The Polish experience

The most fascinating political story in the world today continues to be the one unrolling in Poland. It is fascinating because there more than anywhere else one can discern in clear and decisive operation the plain fact that no political system, not even the communist one, can control indefinitely the thinking processes of an entire nation.

We cannot see ahead to the end of this chapter in Polish history. We who live outside of Poland and outside the frontiers of the Soviet empire are unable to judge with certainty the limits of Soviet tolerance or the reasons why so far Poland has been able to go ahead unchecked upon its extraordinary attempt at moving from a single-party, communist state toward a plural political system.

But it is perfectly clear that communism has had 35 years in which to attempt to indoctrinate and dominate the Polish people, and has failed. The communist experiment in Poland has led the Polish people to the verge of economic bankruptcy. The system is proved to be a failure. It is recognized as such by almost everyone in Poland including even many in the leadership of the communist party itself.

Poland is no longer a single-party state. The monopoly of the party on government has been broken. The party has been forced to call on the leaders of the two other and more powerful political forces in the country - the Roman Catholic Church and the labor movement - to help it govern. De facto, Poland today has what amounts to a coalition government - an association as yet informal in which the state must consult with church and labor union leaders before it moves, and can then move only within the limits acceptable to those two other institutions.

The implications are wide-ranging.

To the Polish people it means that they are regaining a voice in their government.

To Europe it means that the ''iron curtain'' which Moscow ''rang down'' upon Europe at the end of World War II and by which Moscow divided Europe is both permeable to Western ideas and has been corroded until it is full of holes and sooner or later will cease to divide Western from Eastern Europe.

To policymakers in Washington it can and should come as a welcome relief from a sense of burden.

Back in the final days of World War II Washington watched with dismay as Moscow set up its handpicked and well-drilled set of puppets in each capital of Eastern Europe as Soviet armies rolled over them. Liberation from German armies meant imprisonment under governments set up by Moscow and dedicated to the concept of communism.

The real fear in the West was that once Moscow set up a government of its choosing in any country in Europe that country and its people would be forever lost to the community of the democracies. Faith in the permanence of both democracy and the enterprise economic system was at a low ebb.

A corollary was that the United States would have to use its military power to save what could be saved, for, once lost, the loss would be permanent.

John Foster Dulles used to talk about the Soviet system containing within itself the seeds of its own destruction. But that assertion partook more of the nature of whistling in the dark than of true conviction. Fatalism was more common than real faith in the vitality of Western institutions.

The truth of the matter is that the attempt to divide Europe by an ''iron curtain'' is being broken down, gradually, quietly, in a different manner in each country in Eastern Europe, but everywhere it is breaking down.

In every one of those countries except Bulgaria the Soviet system depends increasingly on Soviet armed forces. That system would disappear almost overnight if for some reason those forces had to be withdrawn.

The East Germans have used one set of devices, the Czechs, the Romanians, the Poles - each has its own different formula. But in each one there is a little more reliance on private enterprise each year. In each one trade with the West increases as trade with the Soviet Union declines.

The strands of culture, of trade, of finance between the West and the occupied countries of Eastern Europe grow stronger as the artificial ties between those countries and the Soviet Union grow weaker.

Mostly it is being done as quietly as possible, to avoid frightening Moscow into doing something drastic to halt the drift. But the drift continues.

And it is all being done without help from Washington.

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