Whatever happened to the nuclear freeze?

It seems just yesterday that it was sweeping the land, gathering before it politicians, teachers, doctors, children and other living things. Two years ago, the freeze resolution passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin. People were falling over themselves to claim credit for it. Gary Hart and Walter Mondale did not debate the issue. They debated how many days the other had let pass before endorsing it.

Remember the urgency? "We are on the verge of blowing ourselves off the face of the earth" said Rep. Ed Markey (31/2 years ago now) repeating what was then a commonplace. In 1982, in perhaps the largest demonstration in American history, nearly a million people turned out in New York to call for disarmament.

Next week there will be demonstrations again, this time to mark the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. There will be demonstrations and speeches and a ribbon -- this has been a summer for ribbons -- to be tied around the Pentagon to banish nuclear war. There will be yet another Markey freeze resolution introduced in the House, this one "comprehensive." There will be petitions and letters and much more.

Yet this time around, it is not the same. It all has the sound of a faint echo. And the look is ritualized, too, in part because August 6 is a solemn commemoration, but, in larger part, because the life has gone out of the movement. The heady days, Ground Zero Days, are gone.

Indeed, the freeze itself is gone. August 6 will simply highlight the fact. It is a reminder of how little is now heard about the issue that was to be, literally, the issue to end all issues. What happened? What killed the freeze?

A sampling of speculations:

1)Success? The anti-nuclear movement did help move the president to accept the politics, if not the wisdom, of arms control. We and the Soviets are talking in Geneva. But we are as far as ever from a freeze, let alone from satisfying any millennial longings for disarmament. This explanation sounds like a retrospective version of the Aiken solution to the Vietnam war: declare victory and go home.

2)Anxiety shift. What people really demand from arms control talks is not that they succeed, but that they go on. People always have some anxiety about nuclear war, but it only turns to political agitation when they feel that the people in charge don't share the anxiety. Once the president promised to worry about the issue and take over the burden, the movement lost its psychological spring.

3)Nuclear Winter. A new idea, promulgated by the movement's friends, that turned into a classic political boomerang. The notion that only a small number of nuclear detonations would bring ruin to the planet was meant to galvanize the anti-nuclear movement. But it makes plain that the freeze, or any other this-worldly plan to control nuclear arms -- even George Kennan's idea to cut them in half -- would still leave the world on the eve of nuclear winter. The only solution to "winter" lies in near total disarmament, and beatific visions don't sell terribly well in America.

4)"Star Wars." Another new idea, this one hatched by an enemy. It did not, of course, make anybody stop believing in the anti-nuclear movement, but it confused its argument. The freeze had been fueled by an abhorrence of deterrence and the balance of terror that underpins it. But to oppose a nuclear defense ("Star Wars") meant having to argue in favor of deterrence. "Star Wars" has turned the anti-nuclear case against itself.

5)Nov. 6, 1984. The party of the freeze carried Minnesota.

6)The media. In a development that will interest the right, Mother Jones magazine blames a media "blackout" for the freeze's demise. This comes from -- Jesse Helms, take note -- the "media's pro-establishment bias." It seems only fair: they make you and they break you. The problem with this theory: it overlooks Nov. 6. (See 5 above).

The anti-nuclear movement of the '80s, born in Europe, and matured in the United States, has now moved south. (It had trouble moving east.) It has set sail for New Zealand, now officially anti- nuclear. New Zealand will not receive ships of the U.S. Navy for fear they may be nuclear. Its people and sheep sleep better now, knowing they are protected from the American arsenal.

This is not the end, however. No doubt the movement will come north again. A new generation will someday ask the same questions, explore the same alternatives and rediscover the same hard truth: that deterrence is both inescapable and indispensable. Meanwhile, the movement will have to live on memories.

A year ago I called my doctor to ask about an X-ray-like device called nuclear magnetic resonance. "Magnetic resonance imaging," he corrected me. "We don't use the word nuclear anymore."

There once was an anti-nuclear movement in this country with the power to change the name of medical devices. Tell your children.