The United States would be foolish to hit the Soviet Union with economic sanctions over Lithuania, according to Dwayne Andreas, chairman of Archer- Daniels-Midland Co. and a longtime friend of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

"It would be the dumbest thing we could do," said Mr. Andreas, who was at the White House last week speaking with administration officials. Shortly afterward, the White House announced it was putting a hold for the time being on any economic reprisals.Archer-Daniels-Midland, of Decatur, Ill., sells processed soybean products to the Soviet Union, and Mr. Andreas has made many visits to the Soviet Union.

Mr. Andreas said in a telephone interview on April 24 that President Bush understands the dilemma facing Mr. Gorbachev.

"But I am worried that he might feel he has to take some action because of pressure created by the media," he added.

Mr. Andreas believes that if Lithuania is allowed to secede from the Soviet Union, it would have a domino effect on Estonia, Latvia and other Soviet republics.

Under those circumstances, with the Soviet Union literally falling apart, Mr. Gorbachev would likely be toppled from power. Without Mr. Gorbachev, chaos, a military crackdown or both would likely ensue.

"This is the man who freed Eastern Europe, who has long believed in decentralization," said Mr. Andreas, adding that the United States should support him, not undercut his position.

In my opinion, Lithuania's desires to be independent are compelling and legitimate but not worth jeopardizing the enormous positive change that has swept Eastern Europe.

I could not agree more with Mr. Andreas, who is one of the most knowledgeable Americans on matters Soviet. He's known Mr. Gorbachev since before his rise to power. Last October, Mr. Andreas met with Mr. Gorbachev for three hours to discuss a wide range of economic matters.

When asked about a CIA report that says the Soviet Union's economy has reached disastrous new lows, Mr. Andreas said he felt the biggest problem was hoarding.

"Housewives have stocked up on everything they can lay their hands on

because they fear shortages," he said. The result is that shelves are emptied almost immediately. But, he noted, you can buy anything you want on the black market, albeit at four to 10 times government prices.

"Actually, the Soviet Union produces more food per capita than the United States," he said. "Shortages occur in various areas because of an inefficient transportation system, but on an overall basis there is plenty of food."

Mr. Andreas said similar hoarding took place in the United States during the Korean War. President Harry S Truman solved the problem by lifting price controls.

Unfortunately, the same solution probably would not work in the Soviet Union, he said.

"You have 100 million people there who earn only 130 rubles a month, which is almost nothing," he explained. "If you lifted price controls you could end up with riots. It is a very difficult situation."

Mr. Andreas said he did not know what he would do if he were in Mr. Gorbachev's place. Frankly, I find that disturbing. It is just possible that the challenges facing Mr. Gorbachev are so vast that they are beyond solution.

There was one interesting sidelight in my conversation with Mr. Andreas. He said Don Kendall, Pepsico Inc.'s executive committee chairman, had pulled off a masterful deal with theSoviets when he agreed to trade Pepsi for Soviet- built ships.

"I'm thinking of buying one of the ships," said Mr. Andreas, who normally leases his vessels, "because it is cheaper."

"I've seen the ships," said one executive whose company has worked in an advisory capacity with the Russians. "They are good ships, technically sound, but the Russians have no idea what they cost."

For example, the shipyard got all its electricity free from the state, said my informant, who asked not to be identified.

That underscored one of the key points made by Mr. Andreas.

"Very, very few Russians have any idea of what a market economy is all about. They think profit is the wages they pay the workers," he said.

When you think about the many difficulties facing Mr. Gorbachev, it seems almost unbelievable that any single person would have the energy to seek to move forward so relentlessly.

Personally, I would hate to see him thrust aside. However, I understand there is a school of thought that holds that the only hope for success in the U.S.S.R. is to destroy the old system and rid the nation of the entrenched bureaucracy.

But isn't that what Mr. Gorbachev is trying to do? And so far he's avoided the bloodletting that usually accompanies such revolutions.

By letting Lithuania cool its heels for a while, I think President Bush is showing commendable common sense that serves a vastly greater good.