US peace groups are preparing for next week's meeting in Geneva between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as if it were the most portentous summit between the two superpowers in history. The groups' goal is twofold: to try to pressure the two leaders into coming away from the summit with concrete solutions to the arms race, and to revitalize a flagging peace movement in the United States.
Reagan administration officials have repeatedly tried to lower public expectations about the meeting's outcome. Nevertheless, antinuclear strategists are plunging ahead with plans to make this summit the most publicly scrutinized ever. ``It puts enormous pressure on political leaders to come up with concrete solutions rather than face-saving talk,'' explains Dr. Bernard Lown, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School and co-chairman of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW ), the group awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
Antinuclear groups have paid for slick radio and television spots to trumpet their presummit advice. They are taking out bold full-page ads in magazines and major metropolitan newspapers. They are rounding up sympathetic arms control advisers from previous administrations to tout a proposed comprehensive nuclear-test ban and to pan Mr. Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Across the country, scores of grass-roots organizations have choreographed the sorts of publicity-grabbing exercises that are the m ovement's hallmark.
Organizers are working doubly hard not only because, in their view, the summit offers an opportunity for a breakthrough in superpower relations: Geneva also presents peace activists with an opportunity to shift the movement back into high gear.
As little as two years ago, antinuclear groups seemed to have tapped deep wells of concern about nuclear war. The ``Euromissile'' protests mobilized millions of Europeans against NATO deployment of US Pershing II and cruise missiles. In addition, demonstrators in Western Europe and in the US demanded an immediate freeze on the manufacture and deployment of nuclear weapons. In the US those demonstrations culminated in a 1982 march through New York's Central Park, in which more than 1 million people parti cipated.
But the freeze drive largely fizzled, and many saw a final, symbolic blow to the anti-Euromissile movement in the Dutch government's decision earlier this month to allow deployment of US cruise missiles in the Netherlands.
``We don't get the million-person demonstrations in Central Park anymore,'' concedes David Cortwright, executive director of SANE, an antinuclear activist group.
``Public concern has tapered off,'' says William Kincade, formerly director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington, D.C.-based arms control group, and now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``That period of public concern in the early '80s didn't work. It didn't change the policies of the Reagan administration. [Among antinuclear organizations] there's a sense of regrouping and trying to figure out what works and what doesn't and why.''
Antinuclear activists say they hope they've found something that works in the Geneva summit. The Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (FREEZE) and SANE say they will have collected 1 million signatures by this weekend on two sets of petitions, one that calls for a comprehensive test-ban treaty, the other calling for a general freeze on the testing, manufacture, and deployment of nuclear weapons. Civil disobedience remains a popular approach: Mr. Cortwright joined other peace activists being arrested Monday f or crossing police lines at the Nevada Test Site, where the US Department of Energy holds underground nuclear tests.
Many of the public appeals keyed to Geneva differ dramatically from the often dire and alarmist protests of earlier times. Campaign organizers say they hope to raise public expectations of the summit's outcome.
``What we're doing is celebrating this step forward in superpower relations and taking the opportunity to say something positive: that [the Reagan administration] is finally doing something right,'' says Jane Wales, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
One example of that group's summit activities, Ms. Wales says, is the Seattle chapter's plans to hold daily vigils in the city's public market during the summit. Participants will release balloons emblazoned with the proclamation: ``Let your hopes for the summit soar.''
The Union of Concerned Scientists, an arms control and antinuclear association based in Cambridge, Mass., has spent an estimated $60,000 to produce two 30-second television ads on the summit. The first, aired last week, contains an admonition to President Reagan before he heads to Geneva: ``. . . sir, don't blow it.''
``We hope the ads will create the atmosphere for a successful summit,'' says Howard Ris, the union's executive director.
Women for a Meaningful Summit, an ad-hoc group formed in August ``to promote higher expectations of substantive results from the summit,'' says a spokeswoman, has bought radio spots to feature actress Joanne Woodward's presummit appeal. FREEZE is sponsoring candlelight vigils and ``Sabbath services'' in communities across the country during the summit ``to pray for something meaningful,'' a spokeswoman says. Like at least a dozen other US groups, both organizations plan to send representatives to Geneva
during the summit.
Along with most organizations, FREEZE denies that it is deliberately setting the public up for a major disappointment if no major agreements are reached between the superpowers. ``We have not engaged in a strategy to set up the administration or the public at all,'' says FREEZE's executive director, Dr. Jane Gruenebaum.
Other activists concede, however, that their strategies are designed to produce a backlash of public opinion against the Reagan administration in the event of widespread perceptions that the summit failed. Eric Fersht, disarmament campaign director of Greenpeace, says his group's efforts are designed to generate public pressure on the Reagan administration to reach an arms accord of some sort with the Soviets.
``We have hopes, but we really don't see things falling into place from the summit,'' he says. A perception of failure at the summit will create disappointment and even anger among the public, whose expectations will have been raised partly by the efforts of his organization as well as others, he says. ``That will put unprecedented pressure on the Reagan administration to act.'' -- 30 --