There is a spot of soft-headedness at the heart of American policy toward Poland and if it is not dispelled, the United States could end up contributing to the unraveling of the very developments it wishes to encourage.

The confusion starts with the State Department's seeming obsession to do and say nothing that the Kremlin could take as a pretext for ordering its tanks to roll. Thus it declares regularly that the crisis is "for the Polish people and the Polish government to settle" and gives inquirers to understand that it is biting its tongue for statesmanlike cause.

But too much of this sort of discretion is gratuitous and perhaps even harmful. It cannot possibly ensure Soviet good behavior, or prevent Soviet bad behavior, for the reason that Soviet policy is going to hinge not on nuances mumbled in Washington but on events that unfold in Warsaw, Gdansk and the other scenes of the Polish revolution. Meanwhile, petty discretion raises unnecessary doubts about the United States' real attitude toward the strike movement.

President Carter has responded to these doubts on the stump, pronouncing himself "inspired and gratified" by the Polish workers' gains. But surely it would be better for this view to be articulated forthrightly by his official apparatus, rather than to be issued in circumstances suggesting he is speaking only for purposes of his reelection or simply to vindicate his "human rights" line. In this connection, the United States would be negligent not to use the upcoming Helsinki Accords review conference in Madrid to raise a protective cry for the Poles.

But something deeper is wrong about stressing the "internal" nature of the crisis. Nothing important in Poland has ever been for Poles alone to decide: that is what it means to be Polish. In current circumstances, it is perfectly obvious -- and it would be better if it were made explicit and uncoy -- that the United States hopes the strike movement is consolidated and that it intends to do what it can, within responsible limits, to help out; if you will, to intervene.

The fact is, through its overall relationship with the Soviet Union, through its upholding of the European balance of power and more directly through its historical, personal and economic ties with Poland, the United States has long intervened. There is nothing to apologize for in this set of traditions and practices. It is an asset, something to build on carefully now.

Moreover, neither side in Poland is exhibiting the kind of qualms about a direct American role that official American spokesman profess. The Polish people, in the person of strike leader Lech Walesa, now openly ask for small change to start up the fledgling union structure. The Polish government openly asks for big bucks in the form of credits, loans, debt rescheduling and so forth, to stave off economic collapse.

So let us all accept, publicly, that we respect and admire what the Poles are trying to do and want to find effective ways to support them. This is so not only because the United States treasures the values at stake but because it weakens the Soviet Union's potential aggressive power -- without weakening its defensive position -- to have Poland move further toward being a country first of all concerned with the life of its own people.

That leaves open, of course, what the United States specifically ought to do. It is here that American confusion is most in evidence. The administration's principal emphasis is on credits and other economic favors, these to be dispensed by the West European allies and the United States. Popular sympathy for the Poles, not to speak of electoral pressures in West Germany as well as the United States, make this a politically appealing course.

But this is the path Poland has gone down in the last 10 years, with a measure of Soviet encouragement renewed only this week, and it has proved a dead end. Credits may merely allow or tempt Poland to evade the structural reforms -- decentralization, market discipline -- that are its real need. In this sense, credits may work directly against the underlying interests of the Polish strikers -- and of the United States. It may make sense for Poland's creditors to set certain conditions -- economic conditions: the circuit cannot be overloaded -- to ensure that Western help does more than make Poland safe a bit longer for the kind of socialism that has produced the current crisis.

The opportunity seems there, at least for a while, to assist in a momentous and enduring change. But it requires concentration and a readiness to pass up easy gratification. Let us not blow our part of this one.