A record of confused and contradictory American responses to the 16-month crisis in Poland is buried in history's boldest attempt to liberalize communist rule in Eastern Europe.

No official is prepared to open the books on that record now when the Reagan administration is performing the political rite of proclaiming a year of outstanding accomplishments.

But in private, many chagrined experts on Eastern Europe are hanging their heads over what they see as a pattern of lost opportunities in perhaps the most significant test that the United States, as leader of the West, has encountered in a decade.

The failure was conceptual and operational. By succumbing to its preoccupation with the American economy, the Reagan administration was ill equipped to cope with an unprecedented diplomatic-economic challenge abroad. No coherent strategy for handling the Polish problem ever was devised that might, through the use of economic assistance and diplomatic leverage, have forestalled the final crackdown.

Instead, the United States relied on piecemeal aid infusions and occasional warnings to Moscow, while chaos in Poland mounted.

Without any imaginative lead from the United States, the West as a whole floundered through the months of crisis until Poland's Solidarity movement and the Polish government inescapably collided over the preservation of communist rule in that nation.

The Reagan administration is justified in asserting that it did foresee, even though some ranking officials did not, that the Polish crisis was unlikely to explode in accordance with the single-track contingency plan of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--a frontal invasion by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.

In the judgment of many of its own specialists, however, that foresight only compounded the failure of the West to agree on any other course of action before the curtain clanged down on Poland Dec. 13.

At least by the middle of last June, it was widely recognized inside the State Department, the National Security Council and the CIA, that it would require a heroic effort of western leadership to salvage the audacious Polish experiment.

The order of magnitude for such an effort needed to be comparable in concept--although not in actual outlay of American funds--to the post-World War II Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Western Europe.

At stake in Poland, a pivotal nation in the Soviet design in Europe, were consequences transcending those of the crushed Hungarian revolution of 1956 or Czechoslovakia's obliterated "Prague Spring" of 1968. For Poland had produced the first authentic, nationwide workers revolt against orthodox communist rule, inside a system which claimed, above all, to represent the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Accordingly, the challenge perceived by specialists was that the western response to Poland's turmoil could not be simply in terms of traditional foreign aid to a nation in economic distress.

Instead, it was argued, the preservation of a unique measure of freedom in Poland could be seen as a security priority for the United States comparable to the administration's plans to spend billions of dollars on military hardware. With this criteria, activists maintained, the United States should measure what it stood to gain, or lose, on the same scale as MX missiles, B1 bombers and Trident submarines.

The choices were expressed bluntly in the internal debate:

"What would the Russians pay to get Poland back to where it was? Ten billion dollars? Twenty billion dollars? If you formulate the question this way, the answer is compelling about what we should do?"

But the answer obviously was not compelling enough.

It is unclear on the public record whether the questions ever were fully debated in the presence of President Reagan, or even before such influential advisers as counselor Edwin Meese III, chief of staff James A. Baker III, deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan and Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman.

The idea that the United States, and especially a right-of-center Republican administration transfixed by commitments to fiscal solvency, should consider spending anything on the order of billions of dollars "to prop up a failing communist regime," as it was characterized, to quote one insider, literally was "laughed out of court."

"We simply never succeeded in engaging their attention," one dismayed specialist ruefully recalled last week. "State was arguing, begging, pleading," but "the problem was economic tunnel vision."

That was by no means the only problem, however. Throughout this period the administration was groping for its own center of gravity in the conduct of foreign affairs.

Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., the only major player in the debate equipped by experience to press the Polish issue, was a crippled advocate from the start. Haig was entangled in what he perceived as encircling bureaucratic guerrilla warfare, in which he was everyone's target.

CIA Director William J. Casey, it is said, "finally was brought around" on the significance of the Polish test in the totality of East-West competition. But Casey, too, had his own problems of personal survival in the administration.

As for Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, he started out on the Polish dilemma by publicly hinting that a Soviet invasion of Poland could lead the United States to retaliate by selling weapons to China--an idea scorned by diplomats as a naive boomerang for American strategy in both directions.

