Is the end of ''the second cold war'' just around the corner?
There are fascinating hints that it might be. Of course the hints could just as easily be a propaganda ''peace offensive'' orchestrated in Moscow to protect the Soviet Union during the shakedown phase of the post-Brezhnev era.
During the past week there have been hints or signs or tentative moves in each of the four areas where Soviet action has caused nearly a decade of serious tension between East and West.
This ''second cold war'' phase dates from the deployment of some 20,000 Cuban troops into Angola by Soviet air and sea lift in 1975 when Gerald Ford was President of the United States, Henry Kissinger was secretary of state, and Mr. Kissinger pleaded in vain with the Congress for a vigorous American response.
A Soviet forward foreign policy spread from Angola into Mozambique, Ethiopia, and southern Yemen. Today there are Cuban troops and Soviet ''advisers'' in Angola, the Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Yemen, Nicaragua, and Grenada.
The active spread of Soviet influence was accompanied by a steady buildup of Soviet weapons. The forward movement reached its adventurous climax with the invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979. In Western eyes it continued with the imposition of martial law in Poland a year ago. In Soviet eyes this was a defensive move, but whatever the motive, the deed refueled in the West a sense of Soviet menace.
These four events - the Soviet arms buildup, deployment of Cuban troops in Angola, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the suppression of incipient political freedom in Poland - highlighted the phase we might call ''the second cold war.''
If Moscow were to cease and desist or perhaps just temper its behavior in these four areas - the world would be a quieter and safer place for all its inhabitants.
Might it happen? Consider the events of the past week.
The President of the US has confirmed reports that the Soviets have signaled their intention to make a new offer in respect to nuclear weapons in the European theater. They have let it be known that if the US would refrain from deploying Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe, they in return would cut down their intermediate range force from a present level of more than 600 to 250 , of which 150 would be targeted on Western Europe and the other 100 on China.
Washington was quick to say this would not be good enough, which is the routine response in diplomatic negotiation to an opening move by the other side. But the fact remains that the Soviets have made an opening move that modifies their previous position and calls for a response from Washington. Said response is now being argued out in the back rooms there.
The important point is that a real negotiation about limiting those Soviet weapons which most worry Europe has begun. And there are accompanying signs that Moscow is interested in talking about the bigger intercontinental strategic weapons with the US.
During this same week of much talk about weapons control came an actual announcement in Poland of a modification of martial law. Again, what was announced is not good enough for Washington. The President wants the Polish military regime to revive the independent Polish trade union called Solidarity as a precondition for lifting US sanctions against Poland. The revival of Solidarity is not in the cards.
But the severity of martial law has been tempered, and will be further tempered to a point where the NATO allies in Europe will be resuming normal relations with Poland regardless of what Washington may do or not do.
Nothing firm has happened yet about Afghanistan. But there continue to be hints from Moscow and from other Soviet-bloc countries that the new Soviet head man, Yuri Andropov, would like to find a way to get his troops out of Afghanistan and put an end to the drain on Soviet resources of the guerrilla war there, which is about to enter its fourth year. Afghanistan has become Moscow's Vietnam. Is there any way out?
Angola is a more active story.
Chester Crocker, US assistant secretary of state for Africa affairs, was in Moscow this past week talking to Leonid F. Ilyichev, Soviet deputy foreign minister, about Angola and Namibia. On the same day two top South Africans - Foreign Minister R. F. Botha and Defense Minister Magnus Malan - met with representatives of the Angola government in the Cape Verde Islands. Add that Mr. Crocker's deputy, Frank Wisner, has been several times recently in Luanda talking to Angola leaders.
The purpose of all this activity among diplomats is to work out an arrangement under which Cuban troops would leave Angola, or at least be reduced in numbers. In return, South Africa would grant independence to Namibia and cease its military sorties into Angola.
Would Moscow go along with such a deal? If Moscow did agree, and if the Cuban troop presence in Angola is reduced or eliminated - well, that would reduce or remove the original cause of ''the second cold war.''
So, we have serious negotiations looking to a removal of Cuban troops from Angola, the beginnings of serious talk about nuclear weapons limits and controls , and abatement of the severity of martial law in Poland. That reduces tensions in three of the four main areas of the ''second cold war.'' Then add the hints, only hints, of Soviet weariness with the costs of attempting to repress dissent in Afghanistan.
The net of it is that the Soviet posture is defensive, rather than aggressive. One would expect that at the beginning of a new Soviet regime. It may last only until Mr. Andropov consolidates his position in the Kremlin - if he does.
But then, if one wants to indulge in optimism, it could be noted that the Soviets may be learning in Afghanistan the same lesson the US learned in Vietnam. There are limits on military power . . . and costs.
Moscow's expansionism of the past eight years was built on military power. How much of the position it has gained in the world from that military power will endure? If the Soviets, too, have learned something about the limits of power - the immediate future might be something better than just a short-term truce.