ABC's nuclear drama ''The Day After'' reminded its 75 million viewers that, after all, this question of peace and war is a matter of people's lives, their hopes and dreams, the continuity of life as we know it. Yet uniquely, given the nature of the nuclear trigger, responsibility for such weapons is in the hands of civilian and military leaders.
What can the individual do? For one thing, seen against the portrayal of nuclear destruction, getting caught up in the minutia of job and house and social demands makes little sense; human life should be valued for its deeper aspects of love and nobility and joy.
Evaluating the risk of nuclear confrontation is not alone a matter of abstract missile counts, arms reduction parleys in Geneva, or political leadership in Washington and Moscow. The peoples of the two superpowers and the nations affected by their nuclear standoff, too, have a stake in public decisions. In the Greek drama there was a place for the people's voice and concerns, in the chorus. Perhaps it is in dramas - in this case tempered by the conventions of modern television, despite its advance billing as horrific - that the people's perspective emerges.
It is hard for the public to say how it feels about arms and war. This administration has benefitted from a public sense that the US had to be stronger militarily, a feeling which began under President Carter, so it could bargain from strength with the Soviets. Congress has largely endorsed Reagan requests for military bargaining chips. Where do we go from here? Former Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger rightly notes docudramas such as Monday night's do not take statesmen, who must seek to stabilize relationships between the powers as well as guarantee enough strength to deter aggression, beyond what's long been known about the destructive potential of nuclear war.
The public reacts to symbols. What would have been the public reaction to a visit between Andropov and Reagan - two men who not only have not met each other , but have never visited the other's country? Remember Khrushchev's astonishment at visiting Iowa, seeing firsthand the mighty American agricultural machine. If President Reagan's visit to the Korean demilitarized zone - eyeball to eyeball with the communists - earlier this month sent a potent message home, what would a trip to the Soviet Union in search of peace say?
Andropov's poor health and the flow of events may have put such a visit out of the question for now. But why is Britain's Chamberlain always cited, casting pursuit of peace in terms of appeasement? Why not Anwar Sadat's courageous visit to Israel? Who will be the man of peace to cut the Gordian knot of nuclear terror?
We hope the US public's thoughtful and emotionally level approach to nuclear issues continues, that Bonn and the other NATO allies scheduled to receive updated nuclear weapons do so without undue public upset.
Still, American-Soviet relations are at their lowest point since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. They've been deteriorating since Carter's response to the Soviet Afghanistan invasion. Talks on both intermediate and strategic missile reductions appear near foundering. And it could take a decade, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara suggests, to cut the current superpower nuclear arsenal in half - and enough nuclear firepower would remain to cause the nuclear winter scientists warn of six times over.
''The question of what deters Soviet aggression is an extremely difficult one ,'' McNamara recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. ''To answer it, we must put ourselves in the minds of several individuals who would make the decision to initiate war. We must ask what their objectives are for themselves and their nation, what they value and what they fear. . . .But most difficult of all, we must evaluate all these factors in the context of an acute international crisis.''
Surely this evaluation is a job for experts and leaders, but who can blame the public for wanting to make sure their leaders get it right?
What, apart from nuclear protest, is the public offered as an alternative for pursuing peace? Leaving it to their leaders? Under President Kennedy the public was invited to join a Peace Corps, for a somewhat different purpose, to channel public idealism. The people's deep desires and energies for the pursuit of peace should not be stifled but should be given a constructive outlet.