Surprised by the fact that it was Poles and not Soviets who finally moved to extinguish Poland's brief fling with liberty, Western leaders today remained divided, uncertain and worried about how best to confront the Polish crisis.
Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski's military crackdown has pointed up what many consider a basic fragility of the Atlantic Alliance, and it has revived concerns among policy makers in Europe about the West's ability to formulate a credible range of political responses to nonmilitary challenges from the Soviet Union or as is the case in Poland, a member of the Warsaw Pact.
A week after the imposition of martial law in Poland, Western nations, those of Western Europe as well as the United States, have been unable to come up with a common, active policy for dealing with the events in Poland.
The only joint stand to be taken by any of the Western allies has been a mild communique from the 10-nation European Community foreign ministers that said little more than that they were "concerned" about events in Poland and hoped that a solution could be found to the crisis "without the use of force."
Since that document was released three days after Polish troops fanned out over the Polish countryside to take control, stronger stands have been taken separately -- and as a result of continuing consultations -- by France, Great Britain, West Germany and the United States. All of these countries have, in one form or another, openly condemned events in Poland, demanded that the repressed liberties be restored and that the thousands arrested be freed.
However, aside from the unilateral U.S. decision to suspend any further economic help or food aid to the Polish government -- an action the Europeans have refused to follow -- no real sanctions have been agreed to, and no credible pressures have been applied by the West either against the Polish authorities or the Soviet Union.
The main reason for this, is that there is no agreement among Western leaders on what could or should be done that would not aggravate an already dangerous situation into something much worse that many Europeans fear could end by threatening Western security.
European and U.S. officials admit in private that the reason for the uncoordinated and mild Western reaction on Poland is that they simply had not anticipated that when Soviet-made tanks moved to stifle the Polish workers' movement, which Moscow repeatedly has labeled "counterrevolutionary," it would be Polish soldiers, not Soviets, who would be driving them.
Having been caught unprepared to react when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Western policy makers had expressed determination to prepare a graded range of reactions to any future such Soviet moves. As the Polish workers' movement blossomed in the latter half of 1980, an actual agreement on a still-secret list of Western responses to a Soviet invasion of Poland was agreed to in a meeting of NATO foreign ministers exactly a year ago.
At that same meeting there was also discussion of "gray area" contingencies in a Polish crisis that would fall short of a Soviet invasion. But high U.S. officials acknowledge now that there never was a consensus among the allies on just how to respond to such a situation. Instead, all that could be resolved was that foreign ministers should meet again in such circumstances to decide on their response when the time came.
The only unanimous agreement among the NATO allies on the Polish crisis was thus an insistence that there should be "no foreign interference" in Poland, a principle that was just a diplomatic fig leaf to warn the Soviet Union against any move on Poland. The NATO allies warned that should there be such interference they "would be compelled to react in the manner that the gravity of this development would require."
When Jaruzelski finally unleashed his Communist-officered Army against his people Sunday, not only did the warning against "no foreign interference" become a predictable part of the litany of Western statements, but it was also quickly taken up by the Soviets -- as well as the Polish military leadership -- to warn the West, in its own words, not to interfere in what they insisted was an entirely internal Polish affair.
The fact that it was Poles repressing Poles, has disarmed Western leaders and made them suddenly aware of the limited options at their disposal to try to reverse Polish repression of the 16-month-old "Solidarity" movement for civil and labor liberties.
NATO, basically a defense alliance for confronting an armed threat from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, has proven a difficult vehicle for formulating political responses to a crisis that does not easily fit into the traditional black-and-white context of cold war confrontation. The European Community, which remains more an economic union than a political pact, demonstrated through its foreign ministers' statement on Poland that it is not much more useful.
The discovery has left European officials worried about the credibility of the West's deterrence -- especially when it is a question of a political rather than a military threat.
Policy makers worry that the Polish situation could still flare into a civil war or something worse, that would spread to the rest of Europe.
It is this fear that has led them to scrupulous caution, even as some leaders, such as French President Francois Mitterrand or West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, speak out to identify themselves with Solidarity's struggle.
The issue of food aid is an example of the problem of response.
President Reagan announced this week he would halt all new food aid to Poland so long as its people are being repressed. The Europeans have decided that they will continue food aid to Poland not only for humanitarian reasons but also because not to would be to court shortages that might lead to the sort of collective breakdown in Poland that could bring a Soviet involvement and force the West's hand.
The European response to U.S. fears that food aid would reinforce the government's repression, has been to try to guarantee that food goes to Poland's increasingly hungry people directly, and not through their government.
Such a test was passed two days ago near Poznan, where a 122-truck column of trucks full of food from the Netherlands was stopped by the Polish Army. Polish officers demanded that the food be handed over to them for distribution in the countryside. The Dutch truckers refused, threatening to burn their produce.
Polish authorities finally relented, and the Dutch truckers were allowed to deliver their food to Polish churches for distribution.
European officials have pointed to that incident as a small victory for the Polish people over their oppressors. It remains, however, a victory that is still far short of the sort of concerted Western response that policy makers have dreamed of but never agreed to, that would seriously affect the future course of events in Poland.