How does the West express its profound revulsion at the repression in Poland without encouraging Poles toward a suicidal resistance that the West would be powerless to help?
This was the dilemma facing the United States and its European allies as Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger was to meet with his NATO counterparts in Brussels Dec. 23 to coordinate the Western response to martial law in Poland.
The outcome of the coordination is not yet known. Both the American and European governments have been exceptionally closemouthed about the content of their deliberations; they remember the public arguments about how to respond to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan two years ago and are anxious not to repeat that kind of acrimony.
What does seem clear is that the US and West Germany represent the opposite poles of NATO opinion about what to do. The US wants to extract a high diplomatic and economic price immediately from both Poland and the Soviet Union for the Polish repression. Washington argues that it would be intolerable to acquiesce in the repression by doing nothing.
West Germany, by contrast, wants to refrain from making any rash moves that might only worsen the lot of ordinary Poles and make it more difficult to restore those East-West contacts that offer the best long-term hope for liberalization in the Soviet bloc.
As one official in Bonn phrased it, ''None of the Western countries . . . can have any reasonable interest in . . . encouraging people in Poland that if they just hold out, the West will come to their rescue, . . .that the United States would break off relations with the Soviet Union and freeze and seal off Eastern Europe till the Soviets withdraw. . . . This is really the risk. People in Poland who are desperate because they are . . . close to losing everything may place their hopes on the last hazardous cast of the dice.
''And we know what that means, because we still think of the Warsaw uprising in 1944.'' (That was the year when the Poles rose up against the Germans, and the advancing Soviet Army waited until the Germans had killed off the rebels before itself liberating Warsaw from the Germans.)
''If a thing like that broke in Gdansk or Szczecin or the other Baltic ports or in the mining country in Silesia, then we would have to accept a very, very heavy responsibility for a lot of bloodshed and destruction.''
Other NATO allies fall in between the US and West German positions. French attitudes are probably the most complex of all, as the French have had close emotional ties with the Poles ever since Napoleonic times, and French horror at Polish betrayal of Poles is heavily loaded with guilt feelings about Vichy collaboration with Hitler.
President Francois Mitterrand, on the other hand, is said by West German sources familiar with French-West German contacts to be against dramatic action.
At the same time some French suspicions have been reported about Bonn's resistance to strong Western sanctions. Some French suspect the West Germans of taking a more cautious line on Poland to avoid ruffling East-West German relations, and of sacrificing necessary criticism of Moscow to their own more parochial interests.
NATO's list of possible sanctions in response to the Polish crackdown looks like this:
* Moral appeals. All major Western governments have made these appeals and will continue to do so. The main demands are for release of Solidarity chairman Lech Walesa and all political prisoners, retraction of martial law, and reinstatement of the Solidarity trade union and an open civil society.
* Food and economic aid. Policies are almost identical here, even though the rhetoric is far apart. The US proclaimed that it is stopping aid to Poland - then added that of course whatever is already in the pipeline will be delivered. West Germany proclaimed that it is continuing aid to Poland - then added that of course it won't undertake any new commitments under present circumstances. Any future aid, the Western governments are saying, would have to be distributed by Polish Roman Catholic channels.
* Rescheduling loans. The West was willing to bail out Poland by extending its $27 billion debts so long as democratization was proceeding and national bankruptcy might destroy that liberalization. Now there is no such incentive. Western banks - the most heavily exposed of which are West German banks - have refused to loan Poland any more money now, even to pay off interest.
* Trade. US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has again suggested West German and other European contractors should tear up the multibillion-dollar pipeline-for-gas deal they signed with the Soviet Union a month ago. The Europeans have no intention of doing this.
They would especially not do so as long as the US does not stop selling its 23 million tons of grain to the Soviet Union - a move that President Reagan shows no sign of making.
French high-technology exports to the Soviet Union might be curbed unilaterally. This was a step Washington asked for and Paris refused after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (West Germany has not been selling comparable computer and other high technology to the Soviet Union.)
* Diplomatic relations. Washington has been talking of downgrading relations with Poland, and possibly with the Soviet Union. West Germany strongly opposes this, arguing that times of crisis are just those times when the best diplomatic eyes and ears are needed.
* Arms control talks. Washington has signaled that if there is a clear Soviet military intervention in Poland, there would be a rupture in superpower arms control talks, probably affecting both the current European continental-range nuclear arms control negotia-tions in Geneva and the forthcoming strategic, intercontinental range talks. Some Americans have floated the idea of this sanction even in the present ambiguous situation.