The Reagan team is deferring to the Carter administration and is being publicly very supportive in respect to the Polish crisis, but this correct and calculated show of national unity during the transition conceals a potential to view the crisis in its own distinctive way.

The Carter approach falls within the familiar detente-era framework of encouraging expressions of nationalism behind the Iron Curtain, even while taking care not to contribute to a reaction -- a Soviet intervention -- that could at once uproot those local shoots and have a cascading effect on East-West relations overall. Carter pronouncements emphasize not only the costs Moscow would have to pay if it invaded Poland but American respect for Soviet interests in East Europe. Restraint is asked of Poles as well as Soviets.

Ronald Reagan is hardly likely to burst forth with a new policy on Jan. 20. Between the lines and in quiet words from key advisers, however, the difference is evident. Reagan flagged it in 1976 in the course of rejecting a then-current suggestion that a prudent fear of World War III compelled the United States to restrain its nourishment of East European nationalism. "Slaves should accept their fate," he derisively said.

A composite version of the Reagan camp's view: The Soviet Union's current place in East Europe is historically an accident, morally an abomination and geopolitically destabilizing, since East Europeans are bound to struggle against it. Revolts, active and passive, against Soviet dominance have been going on for 30 years. It is not for the United States to tell oppressed nations -- or the similarly oppressed non-Russian nationality groups of the Soviet Union -- that they should not fight for their freedom simply because the effort may inconvenience Western diplomacy. Rather, the United States should offer what support it can, in the knowledge that resistance, including military outbreaks, may flare for decades until East Europe is finally free.

This view flows, of course, from an argument that has been going for 35 years: was Yalta, the 1945 conference at which the United States and the Soviet Union tried to design the postwar world, a sellout of East Europe or the best deal available at the time?

It is the view that underlay the rhetoric of East European "liberation" preached by President Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, and the shadowy failed efforts by his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, to ignite popular revolts. Most Americans lost heart for this policy after the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which the United States cheered on and then abandoned. Thereafter, the cause was downgraded into "captive nations" propaganda.

From Kennedy through Carter, successive presidents pressed political initiatives where they could in East Europe but kept them within bounds consistent with good relations with Moscow. Though regularly repudiated in official American word, the idea that at Yalta the great powers carved Europe into their respective "spheres of influence" has since been largely respected in deed.

It would be startling -- and, to me, dangerously provocative -- if Reagan were to take up publicly the cause of East European "liberation." One does not toy with the peace of Europe, with nuclear war. But it would be surprising if Reagan did not change at least the tone of American pronouncements on Poland. I would not expect him to go out of his way to offer Moscow reassurances that the United States intends no harm to its interests in Eastern Europe. It would be out of character for him to shift any substantial part of the burden of deterring a Soviet assault onto the Polish people themselves.

Reagan has been advised that, having left themselves no good options, the Soviets may demand early suppression of the Polish workers' movement in order not to have the question still hanging fire at the time of the Communist Party congress scheduled for February.

An invasion would, it is estimated, galvanize the Europeans, with the possible exception of the Germans, who might hesitate in the name of detente. In the United States, it would bolster public demand for all the cold-war mobilization measures that Reagan wants -- in military spending, executive license, economic sanctions -- and perhaps then some. I hear no responsible Reaganites suggesting, by the way, that these and other costs would stop the Kremlin if it decided that only force would keep the Poles in line.

Serious Americans say that preservation of Soviet-American relations is not all that important to the United States. Serious Soviets say that preservation of Soviet-American relations is not all that important to the Soviet Union. I think that they both mean it and that, if Moscow comes down on the Poles, it will be a long cold winter indeed.