The United States and its NATO allies have one compelling reason for wanting an early and peaceful resolution of the labor unrest in Poland. Western Europe's defenses, say alliance in no condition to face eve a limited conflict with the Soviets.
NATO's southeastern flank is especially vulnerable to Soviet naval, military and air strength because it has been weakened by withdrawal of one US aircraft carrier from the Mediterranean to waters near Iran earlier this year, and by the Greek-Turkish disagreements regarding Greek's return to full NATO participation. Poland's impact has begun to be felt throughout Europe. NATO planners, starting with its supreme commander, US Army Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, who runs NATO from his headquarters in Belgium, are more concerned about Poland's impact on Germany than they are about possible direct Soviet Army intervention against the Polish workers, which NATO cannot and would not combat.
The "worst-case" scenario outlined to this reporter during a rapid survey in West Germany and Italy, which NATO now worries most about, is this:
First, Russian intervention in Poland provokes sympathy strikes and uprisings in other Warsaw Pact neighbors such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany.
Next, an uprising in East Germany, larger than that of 1953, is smothered by Russian troops. This generate extremely strong nationalist sentiment in West Germany to help fellow Germans in the East.
West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's ruling Socialist-led coalition faces elections Oct. 3. It would come under overwhelming pressure from the rightist opposition led by Bavarian challenger Franz Joseph Strauss to take some tough action which would doom Chancellor Schmidt's carefully cultivated policy of detente with the USSR.
Soviet counteraction against West Germany -- even if far short of the massive classic military attack on the central front for which NATO has planned and prepared since its creation in 1949 -- could trigger further explosions.
These could ignite volatile political zones such as Turkey. They could also erupt in militarily vulnerable ones like the northern and Arctic flanks of the alliance in Denmark and Norway.
Last year, the US Defense Department carried out a thorough and elaborate exercise code-named Nifty Nugget. Its announced purpose was to test mobilization plans and the readiness of the US and its NATO allies to cope with such an emergency. Some of the Pentagon's top brass played key gaming roles. Richard Dantzig, a Pentagon civilian and leading manpower expert, played the part of Harold Brown, US Secretary of Defense. Adm. William Crowe, now the supreme commander at headquarters here of NATO's southern front, including forces of the US, Italy, Greece, and Turkey, was the chief of naval operations, the job held in real life by Adm. Thomas Hayward. Months later, after some of the results leaked out, the Pentagon acknowledged that US mobilization plans and West European readiness were both shown in Nifty Nugget to be dangerously inadequate.
A further result was not disclosed by the Pentagon. This was the ominous finding that if conventional (nonnuclear) fighting erupted on the northern (Norwegian) and southern (Greek-Turkish) sectors instead of in the central German theater, both the northern and southern fronts of the allies would probably collapse within a few days.
Seven Soviet divisions, held in reserve in the Kiev military district, could "swing" either way, either through Poland and Germany, or southward to reinforce Soviet combat forces in the Caucasus and Turkestan military districts, north of Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
In its wartime contingency plans, the US has given main priority to getting extra US divisions and equipment -- some of it already in Europe -- to the German front in time. NATO headquarters in Belgium emphasizes this. The US Army has never believed that it was really feasible to reinforce the Mediterranean area in wartime, despite the huge airlifts and sealifts of material to Israel in its 1967 and 1973 wars with the Arabs.
On the alliance's other end, through extensive exercises, including one called Anorak Express, the US Army and Marines during the months since Nifty Nugget have concentrated on planning rapid deployment of reinforcements and supplies, from combat boots to winterized aircraft, in Norway.
"It was simply assumed, and still is," said one very senior NATO planner, in Europe, "that the US Army couldn't get more American forces into the Mediterranean to help defend Italy, Greece, and Turkey. NATO has consistently underestimated the US Navy's role" -- in this instance, the 45-ship US Sixth Fleet based at Gaeta, Italy -- "in guarding the supply lines into the Mediterranean. And holding the Soviets back from what could be their major war objective in the south: capture of the Turkish Straits."
All these, say the NATO planners, are ample reasons why the Polish caldron, now bubbling so furiously, could spill its contents over such a wide area that fire brigades of both superpowers would be needed to put it out and avoid a war between themselves.