The moment of decision is at hand in Poland. The message being given to the striking workers by the communist government is: Accept the compromises we have offered and press us not further -- if you want to avoid a takeover of Poland by Soviet troops.
Significantly, the Polish Roman Catholic Church -- no friend of the government -- has broken its virtual silence and advised the workers to settle for apparently the same reason.
It remains to be seen what effect this unusual joint appeal by the two power centers in Poland -- the Communist Party and the Roman Catholic Church -- will have on the workers.
The government's main negotiator with the striking shipyard workers in the Baltic port of Gdansk, Deputy Premier Mieczyslaw Jagielski, interrupted his talks there Aug. 27 and returned to Warsaw for an urgent meeting of the Communist Party Politburo.
There was no report of any letup in the strikes but rather of their spreading. The most significant new walkouts reported were in Wroclaw, the industrial center far to the south in Silesia, long the home base of party leader Edward Gierek.
As the politburo deliberated in Warsaw, Poles were able to read in the latest issue of the party newspaper, Trybuna Ludu, this stark editorial comment: "The current crisis can bring the country to the brink of catastrophe. It recalls the events of the 18th century."
What were the events of the 18th century?
Three successive partitions of Poland by its then powerful neighbors -- Russia, Prussia (the north Germans), and Austria (the south Germans) -- in the years 1772, 1793, and 1795-96. In the last of these partitions, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for more than a century. It did not return as an independent sovereign power until after redrawing of the map of Europe in the peace settlement after World War I.
It disappeared from the map again in 1939 at the ouset of World War II, the victim of yet another partition, effected this time by Hitler and Stalin. But with Hitler's defeat in 1945, an independent Poland again took its place among the powers. Tact may have prevented Trybuna Ludu from recalling this most recent partition and thereby possibly giving offense to Stalin's heirs, but Poles hardly need to be reminded of it.
The uniforms and slogans of 1980 may be different, but the burden of today's 35 million Poles remains what is has been for centuries: They are trapped by geography between two of Europe's biggest and most vigorous peoples, the Russians and the Germans, who have so often found themselves in armed conflict.
Repeatedly, Russians and Germans have moved against Poland to use it as a buffer against attack from the west or the east -- as the case maybe. That is why the Russians today are likely in the last resort to use force to keep Poland within the communist buffer system built up after World War II.
The aim of the buffer, a constant of history: to keep any potential threat from the west as far as possible from the doorstep of Mother Russia herself.
In Moscow, a Soviet Foreign Minister official (quoted by Reuter Aug. 26) said deadpan when asked to comment on the Polish crisis: "As for the events taking place in Poland, they are completely the internal affairs of that state. This is our official viewpoint."
That is what Moscow says for the record. But Trybuna Ludu would hardly have editorialized as it did if the Polish Communist Party were not increasingly worried about possible Soviet intervention. (The paper wrote bluntly about Poland being geographically within "the security zone of the world's socialist power," in other words, of the Soviet Union.)
Neither would Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Archbishop of Warsaw, have taken the unusual step of intervening publicly to help the party -- the Roman Catholic church's rival for the loyalty of the Polish people -- unless he were alarmed by the possibility of a greater threat to them both -- Soviet tanks.
Party leader Gierek has gone a long way to meet some of the striking workers' demands. The mere fact of negotiating with them is an almost unprecedented concession. But the sticking point is likely to be the demand for free trade unions. It is hard to see how the party could go all the way to give the workers that they want on this without surrendering the ultimate over-all control communist systems have always imposed as a prerequisite for the exercise and retention of power. Even if the Polish party were willing, would Moscow allow it?
Perhaps such speculation was behind Cardinal Wyszynski's admonition to the workers, given at the national religious shrine at Czestochowa and carried most extraordinary in prime time on government television:
"Even for the most just demands you can list, there can be nothing without work. I believe we must not exaggerate too much. . . . The demands, should they be justified -- and most of them are -- cannot be satisfied right away."