Grass-roots effort to stop arms race

''It all started with Einstein's E equals MC2.'' ''Won't you have some more quiche, madame?'' ''Did you know that two Poseiden submarines can destroy every major industrial city in the Soviet Union?''

''Where can I get the recipe for this marvelous celery dip?''

Amid the university faculty club's Oriental carpets, tea sandwiches, and elegant Christmas decorations, well-dressed guests come and go, talking of ''first strike,'' ''megatons,'' and ''the next Hiroshima.'' The formal invitations to this holiday party read, ''You are cordially invited to HELP STOP THE ARMS RACE,'' and conversation is a jarring cross fire of Christmas cheer and the grim prospect of nuclear war.

Over the last several weeks, thousands of Californians have been attending such holiday ''freez'' parties in living rooms, meeting halls, Rotary Clubs, and community centers. They are small gatherings aimed at raising money and collecting signatures to put a one-paragraph initiative on the California ballet next November calling for a bilateral freeze by the United States and the Soviet Union on all testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons.

No state or nation has ever voted on nuclear war, and proponents of the freeze say they believe that if California voters - 10 percent of the electorate of one of the world's superpowers - were to pass an initiative, it might become a rallying point for the growing opposition to the nuclear arms race.

During the first two weeks of December, more than 1,500 ''freez'' parties were held in northern California alone. In Alameda County, the gatherings were so widespread that some partygoers who got lost trying to find one ''freez'' party stopped to ask directions and found they were knocking on the door of another.

Among other things, the ''freez'' movement is bringing out of retirement political activists of the 1960s. Many of the partygoers were veterans of the Free Speech Movement, People's Park, and the Vietnam war protests. Since then, they had given up their blue jeans and long hair to join the Volvo and quiche crowd. During the ''Me Decade,'' they applied themselves to their children and careers and fed an armchair political consciousness with subscriptions to New Left magazines and monthly contributions to Save the Whales and political prisoners in Chile.

''I was a cold-war baby who grew up next to the Lockheed plant outside Atlanta, and I remember every birthday when I blew out the candles on the cake my only wish was 'No more bombs,' '' says Summer Brenner, a mother of two who belonged to an SDS splinter group in the late 1960s and who is now collecting initiative signatures outside Bay Area grocery stores.

''Like most of my generation,'' she adds, ''I was active in the antiwar movement in the '60s and spent the '70s grooving. Last year it became clear to me that the issue of nuclear weapons takes absolute precedence.''

The ''freez'' initiative movement is not dominated by leftists and has consciously kept itself separate from the controversial protests against nuclear power plants. One political observer has called the initiative proponents ''the broadest-based movement since civil rights.''

The wide cross section of style and people at the ''freez'' parties, initiative prononents say, reflects the breadth of a swelling oppostion to President Reagan's massive arms buildup and the administration's recent talk of fighting and winning a limited nuclear war in Europe.

''I'm not the sort of person who gets involved in politital issues or marches with 20,000 other people in the streets,'' said Sandy Pyer, the smartly dressed art museum official who hosted a ''freez'' party at the University of California's Women's Faculty Club. ''Last spring I got so depressed about the possibilities of nuclear war I seriously thought about cashing in everything I own and going to Europe to see all the fine arts before they were blown up.''

''Our goal this time is not to get arrested,'' said Trish McCall. ''The goal of the initiative is to provide simple, creative, ways for people to get involved,'' added Ms. McCall, who hosted a ''freez'' party in Muir Beach.

When the lights came up in the Muir Beach community center after the showing of ''The Last Epidemic,'' - a stirring 36-minute film on the effects of a nuclear blast in the San Francisco area - a local poet, Karla Andersdatter, stood by the wood stove recruitng women volunteers to take ''freez'' petitions ''Carrie Nation style'' into San Francisco's singles bars on Friday night to get signatures.

Critics of the ''freez'' say such an embargo is naive and would be difficult to verify. Its supporters respond that policing a cut and dry freeze on nuclear weapons would be much simpler than overseeing a complex arms limitation agreement. Proponents of the bilateral nuclear weapons freeze initiative now claim the support of five Nobel laureates and countless California celebrities.

Among those celebrities is actor Ed Asner. ''For 25 years people have been silent,'' he says. ''Silence and passivity will not stop the arms race. Who's our opposition? The chief opposition we face is ignorance.''

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