Like most people, Edward P. Thompson would rather forget about Armageddon.
But it has been a long time since he sat at his writing desk in a house overlooking the misty Malvern Hills of Wales, with a favorite cat curled about his shoulders, mulling over a book.
Mr. Thompson can't forget. One day he picked up a British civil defense booklet entitled ''Protect and Survive.'' It offered ineffectual advice on how to prepare for a nuclear attack (close all the house curtains and hide under a table), and cautioned those survivors with an appetite to first clean the radioactive dust off frogs and other living animals before eating them. Outraged , Thompson, ordinarily a quiet British historian, fired back. He published ''Protest and Survive,'' a pamphlet of urgent eloquence that called for immediate European nuclear disarmament.
''Protest and Survive'' was to the spreading antinuclear protest movement in Europe in the late 1970s what pamphleteer Thomas Paine's ''Common Sense'' was to the American Revolution. Soon Thompson found himself the unlikely leader of a widening campaign to dismantle the huge nuclear arsenals in Europe - on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
In some of the largest European demonstrations seen since World War II, over 2 million Europeans in nine capital cities took to the streets last autumn. They protested against the scheduled delivery of the American Pershing II and cruise nuclear missiles. Thompson was there, his tangle of white, wiry hair a familiar sight behind the microphone.
Washington and its NATO allies argue that the new missiles, due to arrive in Western Europe in late 1983, are necessary to counter the Soviets' new atomic weaponry, namely the middle-range SS-20 rocket.
''The cruise missiles won't be allowed in Britain,'' Thompson predicts. ''There will be roadblocks and massive demonstrations if the Tory government tries to bring them in.''
Thompson and his family live in a grand country house outside Worcester, a cathedral town 120 miles from one of the three American military bases that will store the 160 cruise missiles. The US Embassy in London says the missiles will be transported to Britain sometime after August 1983. Before their arrival, Thompson claims, ''there may be another general election, and it would be a surprise if Margaret Thatcher remains in office. Any new government would be far less enthusiastic about having the cruise missiles than Thatcher. The political risks are simply too high.''
Elsewhere in Western Europe, opposition to the missiles is hotter still. Political strategists say that the parliaments of Belgium and Holland, two of the five NATO countries scheduled to receive the missiles, may force their governments to reject them outright. Even in West Germany, where most of these new weapons will be stationed, the issue threatens to split the governing Socialist Democrat Party in two. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt says he'll resign if the Social Democrats vote to ban them from West Germany.
''It would be a great pity if the US turned away from Europe in an isolationist huff,'' Thompson warns. ''But we Europeans have this helpless feeling of being caught in an in-between world, one in which we are reduced to client states who have less and less say in military policymaking. This feeling has been intensified by the idea of a theater war fought on European battlefields with neither superpower getting hurt.''
Western intellectuals lately have begun questioning one of the underlying assumptions of the cold war: that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union dare press the red button, knowing that the other side was capable of instant, massive retaliation.
Now some Reagan administration tacticians think otherwise. They argue that the A-bomb is not necessarily the Armageddon weapon. Smaller versions like the cruise can be hurled with laserlike accuracy at the enemy's military bases; no need to lay a blanket of destruction over Soviet cities. The former tactic, presumably, would avoid a massive Soviet counterstrike.
''I don't believe in accurate first strikes'' Thompson says. ''The brochures say they can put an A-bomb through Brezhnev's bedroom window. That's nonsense. I'm an old soldier. I know things never turn out quite like the generals and the scientists at the drawing boards expect.'' He served in the British tank corps in Algeria and Italy during World War II, and now describes himself as ''a pugnacious pacifist.'' Thompson adds: ''Even if the missiles were that accurate, there are enough military installations close to large centers of population for a limited war to soon escalate uncontrollably.''
And what is man's fascination with war?
