The crackdown in Poland reopens, painfully, a question that Western statesmen of the 1970s hoped they were on the way to answering. How can the countries of East Europe, within the context of continuing obligations to Soviet power, best assert their traditional personalities and live their own national lives?

For a decade or more, the prospective answer was d,etente. From its beginnings with Willy Brandt, d,etente was supposed to mean more than lowering international tensions, more than arms control, more than trade and ballet. It was supposed to mean more liberty in Eastern Europe, perhaps eventually in Moscow, too.

The principal Western actors of the period looked hard at the Soviet intervention in Prague in 1968 and asked whether the Czech spring might not have survived in conditions of a broader East-West warming. In such conditions, it was posited, Moscow might be less likely to see liberalization in Eastern Europe as a threat to its security interests. Just as the Cold War had divided Europe, so d,etente might help start to reunite it. The Helsinki Accords of 1975 tied up the three key strands: human rights, trade, security.

That whole aspect of d,etente looks awfully sad right now in Poland. For although the two great powers have not recently enjoyed anything that might be called d,etente, Europe has. From a Western point of view, it is inconceivable that liberalization in Poland could have been fairly construed as a risk to Soviet security.

Yet there are the Polish workers, struggling against the thrust of an army which, although it is a Polish army, might never have left the barracks if the Kremlin had not demanded that it move.

As one who has never believed--as many conservatives do--that the Soviets act mainly on some sort of deterministic, almost genetic inheritance, I believe that the crackdown substantially strengthens the argument that the Kremlin is not going to permit the development of free institutions or free nations in Eastern Europe, period.

"Don't talk to me about 'socialism'," Leonid Brezhnev told Alexander Dubcek just before Soviet troops marched into Czechoslovakia, according to Robert C. Tucker in the new Foreign Affairs. "What we have we hold."

As necessary as it is to set aside liberal myths, however, the conservative ones are no more satisfactory.

In their respective manners, Yugoslavia, Romania and Hungary all are living comments on the limits of the Soviet appetite and reach in Eastern Europe. Yugoslavia ended Soviet dominance with a leap in 1948, Romania with a creep in the 1960s. Hungary recovered from the Soviet invasion of 1956 to find a discreet, principally economic path to the relative autonomy it enjoys today.

Poland is different; every country in East Europe is different. But it is premature to say the Polish story is over. The issue is not exclusively whether Moscow will permit free institutions. The companion issue is the means--the tactics, the policies--by which Poles pursue their birthright of independence. Why should East Europe be regarded as the only place in the world where such things don't make a difference?

If it comes to a bloody showdown, with or without a direct Soviet hand, the only thing the West will have to argue about is the extent of the freeze to apply in return. Buy Soviet gas? Continue arms control talks? And so on.

But in less dire circumstances, the West will face its traditional policy dilemma: whether to offer what help is feasible to enable interested Eastern European countries to lengthen their Soviet leash, or to limit relations in order to increase Moscow's costs in East Europe and to demonstrate the inadequacies of communism.

Dogma, whether liberal or conservative, is a poor guide to the choices entailed. A broad sense of the American interest seweerves better. That dictates pragmatism: some of this, some of that, following the head but following the heart, too. Disorderly but, given who we are, unavoidable.