As the third winter approaches since Poland's Communist government abruptly ended the country's exhilarating experiment with free trade unions and political reform, the United States and its allies are increasingly torn over when and how to revive relations with Eastern Europe's biggest and most volatile nation.

The issue is one of the most sensitive on the East-West agenda, and interviews in Washington, several European capitals and Warsaw reveal that differences among the allies are deepening.

All are still agreed on the long-term dangers to security of appearing to absolve Soviet-sponsored repression by, in effect, overlooking the continuing hard line of the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. But most Europeans recognize that Poland is far too important--and potentially valuable as a trading or occasionally a political partner--to be relegated indefinitely to obscurity as Czechoslovakia has been since its crisis in 1968 or East Germany always has been.

"Our present policy of near-isolation is a dead end," said a senior West German diplomat in Bonn. "We can't go from the anniversary of one event to another measuring the crowds in the streets and the government response while letting our policy remain static."

"With martial law at least technically abolished, most political prisoners released and Pope John Paul's triumphant visit a historic fact, we have come to the time when we should begin injecting momentum of our own toward improvement," a knowledgeable British official said. "Since ferment in Poland is never going to disappear no matter what we do, it actually makes it easier for the Soviets if we are giving the regime in power a cold shoulder.

"Given the influence of the church and the strength of popular will that we have seen so often, the West has an enormous stake in Poland no matter who is in charge."

The European attitude was clear at the recent European Security Conference meeting in Madrid where Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Olszowski succeeded in arranging meetings with his West German and British counterparts as well as the Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, Austrians and Swedes, plus the Vatican. Polish officials are scurrying to whatever noncommunist country will receive them. Jozef Wiejacz, the senior deputy foreign minister, has just returned from a swing to Argentina, Bolivia and Peru.

Aides to West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher say he is eager to be the first NATO minister to visit Warsaw. West Germany's archconservative Franz-Josef Strauss went to Poland this summer. And a high-level Polish delegation, the first since martial law, has now been invited to Bonn.

Yet the Reagan administration, which imposed stiffer measures on the Polish regime in 1981-82 than ever levied on any Warsaw Pact country including the Soviet Union, still favors moving very slowly to lift them. This is especially true of the economic restrictions which the Poles contend are crippling the country's recovery. Washington is blocking Poland's application to join the International Monetary Fund, has withdrawn its most favored nation trading status and is preventing any meaningful movement on the rescheduling of Poland's enormous, and still growing, debt to western governments.

The economic questions are especially vexing to Europeans. So long as Poland is basically insolvent--with a total debt of $26 billion to western banks and governments--there is no incentive to make new loans on either political or economic grounds.

On the other hand, Europeans point out that the American-imposed debt deadlock has actually benefited the Polish authorities because they have had to make no payments on the $14 billion they owe to governments. Moreover, as the Poles fail to repay commercial bank credits, western governments, including the United States, must by law do it for them. According to Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates, for every dollar decline in Poland's bank loans, its debt to governments increases by about 90 cents.

"Our problem is steadily getting worse, not theirs," a NATO analyst said.

Pressure on the United States is mounting from all quarters to ease its position in the so-called Paris Club of lending nations; at its September meeting, approval was given for a visit to Warsaw by "experts," but without authority to do more than look around.

"The American approach to Poland still emphasizes punishment," a senior West German politician said. "Our approach is broader. We are neighbors. We must show the Polish people that we care for them but we must also do what we can to prevent the awful day when Soviet tanks move in. In Poland that is always still a possibility."

The Reagan administration's view is divided in itself. At the State Department and even among some key White House officials, there is a sense that a "reward" for the formal lifting of martial law was justified--probably the easing of fishing restrictions and permission for Polish airliners to land. Yet it has not happened and the policy is officially said to be "under review."

The administration's confusion was reflected in Vice President Bush's recent Vienna address on East-West relations when he omitted Poland from both his list of Soviet Bloc countries of which the United States disapproves--East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria--and those to which it is more kindly disposed--Hungary and Romania. "The best thing that can be said about the speech," a Polish official commented, "is that it said almost nothing about us."

