The administration told Catholic and Polish-American leaders yesterday that it is prepared to continue food and other humanitarian aid to the Polish people as long as it does not fall into "the wrong hands."
The statement from Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. to a delegation headed by Cardinal John Krol, archbishop of Philadelphia, followed a meeting of the National Security Council on U.S. and allied policies toward Poland and the Soviet Union.
Reports from the meeting with Krol and other sources indicated that the administration is seeking to make a sharp distinction in aid and attitude between the Polish people and the martial-law government that launched an extensive crackdown 10 days ago.
State Department sources said Haig was referring to the Polish martial-law regime when he spoke of keeping aid out of "the wrong hands."
Bishop Edwin B. Broderick, executive director of Catholic Relief Services, who reported the exchange, said he and Krol informed Haig that U.S. food is "really getting to the needy people" through the distribution channels of the Polish church. Broderick said Polish church sources have said they can handle "all the food we could send to them."
Krol, following the meeting with Reagan in which three other leaders of the Polish-American community took part, said, "I personally would be happy to see as much food, as much grain and as much help go as possible" through humanitarian channels.
He said humanitarian aid must continue so as "not to give the people of Poland who are the victims in this situation the impression that they are being abandoned and that the only people interested in helping them are those of the communist world."
There was no indication how much additional aid the government might be willing to provide for the Polish people through Catholic Relief and another humanitarian outlet, CARE.
Following the assurances in yesterday's meetings with Haig and a separate meeting with President Reagan at the White House, the humanitarian agencies are expected to go forward with distribution of $61 million in governmentally financed food assistance approved before imposition of martial law Dec. 12.
The administration, on the other hand, is believed ready to discontinue all U.S. assistance to the Polish government and is exploring similar action by U.S. allies. This is reported to be among proposals being discussed with European allies by a U.S. delegation headed by Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger.
A presidential decision on sanctions is expected shortly in light of reports from Eagleburger and diplomatic contacts with other friendly governments. Cooperation of other governments is considered crucial to the success of any economic and political sanctions that might be applied from here.
A major question is to what extent sanctions could be applied to the Soviet Union because of the Polish situation in the absence of open Soviet military intervention.
In remarks during a ceremony to light the State Department Christmas tree yesterday, Haig alluded to a Soviet role, saying the Polish people "continue to be brutalized by militant suppression from within, encouraged from without."
In New York, the International Longshoreman's Association announced it will boycott all ships carrying goods to or from Poland until the military crackdown there ends.
ILA President Thomas W. Gleason Sr. said the only exception would be for recognized charities that wish to send emergency medical or food supplies.
Reagan, speaking to reporters just before the start of his meeting with Krol, praised Polish Ambassador Romuald Spasowski, who was granted political asylum in this country by presidential order Sunday.
"I admire his courage and his declaration of principle. He pointed up the seriousness of the situation. We're all grateful to him for it," the president said.
Reagan and Spasowski are scheduled to meet at the White House today.
Asked how long the military crackdown would continue, Reagan replied, "You have me in a rather difficult spot with regard to that. We're holding meetings right now with regard to the situation. We don't want it to go on long. We're going to do everything we can to see that it doesn't."