A week after we learned that a new man named Yuri Andropov had on Nov. 10 taken the place of Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow the George Gallup organization took a poll of US public opinion. It asked an interesting question.
''Would you favor or oppose the US going further than it has so far in trying to develop better relations with the Soviet Union?''
It came up with an equally interesting answer.
By a substantial majority of more than two to one (in some categories by more than three to one) the answer came back ''yes.'' The overwhelming majority said they would like Washington to go farther than it has so far to work for ''better relations'' with the Soviet Union.
The breakdown showed sentiment in favor of trying harder was highest in the West at 79 percent favor to 15 percent against. It was lowest among those with only a grade-school education, at 58 to 24 and in the South at 59 to 29. Persons of college background were recorded at 75 to 20. The national average was 70 to 21.
This cannot be called a national mandate, but it certainly is an indication that a lot of Americans are worried about the deterioration in US-Soviet relations of recent years and would like to see a change in the inclination. It shows that there is no popular urge in the US in the direction of war.
It also indicates that public opinion is running parallel to the quieter tone in the official Washington posture toward Moscow since George Shultz became secretary of state.
But suppose that the Reagan administration decides that it should seek to satisfy American public opinion by trying harder for easier relations with the Soviets. What would it do to move in that direction?
For a wise answer I recommend an article in the current issue (Winter 1982/83 ) of Foreign Affairs magazine. It is written by two respected historians, Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University and Joan Afferica of Smith College.
Their essential conclusion is that there is no such thing as any ''quick fix.'' The Soviet Union, they think, is by nature expansionist. It was not deterred from expansion by detente. It took advantage of detente to increase its military posture. It will not be influenced by the policy of economic sanctions which the Reagan administration has attempted, partly because the allies will not go along, and partly because the Soviet Union is largely immune to that kind of pressure, anyway.
But, they think the expansionist tendency can be contained.
Here is an important part of the reasoning:
''. . . the extent to which Soviet foreign policy can be expansionist depends very largely upon international factors: on the temptations and opportunities which the international environment offers, on the risks and costs of exploiting those opportunities.''
There is no such thing as eliminating all ''temptations and opportunities'' suddenly, or in the foreseeable future. It cannot be done in 1983. But what the Reagan administration could do in 1983 toward the long-term containment of Soviet expansionism would be to adopt a clear and consistent policy toward the Soviet Union.
At present no one knows what the true aim of Reagan policy really is. Does it aim at undermining the Soviet system and bringing it down? Some people in the administration talk that way, and by so doing frighten the allies and give the Soviets an opportunity to seek West European ''mediation.'' It drives the allies toward neutralism.
The authors of the article in Foreign Affairs, entitled ''Reagan and Russia, '' think there are good elements in the Reagan approach. They approve of building up American military forces, but want the emphasis shifted from strategic weapons to conventional weapons. They approve of the policy of deploying new nuclear weapons in Europe while negotiating at the same time. They favor Western strength, built on the system of alliances.
They want Western strength and unity and wisdom in going out and resolving, where and when possible, local and regional situations which might tempt Soviet intervention. They also favor negotiation whenever there is anything worth negotiating. But above all they want the very change in rhetoric which in fact has come about since Mr. Shultz came back to Washington.
They are hopeful about the long-term future. The Soviets are expansionist, but also cautious. They do not take long risks. The real question is whether American policymakers can think and act in terms of a long-term policy which can take years, and even generations. The temptation to go for a ''quick fix'' is strong.