Weinberger, it is reported, later did agree with the import of investing in the Polish experiment--provided the costs did not come out of the Defense Department budget-- which was about the only place they could have come from.

In preparing for the Ottawa summit in July, those who advocated a multibillion-dollar western commitment to the Polish struggle to liberalize communist rule tried in vain to put that on the agenda as a major issue. Regan said when the conference ended that while finance ministers did discuss Poland's devastated economy and especially its huge foreign debt, "I want to stress that no conclusions were reached."

During the late summer, it was made clear at interdepartmental discussions in Washington, participants acknowledged, that "Treasury and OMB are dead set against committing any new money in the budget [for Poland] beyond emergency food aid to get through the winter."

What the Reagan administration was prepared to provide, and only then by internal and external prodding, was some millions of dollars in what was literally and figuratively "chickenfeed"; primarily grain for Poland's American-inspired chicken-breeder industry, an important source of quick protein.

The American credits and grants of stocks of surplus food were not insignificant. But they could not dent a problem of Poland's dimensions. Poland was disintegrating with a foreign debt approaching $27 billion, a near-bankrupt economy and a nation aflame with demands for more freedom and greater benefits for its workers.

Those who advocated a long-term western consortium to salvage the Polish economy had to admit that no plan "could guarantee" a satisfactory outcome. There were no precedents. Never before had the capitalist West and the communist East attempted parallel action to keep afloat a nation with one foot planted in each camp.

Any massive formula for Poland's grievous problems would have entailed a variety of assistance programs, advisers, long-term food deliveries, technical aid and foreign scrutiny of Poland's economy on an unprecedented scale for Eastern Europe.

Was it really in the interest of the West, asked many western bankers beyond those trapped as overextended creditors of Poland, to rescue a mortally stricken communist nation? The negative response was bluntly summed up by The Wall Street Journal:

"What we are witnessing here is the collapse of the communist economic system, winding down from want of markets efficiently allocating resourses and adequate incentives for workers . . . . It would make some sense to help Eastern Europe if Poland and the rest were developing the kind of economies that might ultimately pay off loans and contribute to world economic well-being. But there is no sign that they are thinking of abandoning communist systems and moving toward free markets. So a few years further on they'll only be further in the hole, and if we buy in now we'll be bailing out no one so much as the Kremlin."

The affirmative side of the debate never effectively broke through the public surface. Its participants hardly were "doves," starting with Haig; Undersecretary for Political Affairs Walter J. Stoessel, a former ambassador to Poland, and the senior members of State's European Bureau, headed by assistant secretary Lawrence S. Eagleburger.

Haig also could draw on his prime link to the White House, his deputy secretary and Reagan insider William P. Clark, plus several allies in the camp of Haig's erstwhile NSC adversary, Richard V. Allen--notably militant anticommunist Richard Pipes, NSC specialist on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

In the end, the action-advocates inside the State Department (who are now assailed by journalistic critics for flacid passivity) were driven to grasping at straws.

One straw was the expected visit of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to the United States in November to attend the New York convention of the AFL-CIO on the invitation of union President Lane Kirkland.

A White House meeting between Reagan and Walesa was anticipated in which, the action-advocates hoped, Walesa's presence would cause Reagan to enfold Solidarity's aspirations in an embrace that even the domestic policy advisers in the White House would find too politically tantalizing to ignore.

That creative vision of side-door entry to the administration's priorities died on the vine; Walesa could not leave Warsaw. He was embattled not only with the government of Poland, but also with a losing struggle to maintain his own moderate strategy for Solidarity, as Poland tumbled into a denouement more premeditated and violent than anything Walesa or his advisers imagined.

The tragic drama in Poland continues. Nothing that remains of the original hopes for preserving Poland's fleeting gains in freedom by major help from the outside world, however, such as Poland's belated application to rejoin the International Monetary Fund, filed in mid-November, can fulfill the initial, daring dream. Perhaps it never could have been fulfilled, in any way in which the West could have contributed significantly. But no one will ever be certain of that, for the attempt to find out was never made.