The armed forces of the Soviet Union may still do to Poland what they did in 1968 to Czechoslovakia and in 1956 to Hungary. They may intervene to restore effective Soviet control over Poland.
There are several reasons why it can still happen. The major one is the importance of Poland to the Soviet military position in Europe. Were Poland to break out of the Soviet military orbit the Western military frontiers of the Soviet Union would be moved back by 600 miles, back out of central Europe, back to the classic frontiers of Czarist Russia.
But there is also a major reason why the Kremlin keeps putting off the decision, and why it may continue to shrink from it. That reason is the intense nationalism of the Polish people and the record of that nationalism during the German occupation of Poland in World War II.
Poland was the only country occupied by German armies which never produced collaborators or quislings. The Polish people remained Polish, under their own "underground" government, and at war with the German occupiers. In other occupied countries there were collaborators, people willing to serve as local government agents, even military units which went to the front with the German armies. Not the Poles.
Polish resistance to the occupation was a drain on German military resources. Substantial units had to be held back in Poland to restrain and control the Polish people, and to carry on the struggle against the underground army known to the Poles as the "Home Army" as distinct from the Polish armies which served with the Allies on the outside.
That record is a grim foretaste of what would happen if the Soviet armies impose a military occupation on Poland. Undoubtedly there is already an underground Polish network ready to set up an underground government and operate another "home army" against the Soviets. The Poles are like that.
The result would be a new and serious drain on Soviet military strength. Instead of having most of its western frontier forces available for duty against the NATO armies, a substantial Soviet force would have to be assigned to the occupation of Poland. Besides, there are 15 Polish divisions which would have to be subtracted from the Warsaw Pact order of battle.
A Soviet military occupation of Poland could not restore the status quo. At best (from the Soviet point of view) it might seem to be the lesser evil. Which , for them, would be worse? To have to pull back out of Central Europe leaving the two Germanys to reunite and the whole of classic Europe free once more to be itself, or to impose Soviet military rule on a resisting Polish people?
Polish resistance would infect the other satellite countries. The fact of occupation would further discredit communism around the world, weaken all communist parties still loyal or semiloyal to Moscow, stimulate resistance to Soviet blandishments, and stimulate improved military postures among all countries around the rim of Soviet power.
Probably the Soviet High Command would reason that it is better to keep their western frontier on the Elbe and the German people divided than to fall back from the Elbe to the Pripet marshes even if the price is a gnawing resistance in Poland which could no more be extinguished than can the resistance of the Afghans.
Yet an actual military occupation of Poland would be a heavy net loss to the world position of the Kremlin. It would expose the inability of the Kremlin to win friends. It would expose the political weakness of the Warsaw Pact. It would show how dependent the Kremlin is on raw force for holding its empire together. It would provide another ugly example of the use of that raw force.
Western governments hope profoundly that Moscow will not apply that force to the Polish people. Washington has delivered warnings of unspecified punitive measures which might be taken if that force is applied to the long suffering Poles. But let there be no mistake on that point. If the deed is not committed , it will be because the Kremlin has concluded that nonintervention is the lesser evil. Restraint, if it happens, will not be because of warnings from Washington.
The Polish people may save themselves by a combination of wisdom and valor. Washington can no more help them today than the British and French could help them in 1939. The best way for outsiders t o help is probably to keep quiet.