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'Let Poland Be Poland' - is the program really that bad? Closer look at an international special finds some unpredicted meaning

Let's stop criticizing ''Let Poland Be Poland''.

This 90-minute US International Communications Agency tribute to the Polish people in their battle for human rights -- aired throughout the world by satellite last Sunday afternoon -- was disparaged in advance from almost every source.

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The fact that show business names like Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, and Frank Sinatra were announced to take part seemed to result in an advance chorus of almost universally negative criticism, both domestically and abroad. Nobody took much note of the array of prime ministers who were also scheduled.

According to Gilbert A. Robinson, USICA deputy director, close to 300 million have already seen or heard ''Let Poland Be Poland'' despite these dreadful advance reports. And hundreds of TV stations are planning to air the tape of the show next week, having seen it and been convinced that it is a worthwhile piece of international, rather than US, progaganda.

It appears that around 80 percent of the more than 200 PBS stations either aired it on Sunday or plan to air it this coming week. It has already been shown in 16 European countries. Many countries around the world, West Germany and Mexico specifically, plan to repeat their initial airing soon.

Mr. Robinson said that Poland received it only through the Voice of America, but it was obviously seen in other Eastern European countries, because there was strong negative Soviet reaction almost immediately, which he believes indicates it was having a major impact on world opinion.

Of course, there was a reasonable concern that, since the show was leasing satellite time and would be available to all PBS stations who wished to air it, ''Let Poland Be Poland'' might compromise PBS by making it appear to be a propaganda arm of the government. But PBS president Lawrence Grossman made the difference very clear, without showing any antagonism toward the USICA -- which, by the way, plans to change its name back to the US Information Agency next month.

In the surprisingly short period of three weeks the show was put together by professional producer Marty Pasetta. Since it cost a mere $500,000 (''mere'' for a 90-minute TV special, that is) including transmission costs, it was expected to be both a technical and propaganda disaster.

Well, with the more than 200 million others, I viewed the show last Sunday (around 100 million more heard a 60-minute version on the Voice of America). It was certainly not an Emmy-winning entertainment. But it proved an informative, effective, tasteful mix of statements by US and world leaders (including the prime ministers of a dozen Western countries), with mostly introductory remarks by the performers.

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When they did perform, the actors made it perfectly clear that this was not a day to rejoice and be entertained but a day to think seriously about what was happening to the free world. There were a few pertinent dramatic readings, and a report from Kirk Douglas about the happier days when he visited the now-silenced Lodz film school. There were scenes of pro-Solidarity rallies round the world, Polish patriotic songs by Polish emigrants, and statements by Polish political exiles.

The absolute dramatic climax came when Henry Fonda read a passage from the Engels introduction to the Polish Edition of the Communist Manifesto in support of human rights.

Interspersed throughout were statements of support from Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Schmidt, and many others, including a very short statement by President Reagan.

Certainly some of it was dull, much of it repetitive. But it wasn't ''Bob Hope and the Human Rights Hour of Fun.'' It was a dead serious group of people, representing millions of others around the world, assuring both the Polish people and the Soviet government that the world is watching and disapproving of what is happening in Poland today. There was no mistaking the message.

As a critic, I recognize that the show was in a ''no win'' situation. If it had been a delightful entertainment, most critics would have deplored its lightheartedness and tastelessness in the face of tragedy. If it was straightforward and informative rather than entertaining, it was bound to be criticized for its dullness, as it has been.

Robinson is disturbed about the way the world media handled the show.

''They were reviewing it before it ever aired,'' he told the Monitor. ''Then most reviewers didn't bother to watch it, since they had already reviewed it.

''There was only negative, cynical reaction from the Polish military government and an attempt to air a show to counteract ours. Most of the attacks in Poland and Russia were made before the program was aired, and certainly before it could have been viewed in its entirety.''

Robinson feels that ''Let Poland Be Poland'' is already a great success and that the success will be growing as it is played again and again next week. He thinks it may go far beyond the 300 million originally predicted -- much closer to 500 million.

Robinson says what bothers him most about what he considers the unfair criticism of the show is the claim that it cost the taxpayers of America half a million dollars. ''Less than $50,000 is more like it,'' he says. ''There were donations of more than $450,000 from the private sector to cover the costs.''

Because so many PBS stations have asked for the privilege of repeating the show, the USICA has obtained rebroadcast rights from all those who participated. So ''Let Poland Be Poland'' may be seen on many local PBS stations that broadcast it late last Sunday. Viewers can phone their local PBS station program managers to ask for it.

Robinson also disclosed that the USICA is offering the film for a special screening for members of the United Nations. Officials at the UN are considering the possibility, but nobody at the information agency is counting upon that approval.

So ''Let Poland Be Poland'' has proved to be a worthwhile -- and potentially very effective -- exercise in international propaganda.

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