A few months into his presidency in 1977, in his first full-fledged foreign policy speech at the University of Notre Dame, Jimmy Carter said:

"Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear. I'm glad that's being changed."

Not an exceptional statement, unless (see Webster's dictionary) you're given to "disordered," "immoderate," "excessive" fear -- or to embracing dictators. But it's become raw meat for the American political right.

"The Democratic Party is in the hands of the man who warns against 'inordinate fear' of communism," George F. Will wrote grimly a week or so ago, even as The Wall Street Journal was pointing scornfully to the Jimmy Carter "who brags of shedding an inordinate fear of communism." At the Republican convention, more than one orator alluded to the same, truncated extract fro the Notre Dame speech.

Now, it is accepted practice for political polemicists to uproot opponents' statements, prune them to their purposes and replant them in the public consciousness. But useful political discourse does tend to get skewed in the process. And Carter's original thought seems to me to be worth preserving in its original form, not just in fairness, but because it is of immediate and particular relevance to the incendiary confrontation between Polish workers and Poland's communist government.

Carter was talking at Notre Dame about "the strands that connect our actions overseas with our essential character as a nation." He was expressing confidence that "democracy's example will be compelling." He was talking balance-of-ideology, not balance-of-power. By that test, he was proclaiming unquestioned superiority for our side.

And that, in a very real sense, is what the Polish workers have been saying.

They've been saying that after generations of communist totalitarian repression, this generation of Polish working men and women still feels deeply enough about "democracy's example" to risk both like and livelihood for such democratic values as free trade unions and freedom of the press.

What are we to make of it, in strategic, geopolitical terms? Just to begin with, a much clearer distinction than the American right seems willing to make between the "communist threat" and the Soviet threat, between the power of ideology and of arms -- between Soviet weaknesses and Soviet strength.

When the Soviets, for example, feel compelled to brutalize Afghanistan in order to save it for communism, the result is an awesome display of military power and the will to use it ruthlessly. But it is hardly a testimonial to the workings of Marxist-Leninism. "The Soviets' strength is military," says a Carter administration analyst. "Their doctrine isn't even compelling to their European allies."

Poland only reinforces the point. On paper, the striking workers have won some considerable part of their demands for more freedom to organize and to strike, and for a loosening of control of the press.

If the agreement sticks, the consequences could be enormous, even if they may be slow to come. Any real and lasting measure of "liberation" in Poland would severly threaten the security of the rest of Eastern Europe, if not the stability of the Soviet Union itself.

And if the government reneges, or the Soviets' can't stand it and decide to intervene? The scenarios, as the war-gamers say, run a frightening gamut, at the nightmarish end of which lies nuclear war. But assuming that the resulting struggle could be contained, the consensus among administration experts is that it would not be Czechoslovakia, 1968; the Soviets would not subdue Poland without a costly, bloody fight.

Another sobering display of ruthless power it might well be. But not, in ideological terms, a demonstration of strength.

It is at this point that the distinction between ideology and military might begins to disappear. For surely, the ideological weakness of the Soviet system has something to do with its showcase value -- and, hence, with the dimension of the Soviet threat. You can argue that it makes the Soviets more dangerous -- their economic stagnation and their looming energy crisis could make the Persian Gulf their logical target. Weakness at home could make it all the more important to smother their "weakness" in Poland.

But inherent weakness in their own system still has to figure, in a general way, as a constraint on how effectively it can be sold, or imposed, elsewhere. Somewhere between unilateral disarmament and doomsday demands for American "superiority," there ought to be some room for a response that gives weight to Soviet liabilities as well as Soviet assets.

"We are firmly opposing Soviet adventurism," Secretary of State Edmund Muskie said not long ago. "But we have no interest in a poicy of knee-jerk hostility which sees a Russian under every Third World stone."

That's all Jimmy Carter was saying at Notre Dame.