DID THE West's sanctions help the Poles? Perhaps, marginally. The anticipation of sanctions could not protect Solidarity from being overwhelmed by the Communist Party's fear -- no, its sure knowledge -- that it was being swamped by the popular will. But the extra burden that the sanctions imposed on the authority, on top of the larger burden imposed by the Polish people themselves, may have hastened the regime's crawl back from the full martial law it declared a year ago.
To say that, of course, is to acknowledge that harsher Western sanctions, including sanctions imposed not just on Poland but also on the Soviet Union, might have made more of a difference. It is evident, however, that there are limits. Poland's economic crisis and its indebtedness were crimping its economic relations with the West anyway. The indirectness of the Soviet hand and the large stake almost all Europeans have in continuing open relations with Moscow -- an economic, political and human stake for which there is no American counterpart -- ensured that the West would not hold Moscow to full account.
Now Gen. Jaruzelski has announced the imminent end of the "main rigors" of martial law. He is not promising much, since he has already taken other measures (new restrictive laws, a new modus vivendi with the church, constant intimidation) to keep the lid on. Therefore, there is no good reason for President Reagan to offer much in return by way of lifting American sanctions. No one can be under any illusion that the small sanctions Mr. Reagan keeps on will have much of an impact in Warsaw, especially if the Europeans, as expected, now start to accept Gen. Jaruzelski's contention that it is time to return to normal. Still, there is residual value in making the point and in holding to the Reagan promise that Polish restrictions and American sanctions go hand in hand.
Will anything help the Poles, really help them? They live not between two broad oceans, but, historically, between two jealous neighbors. World War II left the Soviet Union in a position to assert its interests in Poland and the West poorly placed to encourage its values. Poles themselves are ambivalent. They reach out naturally for a strong Western moral and political blessing for their striving for freedom, although that reach and that striving tend to energize the forces of repression in the East. But they see the merit in the common European argument that it is only in circumstances of overall East-West d,etente that Eastern Europe has its best chance, still not a very good chance, to be itself.
There is no certainty in Poland except that Poles know what freedom is and will demand it again. As difficult as it will be to satisfy that demand, the West cannot say it has not been warned.