Measures announced by General Jaruzelski to ease martial law in Poland can be quietly welcomed in the West. Many people, in Poland and abroad, will be disappointed that military rule is not ended altogether. But the release of a large number of political detainees, including all the women, and the relaxation of travel and communication restrictions are steps in the right direction.
The question is whether the West, particularly the United States, will see these steps as deserving some response. In view of the progress being made, however limited, the Reagan administration could reasonably send a positive signal - partially lifting the economic sanctions on Poland, for example - in order to give General Jaruzelski an incentive to continue the process of relaxation. Without some such gesture, the Polish leadership may feel constrained to turn even more unreservedly to the Soviet Union and the communist bloc. Would that serve the West's interests?
However distasteful martial law is to Poles and to their friends in the West, it would be unrealistic not to recognize that General Jaruzelski has achieved some things. Little by little, he is freeing the internees. Quietly a dialogue is continuing with church authorities. Ordinary citizens reportedly no longer are gripped by fear but are again talking freely in public places. Food, though extremely costly, is more abundant and lines have shortened. Though economic reform is scarcely underway, the regime at least has managed to raise prices - a much-needed measure that previous governments were unable to accomplish. Production is up in the coal mines.
Politically, General Jaruzelski appears to be rebuilding the discredited communist party so that it can play that ''leading role'' demanded by Moscow and required by Marxist ideology. Steering what seems to be a centrist course, he has removed such conservatives as Stefan Olszowski from key posts and balanced this off with the ouster of a few liberals as well. Locally, too, there have been some party and government changes.
None of this means the general has managed to turn Poland around yet. Though he seems to have the situation in hand, he clearly is still battling hard-line resistance in the party as well as vested interests in the massive state bureacracy. Contending forces are pulling in all directions. Poland's financial condition remains dire, making reform difficult. Nor has the regime won the confidence of the Polish people. Poles, though perhaps feeling less inhibited than when martial law was first imposed, remain resentful and unsupportive of the military government - a fact General Jaruzelski candidly admitted in an interview with American journalist Tad Szulc. Polish youth, especially, are defiant and downhearted.
Yet the general seems to be making serious effort to bring about that long-sought accommodation between government, church, and Solidarity (which he insists must be reconstituted) and to get the country functioning again. He holds out the prospect of lifting martial law by the end of the year if ''normalization proceeds favorably.'' The visit of Pope John Paul II has been postponed until next year, but presumably both the general and the pontiff prefer to wait until martial law is suspended and the situation is more normal. For the military rulers, the risk is that each relaxation may embolden union radicals, now operating underground, to organize militant antigovernment actions. Hence the regime's policy of firmness combined with conciliation.
In his unusual talk with Mr. Szulc, General Jaruzelski voiced bitterness about the Western sanctions and the fact that these were forcing Poland to rely more on the Soviet camp. Does he have a point? Certainly the West should not abandon its pressures on the Polish leadership to return to a reformist course and to provide Poles with some measure of the liberalization they had already won. But a modest gesture from the US and its allies now could help the struggling Polish economy and perhaps give the general the leverage he needs to keep the communist hardliners at bay - and continue his efforts for reform.