binding.

Still, the freeze movement has had its successes. It has induced the administration to mellow some of its negotiating positions and pronouncements. To the extent that it has put pressure on the president, it has created a constituency for whose loyalty opposition politicians now vie. And it has added appreciably to the atmosphere of urgency and openness in which new strategic approaches are being worked out.

We refer in particular to strategic stability, which has to do less with limiting new weapons than with ensuring that existing ones are not fired. In this country at least, the strategic debate now concerns the role of weapons that are 1) accurate and powerful enough to make the other side fear a first strike and 2) vulnerable enough to encourage the firing of them first in a crisis lest they be hit before they are fired. These considerations are reflected in what appears to be the consensus support developing for a new small, land-based missile --a program that, by the way, a freeze would bar.

As it happened, Yuri Andropov helped Ronald Reagan. Earlier in the week, he made a new statement about the talks to limit missiles in Europe. It is not clear that he did anything more than go public with a part of the Soviet bargaining position already familiar to American negotiators. But his wording was catchy enough to give rise to extensive Western speculation that Moscow was making a positive move. In a manner that Mr. Andropov could hardly have foreseen, freeze opponents seized on this hint and argued tellingly that the House should not take a step that might jostle the negotiations.

For freeze supporters and everybody else, this is the heart of it. Again and again during the debate, Mr. Reagan contended that a freeze would hinder his conduct of negotiations. Claiming as he now does that the struggle in the House came out his way, he is under a heavy obligation to show that his approach to arms control works.