Former President Ronald Reagan said Thursday that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev might resort to martial law to prevent his country's economic crisis from leading to anarchy.

Describing Gorbachev as a friend, "and a friend in need," Reagan said Gorbachev is torn between people who want to move faster on reforms and entrenched bureaucrats who are blocking his path."With production and the Soviet gross national product declining, will the people be patient long enough for the reforms to work? We must hope so, for the alternatives are not desirable," Reagan said.

"It is conceivable that President Gorbachev will feel the need to invoke some of his more drastic powers, using the army and the KGB to impose and maintain martial law," Reagan said.

"If he does so, I believe it would not be from some power-mad impulse but rather from a belief that such an action would be the only way to save his nation from instability."

Reagan, making the only public address of his five-day visit in England, spoke at the Cambridge Union debating society. He was warmly received by more than 500 students and faculty.

"If the peaceful-transition scenario does not succeed and if the martial law scenario is played out and fails to push the transition forward, the so-called worse case may result. This would involve chaos, civil strife, perhaps anarchy and widespread famine. The spillover from such an upheaval would become everyone's business.

"There would be millions of starving refuges, and there would be uncertainty about the control of the remaining nuclear weapons deployed about the countryside Soviet. For all these reasons we in the West must make every effort to understand the current transition."