A group of Harvard University professors, attempting to write a primer for the public on the issues surrounding nuclear weapons, has stirred a controversy over the book's stand on a nuclear freeze - even before its publication.
The study, ''Living With Nuclear Weapons,'' will not be released until June 1 . But a chapter printed in the June issue of The Atlantic magazine, already in circulation, has been summarized in newspaper and wire-service reports. They have described the chapter as critical of a total nuclear freeze, whereby Washington and Moscow would agree to end development and deployment of all new nuclear weapons.
Reports on the study have received favorable mention from some members of the Reagan administration. But the response from backers of a nuclear freeze has been sharply critical. Helen Caldicott, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and a leading spokeswoman for a nuclear freeze, says the authors ''represent the [Reagan] administration. They're wedded to the arms race. They can't bear to think of a world without nuclear weapons. . . . The freeze is a radical, excellent proposal. Polls show the people want it and they should get it.''
But Prof. Stanley Hoffman, one of a team of six faculty members who wrote the book, says the group's work is being misinterpreted. ''The book is not primarily about what to do'' about nuclear weapons, says Professor Hoffman, chairman of Harvard's Center for European Studies. ''It's meant to help provide the alphabet and grammar of the nuclear world.''
''To say we are against disarmament is absurd,'' he says. ''We simply don't see a ghost of a chance for it. We try to explain to the nonexpert in language as simple and objective as possible. It's an educational purpose. [The book] tries to tell why we got where we are.''
The freeze movement, Hoffman says, ''is valuable as a first step'' in addressing the problems of nuclear weapons. ''Personally,'' he says, ''I like the House freeze,'' referring to the version of the freeze passed recently by the US House of Representatives.
The 268-page book was the result of a request last year by Harvard president Derek Bok. He wanted the university to produce a study that, as he says in the foreword, would ''not tell people whatm to think, but give them the facts and ideas that will help them think more effectively for themselves'' about nuclear weapons and arms control.
''I didn't know what [the authors'] views were,'' the Harvard president said in an interview with the Monitor. ''I tried to pick a group of people who were very diverse but very knowledgeable on the subject.'' At first, Dr. Bok asked that no opinions on policy be expressed. But the authors convinced him, he says, that ''readers were entitled to know what they stood for, just the way a lot of students feel they want to know where a professor stands on a certain issue.''
The book argues that a complete freeze could be dangerous and actually heighten the possibility of nuclear war. The authors recommend a limited freeze (a cap on the number of warheads), force restructuring (single-warhead missiles replacing multiple-warhead missiles), and stabilizing measures (such as a ban on antisatellite weapons) as possible policy steps.
But the main point of the book ''is not for or against a freeze, or a partial freeze,'' Bok says. In his opinion, it is ''the best piece of work I know of that gives readers an understanding of how we got to our present state, what the essential facts are, what the issues are, what the arguments are. In that respect, it's a great improvement over what we have now.''
In another chapter likely to stir up disarmament advocates, the book rejects what it calls the ''either/or vision'' of the future - universal nuclear disarmament or an inevitable nuclear holocaust. ''The either/or mentality can . . . lead to a false sense of despair, with very unfortunate consequences. Belief that nuclear war is inevitable can counsel a resignation or fatalism which would divert energy from practical political steps and thus make war more likely. . . . There is no reason to assume that absolute solutions - either holocaust or disarmament - are the only answers mankind is capable of developing. . . . The most important actions are the modest but real steps toward improved safety that can be taken now.''
''Deterrence can be seen as a necessary evil,'' the final chapter continues. ''Because it is necessary, one cannot abandon it carelessly; because it is evil, one must strive to rely on it less.'' The authors call for ''detente without illusions'' with the Soviets that would increase communication and certain types of cooperation, such as in arms control.
Whether the book is ''adequate to the task the authors set for themselves'' is still in doubt, says John Tirman, a senior staff member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which supports the idea of a freeze. The analysis of the MX missile is ''brief and perfunctory,'' says Mr. Tirman, who has studied the MX issue and the portion of the book that refers to it. The Harvard work is ''quite flawed'' in its discussion of MX, he says. ''It never addresses the most important issues.''
In Tirman's opinion, the book's criticism of the freeze's technical flaws is ''a red herring'' since ''the freeze is a political movement, not a sophisticated arms control proposal.'' Nonetheless, he says, ''it's good they made the effort. . . . The more information and points of view we have, the better.''