Eight months ago the West German and American governments warned that they would regard any internal suppression of the free Polish trade union Solidarity as the equivalent of outside intervention.
Now the West German and American governments have changed that stance and drawn a clear distinction between suppression of Solidarity and outside intervention.
On the one hand, their reactions to Polish Communist Party chief and Army commander Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of martial law and arrest of many Solidarity leaders were low key.
On the other, they both emphasized that the crucial issue was that there should be no outside intervention. The absence of any such interference so far meant that the NATO meeting in Brussels called to evaluate the Polish crisis Dec. 14 was held at ambassadorial - not foreign ministers - level.
Why the difference? The answer can be summarized in one word: Jaruzelski.
In April Polish Communist Party hard-liners, presumably with the support or at least acquiescence of Moscow, had just staged a ''provocation'' in Bydgoszcz that seemed intended to trigger repression by Polish security forces. The implicit threat was ultimate intervention by the Soviet Army if the Polish Army did not succeed in establishing order.
Furthermore, the Bydgoszcz incident had been timed to take place when both Prime Minister Jaruzelski and then party secretary Stanislaw Kania were out of Warsaw - Jaruzelski watching maneuvers by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Poland, Kania on a trip to Hungary.
As it happened, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was on a visit to Warsaw at the height of the Bydgoszcz crisis. He had extensive talks with the top Polish leadership. He came away convinced that the leadership did not want to use force in Poland - and that it might even welcome some Western reinforcement of this stance.
This time around, the situation is quite different. Martial law is not a response to some provocation by party hard-liners. It seems to be a last resort; it follows a long period of economic disruption and increasing shortages in Poland - and a critical Solidarity resolution from the previous day calling for a referendum on Poland's political system and apparently even on the military alliance with the Soviets.
Moreover, this time Jaruzelski himself hardly wanted the West to equate domestic use of force with outside intervention. And he presented everyone with a surgical fait accompli - a surprising accomplishment after all the reports of Solidarity's excellent information network and arms caches.
Western restraint in condemning martial law in Poland is also conditioned in part by not wanting to hand Moscow any pretext for intervention. Already the Soviet news agency Tass is accusing the West of interfering in Polish affairs with its comments, and with support for Polish radicals.
The distinction that all the Western governments are drawing between internal Polish actions and outside intervention signifies no complacency about the Polish declaration of martial law. The major Western governments have all coupled firm expectations of noninterference (both in public statements and in representations to Soviet and Polish diplomats) with expressions of concern about the new situation. British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt have both stressed the importance of the Polish government's assertions that martial law is only temporary, and that Poland's basic reform course of the past year and a half will be continued.
American Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. - who has canceled his Mideast and Asian trip and flew back to Washington - also noted that all Polish groups should be consulted in getting the country back to normal. (The US suspended all food aid to Poland in response to the military crackdown on Solidarity, Reuter reported Dec. 14.)
Jaruzelski's effort to demonstrate that he is restraining party hard-liners as well as Solidarity - by the house arrest of some long-since sidelined former leaders - is hardly taken at face value in the West. Nonetheless, Western diplomats are seeking to hold Jaruzelski to his own promises of eventual social reconciliation.
The 10 European Community (EC) foreign ministers gathered in London Dec. 14 to discuss EC financing have elevated Poland to the top of their agenda.They are also expected to expand their emergency food aid for Poland as a symbol of their intense interest in the outcome of events there.