Harvard University is about to honor John McCloy, an 88-year-old New York lawyer and former government official whose influence was once so great that when the late Richard Rovere coined the term "the Establishment" he made McCloy its chairman. It is no surprise that Harvard, which is to the Establishment what China is to pandas, is about to name a program after him. It is merely a disgrace.

Rovere knew his man. McCloy has been chairman of almost everything--the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Ford Foundation for starters. He was assistant secretary of war during World War II, friend and adviser to nine presidents, president of the World Bank, High Commissioner of Germany and, in his spare time, counsel to the oil industry and lawyer to, among others, the Rockefellers.

But buried in that virtually unbelievable resume are some controversial and reprehensible actions. It was McCloy who ran, and who still defends, the program to intern some 127,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. And it was McCloy, again in his capacity as assistant secretary of war, who rejected suggestions that the Allies bomb the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz. It is these two actions that have stirred controversy among students at Harvard, which intends to name a German-American scholarship program after McCloy.

Things would be simpler if McCloy were either an evil or an insensitive man. He is neither. He has devoted much of his life to public service, performing with such distinction that presidents from Roosevelt through Reagan have called on him. He had the integrity and the guts to stand up to Joe McCarthy, had the vision and wisdom to question--at the time and from within the government--the bombing of Hiroshima and was, as every cliche artist knows, the "architect" of the Atlantic Alliance.

But there remains this business of the failure to bomb Auschwitz and the incarceration of the Japanese. Of the two, the latter is the more unambiguous evil. It was a totally American operation uncomplicated by questions of feasibility and cooperation of allies. The incarceration should never have happened and would not have if the Japanese had been, like Italian- and German-Americans, white.

That, in a nut shell, was the conclusion of the congressional commission that investigated the incarceration of the Japanese. It pointed out that there was not a single, verifiable incident of sabotage committed by a Japanese-American--not that it would have justified internment of an entire ethnic group even if there had been. It pointed out, further, that the forced removal of Japanese from the Pacific Coast to camps in the interior was so clearly illegal that the Justice Department refused the task. The Army--which is to say McCloy--had to do it.

McCloy has been unapologetic about his role, never acknowledging that the policy was, as the commission said, the result of "race prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership." Instead, he has talked of a nonexistent military necessity and the need to do what had to be done. And in the spirit of Marie Antoinette's let them eat cake remark, he has said, "The war caused disruption in all our lives."

Government, though, not only has an obligation to win wars, but also to protect the rights of its citizens. It was the duty of government, and of McCloy, to stand up to West Coast racism and protect the rights, property and, in some cases, the very lives of the Japanese. This was especially true by 1944 when even President Roosevelt privately acknowledged that there was no reason (except his upcoming reelection campaign) to continue the incarceration.

McCloy, though, has never acknowledged this. Instead he stands unrepentant for having directed maybe the greatest violation of civil liberties in American history, indicating either that he has learned nothing from history or has his values on upside down. This is what the students are trying to tell Harvard. By naming a program after McCloy, the school doesn't just honor him. It dishonors his victims.