The die hadn't even been cast before David L. Wolper's Medal of Liberty for a dozen naturalized Americans started to tarnish.

*Yesterday -- just two days after New York's Mayor Edward Koch announced the winners of his own Liberty Award for ethnic Americans -- yet a third award, tentatively called the Honor Ethnic America Award, was announced by a coalition of 40 ethnic groups in league with two members of Congress.

And so, with three new honors programs, the American melting pot, boiling mad all spring and threatening to turn Liberty's 100th birthday party into a free-for-all, has simmered down at last.

The trouble started when Wolper, the Hollywood showman who is producing next week's Liberty Weekend spectacular in New York Harbor, decided there ought to be a medal honoring outstanding naturalized citizens for their contributions to their adopted country.

Described as a new national honor even though the U.S. government had nothing to do with it, the medal, a Jasper Johns design featuring a flag in relief, would be given to a dozen former immigrants by President Reagan the night of July 3, in what was to be the debut of an annual presentation.

*Immediately, a chorus of critics from Capitol Hill to Battery Park attacked. The objects of their wrath: Wolper, for originating the medal; the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, for condoning it; and the 24-member selection committee for choosing its winners. The critics charged:

Ethnocentrism, because only nine ethnic groups were represented by the 12 winners.

Sexism, because only one was a woman.

Favoritism, because only Wolper friends or colleagues were on the selection committee.

Elitism, because the committee's only meeting was held at New York City's tony 21 club.

Commercialism, because only ABC would have rights to televise the awards ceremony.

The criteria for the medal were simple enough: Recipients had to be living naturalized Americans who had made significant contributions to their adopted country.

The winners were announced March 1: Composer Irving Berlin, astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, psychologist Kenneth Clark, college president Hanna Holborn Gray, entertainer Bob Hope, statesman Henry Kissinger, architect I.M. Pei, violinist Itzhak Perlman, journalist James B. Reston, physician Albert B. Sabin, corporate executive An Wang and writer Elie Wiesel.

Instant name recognition was a goal, according to Virginia's Sen. John Warner, a member of the selection committee. "We felt that when people learned who the winners were they should immediately be able to realize why they had been chosen."

But committee members polled this week said ethnicity, or country of origin, was never a consideration, a claim that seems borne out by the fact that of the 12 winners, two each were born in Russia, Germany, China and the United Kingdom. The remaining four were born in Costa Rica, Jamaica, Israel and Romania.

Left out were an estimated 150 ethnic groups, including Irish Americans, Italian Americans and Japanese Americans, whose causes didn't appear to be advanced at all by the presence on the committee of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, Rep. Peter W. Rodino and artist Isamu Noguchi.

*Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a committee member, said he argued -- to no avail -- for Frank Capra, the Italian American film director. But in a letter to The New York Times June 7, Schlesinger nevertheless answered Italian American and Irish American critics, pointing out that "the great wave of Irish and Italian immigration took place before the First World War. It is therefore hardly surprising that most Irish Americans and Italian Americans are Americans by birth, not naturalization."

Committee members and a research organization hired by the foundation proposed some 200 names, which had been winnowed to 37 finalists by March 1 when the group assembled in New York at the 21 club to vote for the winners.

"We were all given complete dossiers of each nominee," said Warner, who added that it took him three evenings to read through them all.

The day of the meeting, getting the most votes were Kissinger, Hope, Pei and Berlin.

That was easy enough. Not so easy was coming up with the other six winners, eventually expanded to eight because of tie votes.

"We had to choose from a very distinguished list," said ABC-TV's Barbara Walters, one of three women on the 24-member committee. "Nobody ranted or raved. We didn't sit around and say 'Let's have one Turk.' We tried for a variety of fields, since we thought that expressed the diversity of the United States. The whole point of these awards is that these are immigrant Americans, not representatives of every group in the country."

Ironically, at a press conference later that day when the winners were announced, Walters said no reporters asked why there weren't more ethnic groups represented. Someone did, however, raise the question of why there was only one woman -- University of Chicago President Holborn Gray (Germany) -- to which Walters says, "There were more men than women because opportunities were not there for women."

But the ethnic groups were huddling, outraged at being excluded. A Wolper aide told of getting calls from politicians screaming about their ethnic constituencies and about leaving out American Indians.

"We said, 'Sir, the Indian is an American. He was here. He didn't come from someplace and go past Liberty,' " Liberty Weekend spokesman Jonas Halperin said he told one caller.

New York's Mayor Koch was soon up in arms. Scorning the Wolper selections as "not reflective of the immigrant," he made plans to give out his own Liberty Medals.

"If the Statue of Liberty committee can't find 75 medals, I'll find them for them," Koch vowed in May, standing on the steps of City Hall surrounded by members of New York's multiethnic community.

This week the deed was all but done with the announcement by the Mayor's Ethnic Advisory Council that 87 prominent citizens representing 50 countries would receive the 1986 Mayor's Liberty Award on July 1 at free ceremonies in Battery Park.

On the steps that day with Koch had been Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), who carried the battle cry to Capitol Hill. Incensed by what he called the "arrogance and insensitivity" of Wolper and his committee, Biaggi sought to widen the offensive by way of a congressional resolution calling for greater ethnic representation in Wolper's Liberty Medals.

In New York, meanwhile, William F. May, president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc., started to canvass the Wolper committee, asking if any of the members were "troubled," as one of them put it, by the criticism.

"Do you have any second thoughts?" May reportedly asked.

Somebody did, if not on the committee at least at the foundation. And so it was that yesterday in New York, a "compromise" between the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) was announced.

The solution: a "sense of Congress resolution" to be introduced by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Biaggi that will create congressional medals to honor naturalized Americans of different ethnic backgrounds.

The awards are to be presented at a banquet Oct. 26 at the Waldorf-Astoria, but the number of medals to be given is still undecided.

*"The hope is that the president will present them," said NECO spokesman Dan Clores.

Of Reagan's participation in Wolper's Medal of Liberty ceremonies, White House spokesman Pete Roussel said: "The president appreciates the spirit of what they are trying to do and the nature of the honor. It was to be part of the event, and it seemed appropriate to ask him, since he would be participating anyway. He had no role in the selection process, which was done by the committee independently."

As to the charges of favoritism, elitism and commercialism, Wolper spokesman Halperin says: "It was his medal. He came up with the idea. He was the one who suggested it to the foundation, which loved it. And he's the one who got Jasper Johns to design it."

Schlesinger said he thinks the whole flap might have been avoided if the White House or at least some part of the government had been involved from the beginning.

"I have a general feeling that it's a disgraceful example of commercialization, that it should have been done by the United States," Schlesinger says. "The Reagan policy of privatization has been carried too far."

Wolper's possessiveness, he says, was "a consequence of that basic Reagan philosophy."