Lech Walesa claims he knew "right from the very beginning" that Poland's Communist authorities would move to crush his independent Solidarity trade union by force.

Looking back at the 16 turbulent months that marked Solidarity's rise and fall, Walesa said in an interview that he also was aware all along that the government would win any violent confrontation with Poland's workers. As a result, he said, his strategy as Solidarity leader had been to keep the human costs as low as possible and achieve a long-term political triumph.

"I knew that our victory would have to come in a different way--that it would be a political one, that nothing could be achieved by force. This remains my tactic to this very day," he said.

Walesa, who shot to world attention almost overnight in August 1980 after leading a workers' protest that toppled a government and sent shock waves through the Soviet Bloc, met with three U.S. correspondents in his apartment here Tuesday. Other key points that emerged from the hour-long interview, one of the first he has given since his release on Nov. 14 after 11 months of internment, included:

* The 39-year-old Solidarity leader has plans to travel to Sweden, the United States and possibly the Vatican in the next few months, provided that the Polish authorities agree to allow him to return to Poland afterward. He wants to collect the "award of freedom," a prize of 50,000 Swedish kroner (about $6,750), at a ceremony in Stockholm in February.

* For the last two weeks before Walesa was freed from the government guesthouse in Arlamow in southeastern Poland, all his contacts with the outside world were severed. The apparent aim of this psychological pressure was to induce him to write a letter to Poland's military ruler, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, that could be used as a pretext for releasing him before other Solidarity internees.

After the imposition of martial law on Dec. 13, 1981, Walesa offered to convene a meeting of Solidarity's National Commission inside prison. The meeting would have reviewed and possibly revised the radical resolutions that the government had cited as providing justification for the crackdown. The authorities rejected his offer.

* Walesa still feels committed to implementing the resolution passed by Solidarity's National Commission in Gdansk on Dec. 12, 1981 that called for a program of free elections and the introduction of workers' self-management. But he reserves the right to choose "appropriate" methods of action.

A marked change in Walesa was noticeable since the chaotic press conferences that he gave immediately after his release. He seemed much fitter and more relaxed, and exuded the same kind of self-assurance displayed as Solidarity leader. He still was cautious in his replies to questions, but his language has become much more colorful and exuberant after five weeks of freedom.

During the conversation, which took place in the living room of his large apartment on the modern Zaspa housing estate outside Gdansk, he alluded repeatedly to government eavesdropping and possible future legal harassment. Apologizing for "not spelling things out more specifically," he explained: "What I mean is that we're at the police station right now."

The government has insisted many times that Walesa, as "the ex-chairman of the ex-Solidarity," is now simply a private citizen. The strong impression from meeting him, however, is that he still feels that he has an important political role to play. One of his favorite jokes is how he will behave once he becomes Poland's leader.

Describing how he had been detained for seven hours last Thursday to prevent him from addressing a workers' rally, for instance, Walesa said that he had been treated well by his plainclothes security escorts.

"Naturally I told them that I -- as the future president -- was very glad that they were treating me this way. I asked them if they would serve me well -- and they pledged they would," the former electrician said.

Describing his arrest in the early morning hours of Dec. 13 last year, Walesa said that he was flown from a military airstrip to Warsaw where Stanislaw Ciosek, the minister for trade unions, was waiting.

"I told him then, 'You're physically winning of course, but politically you are losing terribly. You will come back to me on your knees,' " Walesa said. He recalled that the minister seemed reserved and did not reply.

Leafing through letters from wellwishers, Walesa emphasized that Solidarity could never have won a physical showdown with the government. Some union activists have criticized him for not calling for a general strike during the so-called "Bydgoszcz crisis" in March 1981 when police severely beat several Solidarity officials. The union then was probably at the peak of its strength.

"If we had staged a strike over Bydgoszcz, it's likely that we would never have bounced back. The losses would have been tremendous -- and there's no doubt that we would have lost," he said.

"You can't take on tanks with running shoes," he added.

Asked to specify when he began thinking that a showdown was inevitable, he replied: "From August 1980, from the very beginning. . . The problem for me was how to fight (the battle) without suffering great losses, how to have as few people arrested as possible, to have as low a cost as possible, because otherwise there would be no chance of recovery. That's why I played it as clean as possible."

Later he added: "Since Aug. 14 the day the strike at the Lenin Shipyard began , I have had no illusions [about the inevitability of confrontation]. I also have no illusions about the fact that in the end we are surely going to win. But to win doesn't mean to defeat the authorities. The next victory will be bigger and better and to the satisfaction of all."

Walesa said he was against the kind of "revolutions and coups" that are made with "B-52 Flying Fortresses" and "the burning down of towns and villages." "It's possible to reach the same victory without destroying and burning," he said.

"We are sensible people who use political methods of struggle and will continue to do so. . . . Given the external situation, a small country like Poland cannot make history by itself."

There is some documentary evidence to support Walesa's claims that he saw the confrontation coming. In the months before the crackdown, he repeatedly warned workers that "the other side still has tanks and guns at its disposal." But his mood was changeable, and on another occasion he asserted that the Polish Army never would intervene in the crisis.

Before starting the interview, Walesa showed his visitors a Walkman cassette player that he was using to learn English, apparently in preparation for his trips abroad. He seemed still to be at the "My name is Lech Walesa" stage but made an effort to follow some questions in English.

Walesa said that he had been invited by his cousins, Wladyslaw and Henryk Brolewicz of New Jersey, to spend at least two weeks in the United States in May, June or July. Asked whether he was not afraid that the authorities might prevent him from returning to Poland, he said: "I like risks." But he added that it was "too dangerous" to take his family with him.

Walesa said that, if he went to Sweden in February, he would like to make a "sidetrip" to Italy, presumably to meet Polish-born Pope John Paul II.

Describing his release from internment, Walesa said he was completely isolated at Arlamow for two weeks at the end of October and beginning of November. He was convinced that a nationwide strike called by the Solidarity underground for Nov. 10 would fail.

These circumstances, he said, had impelled him to write a letter to Jaruzelski proposing a meeting to discuss "national agreement." He clearly implied that government officials had suggested that he write it but refused to say so precisely.

"I was being told that it was possible to do something, that I hadn't taken a pen in my hand for 12 months, that Christmas was coming, perhaps something would work," Walesa said. "I decided not to plead but to make a proposal."

The letter, signed Cpl. Lech Walesa, was later cited by the government as a reason for releasing him--possibly in hope of driving a wedge between him and other Solidarity leaders still in prison.

Walesa said that immediately after his arrest he had proposed a compromise to union affairs minister Ciosek and several generals. He suggested that Solidarity accept arbitration to settle strikes and separation of political and union issues.

Nothing came of his suggestion, Walesa said, because "the machinery of martial law" was already in motion and could not be stopped.

Looking ahead, Walesa said he still seeks to implement the 1980 Gdansk agreement that set up the first free trade unions in a communist state. He noted that at the Lenin Shipyard, only 172 out of 17,000 workers had applied to join new government-backed unions.

"This indicates that we still have a lot of people left," he said.