To millions of Americans, Polish people are best known as the butts of jokes about stupidity.

Those of us who were born before World War II think of Poles differently. We know them for Paderewski, Chopin, Kosciuszko and Copernicus, to be sure. But we know them even better for their 1,000-year struggle to be free.

If you were born after the outbreak of World War II, you may not be as interested in what's going on in Poland as we older folks are.

We're interested because we're proud of our own heritage, which is a bit more than 200 years old, and we can imagine how the Poles feel about theirs. By the year 995, Poland's territory had already reached almost the same borders that were restored after World War II.

Throughout most of its history, Poland has been either under pressure from its enemies, under attack, or subjugated and occupied. Hundreds of thousands of Polish patriots have been killed, but the Poles have never stopped trying to be free.

In the years just before the start of World War II, Germany and Russia had both kept up a pretense of friendly relations with Poland, and had even proposed treaties recognizing Poland's borders. The Poles were guarded in their response. They had reason to distrust both these unsavory neighbors.

By early 1939, Hitler had successfully defied the Allies by rearming Germany, reoccupying the Rhineland, forcing the union with Austria and seizing Czechoslovakia. He was ready to take Poland and use it as a base from which to attack the U.S.S.R.

On April 3, 1939, Hitler gave written orders to his military commanders to attack Poland after Sept. 1. On May 23, he lectured the high command for hours, outlining his plans, and issuing orders.

On Aug. 17, General Franz Halder, the German chief of staff, noted in his diary that Heinrich Himmler had instructed him to obtain a supply of Polish army uniforms. The uniforms were obtained.

During the night of Aug. 23-24, the Germans signed a non-aggresion treaty with the U.S.S.R. It included a secret protocol that again carved up Poland. All was in order for the start of the war.

On Aug. 31, a dozen German convicts were dressed in Polish uniforms, taken to a point just inside the German border with Poland, and murdered. Their bodies were arranged to make it appear they had been killed while attacking Germany, and newsmen were summoned to inspect the rigged evidence. Later the same day, a ruckus was staged in a radio station near the border. German agents dressed as "Polish agitators" seized the station and broadcast a call for a Polish attack on Germany. A fight was staged. During it, another German convict disguised as a Pole was shot dead and left as "evidence."

Hitler cites this manufactured evidence of "provocation" and attacked. The Poles fought heroically for two weeks, but when their dear friends the Russians attacked them from the rear they were overwhelmed. Britain and France declared war, and the greatest bloodletting in history began.

Two days ago, 10 million Poles showed the world that Poland's desire for freedom and independence burns as brightly as ever. Again the workers defied their Communist Party bosses by refusing to work more than a 40-hour week, and they did it in the full knowledge that the U.S.S.R. is almost always willing to use military force to put down people who think they have a right to be free.

A Soviet military response is often delayed for a few weeks, to give the impression that the Russians have decided not to act. But when the response comes, it is usually a blockbuster. All opposition is smashed.

If the U.S.S.R. invades Poland, American public opinion probably will be divided. Some of us will say that all free nations must help Poland. Some will say that Poland's problems are none of our business.

My own mind is already made up. I consider the Soviet Union as big a menace today as Hitler was in 1939. The Russians have a long history of bargaining in good faith. When they make an agreement, they cannot be trusted to keep it. They are treacherous liars who speak of coexistence but use false propaganda to foment dissention and misunderstanding.

It think the only way to coexist with the Russians and remain free is to make it clear that we can and will stand firm against their unceasing aggression.