What makes the prolonged rupture in U.S.-Polish relations all the more striking is that for more than a generation Poland maintained closer and genuinely warmer ties to the United States than did any other Warsaw Pact country. In 1960, Poland became the first Soviet Bloc country to achieve most favored nation status. Cultural ties were extensive and 6 million Polish-Americans exerted a strong positive influence on contacts of all kinds. Poland was regularly favored with top-level U.S. political visitors.

At the moment, the two countries refuse even to exchange ambassadors.

Similarly, Poland's relations with West Germany, France and the other western powers had improved steadily over the years on all fronts, reaching a peak in the detente era of the mid-1970s when high-ranking official exchanges became routine and commercial credits poured in to underwrite what was destined to be the most western-oriented economy in the East.

Because of the popularity of Polish graphics, such celebrated film directors as Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi, and avante garde dramatists like Slawomir Mrozek, Poland emerged as Western Europe's "favorite" communist country. The good will was enhanced by the emergence of Solidarity and its sway over events for more than a year.

Even the fact that Solidarity-led strikes were undermining an economy already badly oversubscribed to western bankers caused far more concern among the bankers than among governments. But Poland's relations with the West were good when they were shattered overnight on Dec. 12-13, 1981, by the shock of a declaration of war by the Polish authorities against their own people.

It was not just the brutal use of Soviet-style armed force that underlay the strong initial western reaction and why the response today remains so complicated. As always seems to be the case with Poland, there were special emotional features in which the actions of the government, the people and the West itself are intertwined.

Disappointment. "We had such great expectations for Poland, hopes that peaceful reform could finally come to the heartland of Eastern Europe," said a British diplomat who served there, "and so we were all the more disappointed when it didn't happen."

The doors to the West had long been so wide open in Poland, the salutary impact of Pope John Paul II's election in 1978 so great, that the letdown was greater than might otherwise have been the case considering that the Soviets, in the end, had not invaded. The effective use of the military as well as the specially trained police exploded the myth accepted by western specialists that Poles would not willingly suppress their countrymen.

Most difficult of all to deal with for the West was that Solidarity had let itself down. Great faith had been placed in a mass movement that could outsmart the authorities by its own conviction. "We had this cockeyed idea that Solidarity might somehow rival the regime," an American analyst said, "but we didn't try hard enough to guide it in directions that would limit the risks to itself."

Surprise. Martial law stunned western strategists as much as it did Solidarity and exaggerated the disarray of both groups which also exists to the present. "I have no inside line to the Reagan administration," Prof. Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University, one of the leading American analysts of the Warsaw Pact, has written, "but I must judge that we were very badly prepared."

For all the millions of members of Solidarity, there was no credible forecast of the government's crackdown. Still more puzzling is that the Central Intelligence Agency--even if it knew that martial law was coming--was unable to forward the sort of data to the Reagan administration that might have enabled it to send the regime a preemptive warning on the consequences of a crackdown. Had there been such a warning, "at least today we would have a much clearer answer on whether it is at all possible to influence events in the Communist Bloc," Bialer wrote.

Mismanagement. In retrospect, both Poland and the West seriously mismanaged the economic assistance given to the country through the mid-1970s. As the debts mounted and ambitious projects were undertaken, bankers and their governments overlooked Poland's inability to turn out the products that would earn the hard currency needed to repay the loans.

The economic upheaval of the Solidarity period was compounded by the collapse of the government's plans to meet consumer needs through continued borrowing from the West. When under martial law that became impossible--and remains impossible today--the government's leverage for recovering some support among the population by raising living standards was drastically reduced.

As the Europeans move toward a rapprochement with the regime--France is the exception, sharing in this case the American tough stance--U.S. officials say that some decisions will be taken in Washington soon.

Of the various options available for renewing relations with Poland, far and away the most important would be enabling it to get membership in the International Monetary Fund. That would give Poland access to funds for repaying its debts and an overall economic rescue package. The Reagan administration's conditions for such a step are that the regime open a meaningful dialogue with the church and the workers, release the remaining political prisoners--under 200, according to Polish government figures--and show a greater respect for human rights.

"We could start getting the Jaruzelski regime back on its feet anytime," one key administration planner said. "The question is whether we or the Polish people really want to do that."

Next: The Polish view of sanctions