Behind the first break in the coal strike there lies a rare act if industrial statemanship by a company not exactly famous for that kind of thing. The company is Gulf oil, which used to have one of the worst names in American business.

Gulf owns Pittsburg and Midway, the small coal producer that broke with the rest of the industry to sign up with the miners last Monday. The decision represented a deliberate move by Gulf to underline a new-found sense of national responsibility.

Over the past few years, Gulf has been in the news chiefly for two sets of dubious transactions. For one thing Gulf participated in extensive campaign contributions through an elaborate money-laundering subsidiary.

For another, Gulf participated in what seems to be a cartel to raise high the prices of uranium. That issue is now subject to litigation and a major s stinghouse.

Two years ago Gulf management was changed. The new head of the company is Jerry McAfee, a chemical engineer with extensive experience in Gulf's efforts to develop Canadian tar sands as a substitute for oil. In the course of that operation, McAfee perforce developed close relations with the federal and provincial governments of Canada, which are partners in the tar-sands scheme.

I went to see McAfee about a month ago in a general survey of the energy fields. We did not discuss tha coal strike, but I came away with the strong feeling that McAfee was determined to turn Gulf around. He struck me as a man with both strong social conscience and a high degree of honesty. "If he lied," I said a couple of days later to another oil-company executive I was visiting, E. M. Benson of Atlantic Richfield, "his nose would probably start to grow longer."

The new bosses at Gulf has unhappy feelings about management's position in the coal negotiations almost from the outset of the strike last December. The Bituminous Coal Operators Association, Gulf believed, was trying to take advantage of the splits that had developed in the United Mine Workers under the weak leadership of Arnold Miller.

In particular, Gulf believed that management was trying to use the weakness of the union to force unfair penalties on the miners for wildcat strikes. It also felt management was unwisely trying to do away with certain royalties paid to union pension plans for coal bought from non-union mines. The feeling at Gulf was that, even if management won, the result would be chaotic labor relations, which would be troublesome for the whole country.

Pittsburg and Midway is a relatively small producer, however, and is not a member of the operators' association. So while it made its views known, it could not force them on coal management as a whole. But when tha coal operators forced the union on the wall, and then refused to respond to an appeal from the White House, Gulf ordered its subsidiary to move on its own. In matter of hours Pittsburg and Midway signed a contract. The union leaders quickly approved the deal. Thus the point was made that the big trouble in reaching an agreement did not lie on the side of labor.

McAfee and others had high hopes that the Pittsburg and Midway agreement would pave the way for a general accord binding the whole industry. Whether that ambitious hope can be realized is not yet certain.

Even so, the Gulf story deserves to be told. It proves the point that companies can turn around, and that management has it in its power to behave in statemanlike ways that are helpful to the whole country.