''People everywhere are conscious of the sham that civilization has become. Even 10-year-olds are grimly aware of what's in store for them. In America all this science-fiction escapism and technological pride is giving rise to an impulse to control the world, to see if it's possible to wage war without the loss of any US lives. Look at the young today -- most Utopias imagined are fearful ones.''
A dedicated socialist, Thompson saw his own vision of Utopia crumble in 1956 when Soviet tanks rumbled into Hungary. In protest, he quit the British Communist Party.
Still socialist-oriented, he has the marks of a certain kind of British upper class -- the scruffy intellectual -- indelibly written all over him. Only in Britain can one find the paradox of a man of staggering influence like Labour Party leader Michael Foot going to Parliament in a stained workman's overcoat, or a disheveled socialist like Thompson living in baronial comfort. His house is that of a country squire's: a long green lawn with shade-giving cedars outside; inside, a grand piano, Persian carpets, walls of fine paintings (though the portrait over the mantel is that of his Methodist missionary father), and antique bookcases containing a collection of work of the 18th-century visionary poet William Blake. Thompson is long overdue to finish a book on Blake and the origins of Christian radicalism in Britain.
''Blake's often-quoted 'dark Satanic mills' can refer both to the the mills of Newtonian thought and his foreboding about the industrial revolution,'' Thompson says. A large gray cat alights stealthily on Thompson's shoulders and hides behind the wintry thicket of hair. ''I suppose you can also read a parallel into Blake's dark Satanic mills and the dangers of nuclear technology, '' he adds, stroking the cat.
Missiles can only be swept out of Europe if a NATO disarmament is matched, warhead for warhead, by the Warsaw Pact countries, he argues. ''This won't be simple. The Soviet military-industrial complex is a real threat. Soviet generals command a priority over rare resources, scientific materials, rubles, and engineers. Theirs is a powerful voice in the Politburo, and it grows more powerful as (President Leonid) Brezhnev's term runs to an end.
''Of course we welcome the Geneva arms limitation talks,'' he continues, ''but let's face it: The negotiators on both sides are the people least likely to reach agreement - the military. What the peace movement aims to do is destabilize the military systems from below, through demonstrations and protest, and establish a nuclear-free zone extending from West Germany over to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. This would take the poison out of detente at its most dangerous center.''
According to Thompson, the protest cries of the West European peace movement -- from church organizations, trade unions, leftist and liberal parties, antinuclear ecologist groups, and students -- are resounding across the Iron Curtain, and with effect. Ever mindful of the Gulags awaiting East-bloc dissidents, advocates of nuclear disarmament there are cautious, though they are growing less so. In the East German cities of Potsdam and Dresden protesters recently demonstrated against escalation of the nuclear arms race by both Washington and Moscow. In Hungary, according to Thompson, dissidents are circulating a petition calling for a nuclear arms-free Eastern Europe; and in Czechoslovakia, some members of the Charter 77 Human Rights organization obliquely denounced Moscow for ''bringing closer the danger of war.''
Poland's Solidarity, several weeks before martial law was declared in Poland, sent a delegation to a massive Amsterdam peace rally last Nov. 21. The independent trade union stopped short of calling openly for nuclear disarmament, though, according to Thompson. In Romania, too, President Nicolae Ceausescu sanctioned public demonstrations against the new Soviet SS-20 missiles. Some of the Romanian regime's critics say the state-approved rallies were merely an attempt by Ceausescu to display his independence from Moscow, not a gauge of support for disarmament.
''A transcontinental discourse,'' Thompson recently declared, ''must begin to flow in both directions, with the peace movement -- a movement of unofficial persons with a code of conduct which disallows the pursuit of political advantage for either 'side' -- as the conduit. We cannot be content to criticize nuclear missiles. We have to be, in every moment, critics also of the adversary posture of the powers.''
Later, he states his thoughts more simply: ''A quiet life would be nice. But they are not going to let us have that. If we wish to survive, we must protest.''