Events (and non-events) in Poland have made a difference inside Poland and in ideas about what might happen someday in other countries which live under the shadow of Soviet power.
The rise of an independent trade union in Poland and of a people determined to have a larger share in their own government and welfare have also made differences in the Western world which could be just as profound.
Those events in Poland have opened up for Europeans a novel idea, the idea that there may be a middle way between being "red or dead."
Back during the cold war (the Truman-Eisenhower-Dulles era) communists or their sympathizers loved to chant "better red than dead." The anticommunists chanted back "better dead than red." Both chants assumed that there was no middle way, no choice between war with the possibility of nuclear annihilation or submission to Moscow and an eternity of communist domination.
But two countries now provide a picture of the possibility of something in between, Poland and Afghanistan.
Poland was overrun by Soviet armies at the end of World War II. It had a Soviet-trained and Soviet-picked government imposed upon it by those armies. Poland was made "red" by force. The Poles had no choice. But was that the end of the affair?
Certainly not, although few in the West could foresee back in the '50s the exciting events of the last year in Poland. Poland's history did not end when the Soviet armies overran Poland. Polish history since has been of enormous importance and interest. It has shown that the human mind does not submit to even the most intensive indoctrination by "Big Brother." It shows that the inquiring mind and the will to independence and the search for means to independence have been reborn in Poland and have found new ways of expressing themselves.
There may be a heavier price to pay before this chapter in Poland's history is finished. Soviet troops can march in any day and impose a full military occupation on Poland. But what then?
There can be little doubt about the answer. During the four years of World War II Poland was held under a ruthless German military occupation. The Poles never acquiesced. Alone of the occupied countries Poland never made peace with the occupiers. There was never any Polish government except an underground government and an underground army in Poland with a branch of that government in exile in London. Polish resistance was a model for all resistance moments. The Poles never bent the knee to their German occupiers. They would not bend the knee to the Soviets no matter how ruthless the occupation.
That is probably the main reason why the Soviets have not yet imposed their will on Poland, and whay they may not do it in the future.
In Afghanistan we have a case example of what that sort of thing can be like. For those in the resistance movement life is dangerous and many get hurt. But it is also romantic and exciting. The Afghan tribesmen enjoy guerrilla warfare. For once they have a chance to indulge their love for fighting at the expense of the outsider instead of among themselves.
What would happen in Poland would probably be much like that. Afghanistan has probably the best chance it ever had to find unity. Poland achieved unity under German occupation. It is better equipped not to express that unity in underground resistance to a Soviet occupation.
So the choice is not between lying down and becoming "red", or fighting and disappearing in a nuclear cloud. Must one either fight a nuclear war or become forever a prisoner of the Soviet system? No. Both the Afghans and the Poles are proving that for any European threatened by the Soviets there is a third and middle way.
And that explains why many West Europeans today are less than enthusiastic about the noises they hear coming from Washington. The neutron bomb, the talk of new nuclear warheads on the "new weapons," the insistence that there will be no more "limited wars" but only wars for victory -- all that sounds chilling to any European, because it seems to imply that association with the United States is likely to lead to nuclear dissolution of their cities, their cultures, and their lives.
Is there a lesser evil? Yes, isn't it better to be an Afghan or a Pole than to disappear in a nuclear holocaust? Of course it is better. There is the challenge of the conflict, the fight for independence, the chance of someday winning a new freedom, the act of being an inspiration to others, the possibility that enough resistance like that in Afghanistan and Poland might some day lead to the breakup of the entire Soviet empire.
It may be a new form of neutralism, but it can be appealing to any West European. Washington had best take into its considerations the fact that the hard American assumption of the alternative between war and submission is not persuasive to today's Europeans.