The Poles continue to demonstrate the strength of the powerless. Their communist overlords fear them, so much so that even under the greatest provocation Solidarity has yet displayed, Moscow dares not send in the tanks.

The people of Poland have only their courage and their hatred to sustain them. Their bravery is legendary. They hate Russians, not just communist Russians, but any kind. The present Soviet generation has added godlessness to its offense of being Russian, of the breed that has raped Poland down the centuries. The form of government imposed on Poles by the Soviets is callous, incompetent and unable to provide them with food, housing or rudimentary justice.

Given the Polish character, it was perhaps no wonder that at the last meeting of Solidarity before union activity was outlawed, one of the demands put forth was for a referendum so that "society can say whether it trusts the representative institutions as they are."

In other words, the Poles proposed a bloodless coup d'etat at the ballot box. Everyone knows what the results of that referendum would be. The Poles are 90 percent Catholic; they have history's first Polish pope behind them. For them, religion is more than a source of spiritual strength; it is a means of political defiance. Their seminaries are packed, their churches are overflowing. The communists could expect a vote from the party, the weakest and clumsiest in Eastern Europe, but no more. The Kremlin knows it.

Even so, the Soviets did not give the order to march.

Instead, their representative in Warsaw, Prime Minister Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared war on Solidarity in the most tactful and circumspect terms. It was more of a plea than an ultimatum. Whoever heard of a military dictator telling his people that he had a broken heart or saying of what he was about to do, "It could have been different in our country. It should have been different."

He was offering, he insisted, a Polish solution.

But he was taking away Solidarity's only weapon, the right to strike. A striker has become, overnight, a criminal in Poland, subject to the death penalty.

The success of Jaruzelski's drastic measures depends on one grisly uncertainty: Will Poles fire on brother Poles? Are Polish troops willing to pull the trigger on their countrymen in the name of--what? To preserve the communist way of life in Poland? To please the Kremlin? Their harrowing calculation would have to be that if they don't shoot their brothers, the Soviets will come in and do it.

Nine million Poles in a nation of 35 million belong to Solidarity. Will they all go to jail? Will they face Polish firing squads?

Some wan hope attaches to the meeting to be held among union leader Lech Walesa, Archbishop Jozef Glemp and Jaruzelski. Walesa is obviously under pressure from his militants, just as the general is getting heat from Moscow. The archbishop is in constant touch with Rome.

Europe is remaining calm. Its nerves have been rubbed raw with nuclear terrors. The prospect of conventional strife on the ground has steadied them. No western leader is anxious to taunt or rattle the reluctant bear. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who was visiting his East German neighbors, expressed hope for "some kind of an agreement."

As for the Reagan administration, it is showing the first rhetorical restraint of its time in office. Perhaps the outcome of the KGB's showdown with Andrei Sakharov, to which the president contributed a civil, but forceful, letter to Leonid I. Brezhnev, convinced Reagan that explosive situations do not require inflammatory words.

Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., who sees East-West conflict in every movement in the jungles of Central America and who never misses a chance to warn or threaten the Soviets, has, in the presence of the real thing, confined himself to moderate expression.

Said one Soviet expert dryly, "They seem to have learned something. Six months ago, they would have been blowing the trumpets."

At the White House, deputy press secretary Larry Speakes went out of his way yesterday to convey business as usual. He opened the daily news briefing by announcing appointments of two obscure men to obscure posts.

The president was proceeding with his routines and his schedule. His only crisis-related activity was a telephone call to Pope John Paul II. Reagan did not attend either of the two National Security Council meetings on Poland. His indispensable counselor, Edwin Meese III, was not returning from Hawaii ahead of time. The president's men apparently are going to try to avoid panic.

Part of the reason may be that they have no idea what to do. Poland has been cut off from the outside world. The men in the Kremlin are not imaginative. They are isolating Poland as they isolated Sakharov. It is the only way they can deal with people and countries who refuse to fear them.