POLAND, carrying a heavy burden of foreign debt, is asking the West to forgive some of it. That's a plea to which the West ought to respond with generosity.

In particular the Poles are seeking relief from the debts they owe to foreign governments, including the United States. Their former Communist regime borrowed heavily in an inept and unsuccessful attempt to modernize Polish industry. The present non-Communist leadership is now entitled to a chance to reorganize the economy without having to cope with the full weight of its predecessors' mistakes. Poland owes much more to West Germany and other European governments than to this country. But the Poles believe that the others are waiting for the Americans to set the pattern.

There's a precedent in President Bush's initiative for Latin America, announced three months ago, in which he offered substantial reductions in certain kinds of debts that the Latins owe. He made it conditional on good progress by the Latins with economic reform, and the same condition could usefully apply to Poland. So far it is undertaking far more drastic reforms than any of the Latins except perhaps Mexico. Possibly debts could be reduced in annual stages, each stage contingent on further internal restructuring.

The Poles, like the Latins, are aware that it's crucial for them to attract much more investment, including foreign investment. "But the investment climate remains clouded, weighted down by the heavy debt burden," Mr. Bush said in June, speaking of the Latins. The same thing is true in Poland. Much of its debt is not currently a drain in the bookkeeping sense, since, for the present, the Poles are not paying interest on it. But if their economy begins to do well, the foreign lenders might become less tolerant. That possibility makes potential investors uneasy.

As a general rule, debts ought to be paid. But the lenders share responsibility with the borrowers for the mountains of international debt that accumulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The passage of nearly a decade has demonstrated that the debtors aren't growing out of their obligations, as the original strategy had assumed. To the contrary, the debts are interfering with economic growth and are unhelpful to the development of stable democracies. When a country commits itself to necessary reforms with the courage and energy that the Poles are demonstrating, it deserves recognition from the governments that are its creditors.