US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. has managed to keep arms control alive while still emphasizing the seriousness with which Washington regards the situation in Poland.
His Jan. 26 meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko neither charted the path for a post-Poland working relationship nor signaled a new low in superpower relations.
In his press briefing, Haig said the talks were ''sober'' but ''detailed'' and ''in depth.'' He called them ''beneficial from the standpoint of necessary communication at the minimal level between the Soviet Union and the United States, a necessity that does not decline in time of tension and stress.''
The topics covered included Poland, arms control, ''Central America, Cuba, the continuing situation in southern Africa, and a host of bilateral issues which focused on humanitarian problems of citizens of the Soviet Union.''
Haig said that the situation in Poland cast a long and a dark shadow over all of the discussions involving East-West relations.
On the subject of Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), Haig said ''I emphasized that the United States side was actively engaged in preparations which would lead to the initiation of talks.'' He said that the US would be ready to enter these talks ''when conditions permit.''
At the same time, a toughening of Soviet-bloc response to Western protests about Poland was evident in a new East German threat of possible retaliation against WestBerlin for any West German participation in sanctions against the Soviet Union and Poland. And an editorial in the Communist Party newspaper Neues Deutschland warned that the Four Power Agreement on West Berlin as well as the West German-Soviet and West German-Polish treaties could be put at risk.
Poland's ''long shadow'' apparently did not burden the superpowers' ongoing European arms control talks. Haig repeated Reagan's offer of ''zero level of medium-range missilery, a proposal designed to achieve the elimination of the major source of nuclear tension here in Europe.''
Nor did it foreclose a possible Reagan-Brezhnev summit. High-ranking US officials indicated before the meeting that American preparations for START were continuing.
The Reagan administration has insisted more strongly on ''linkage'' following ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's call to hold back on bilateral arms control and other negotiations so long as repression continues in Poland.
The Haig-Gromkyo talks thus sought to satisfy the conflicting American constituencies of Reagan administration main-line moderates, hawks in and out of the administration, and West European doves -- and the conflicting Soviet constituencies of the Kremlin and Western Europeans.
The American hawks -- now including Kissinger -- argue that linkage of behavior must mean suspension of superpower negotiations until reform is restored in Poland. The ''moderates'' -- now including Haig -- argue that superpower dialogue is especially necessary in time of crisis -- and that the European nuclear arms control negotiations in particular fall into a special category that must not be interrupted unless the situation in Poland turns drastically worse.
In the sparring of the Geneva talks then, both Washington and Moscow want to be seen by the adversary superpower to be tough. But both want also to appear reasonable. Neither wants to be held responsible for a return to cold-war hostility.
Both Haig and Gromyko therefore talked tough before the meeting. Haig cut their planned two-day conversation to one day, and an official on Haig's plane told American reporters that there could be no ''business as usual'' while repression continues in Poland. Haig said publicly that he would express the Wests' ''outrage'' about Poland to Gromyko. And after Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's Jan. 25 speech Haig stressed to reporters his view that repression certainly is continuing in Poland.
For his part Gromyko said he would not discuss internal Polish affairs with Haig. He indicated instead that he wanted to talk about arms control.
Arms control is a crucial aspect of superpower relations at this point, for the political realities of the 1984 US election, the late 1983 deployment date for new NATO nuclear missiles, and the pending Brezhnev succession suggest that any agreements must be forged within the next year and a half or else be postponed until 1986 or so. No US-Soviet arms control agreement has ever been negotiated in that short a time and while it might just be possible to do so now , any delay of more than a few weeks could render agreement totally impossible.