The imposition of martial law in Poland pushed President Ronald Reagan into his biggest major foreign policy crisis in East-West and alliance relations. How well has he handled it?
Consider first the problem which the action posed at the White House.
There are an estimated 12 million persons conscious of their Polish background in the United States. They are deeply concerned about their motherland. Many of them have kept up their ties to family and friends in Poland. They expect and demand that the government in Washington will ''do something'' about the repression of the new freedoms in Poland.
All Americans, paticularly Polish-Americans, would like to have President Reagan force the Kremlin to order an immediate end to martial law in Poland, the release of the political prisoners, and restoration to Solidarity of a decisive political role in the building of a new Poland.
But nothing Mr. Reagan can do would cause the Soviet Union to do such things.
Any Russian, whether he be communist or czarist or anything in between, would go to war rather than give up decisive control over Poland -- and East Germany. To an American, Poland is a case of freedom denied to a splendid people. To a Russian, Poland is a corridor through which Russia has been invaded thrice in modern times -- by Napoleon, by the Kaiser, and by Hitler.
No one knows how many Soviet people died in World War II. The estimates range from 12 million to 20 million. They died because Germans were able to invade the Soviet Union through Poland. No Russian (as distinct from some non-Russian persons living in the Soviet Union) is going to allow that condition to repeat itself so long as they can prevent it.
Poland lies inside both the political and military frontiers of the Soviet Empire. The Russians who run that empire regard control over Poland and East Germany as being their most vital first national interest.
This condition of Poland has been acknowledged implicitly in the history of Europe since World War II. Whenever the Soviet interests were challenged, as they were in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Moscow has reasserted its control and the rest of Europe and the United States have acquiesced. Neither Europe nor the US is going to war with the Soviet Union over a determination in Moscow to keep effective control over the people living east of the Elbe.
When the exercise of that control led to martial law in Poland, President Reagan had to respond to the yearnings of all Americans, and particularly of Polish-Americans thatsomething be done to relieve the pressure on the Polish people.
On the other hand, it was equally important for Mr. Reagan to avoid action which would damage the Western alliance. Nothing would please Moscow more than to have him do something which the allies would repudiate. They would not go along with serious sanctions over Poland any more than over Afghanistan. Indeed Afghanistan was a worse case in many European eyes. It was not involved in a recognized Soviet ''sphere of influence.''
So what did President Reagan do?
He announced a minimum program of unilateral US sanctions, tied those sanctions to ''repression'' in Poland, and threatened more serious though unspecified sanctions if the ''repression'' continued.
If the ''repression'' does continue over a long time, Mr. Reagan will be in deeper trouble. The allies will not go along with tougher sanctions. Moscow would be delighted to have the Polish crisis turn into the hammer which destroys the NATO alliance.
One development could rescue Mr. Reagan from his dilemma.
Repression in Poland is bad for Soviet public relations. It is bad for everyone in Poland. Probably no one wants an end to martial law in Poland more than General Jaruzelski himself. It will come as soon as the party, the church, and Solidarity can work out a compromise agreement. Talks toward such an agreement started immediately after martial law was imposed. They continue -- both informally and formally.
A compromise acceptable to party, church, and Solidarity in Poland and to Moscow is possible. If such a compromise is achieved, President Reagan is off the hook. He can drop his almost toothless sanctions and get back to normal relations with the Soviets. His supporters will even be able to claim he helped to promote the end to the repression.