WE CONFESS to having shared the strong reservations of a lot of people in 1971 when the federal government agreed bail out the Lockheed Aircraft Corp., which was then on the verge of bankruptcy. Our reservations would have been even stronger if we had known then what we know now about the $30 million or so the company had used to bribe foreign officials. Disclosure of the bribes merely confirmed our impression that Lockheed was a lost cause and a bad investment for the American taxpayer. So it is with a sense of pleasure and relief - and considerable surprise - that we take note of reports that it hasn't turned out that way. On the contrary the Lockheed bailout has apparently turned out to be very nearly unique among government programs of this sort: It appears to have achieved its goal without costing the taxpayer anything. Lockheed is giving up the federal loan guarantee on which it had depended for six years and is rejoining the world of free enterprise.

You may recall that what brought Lockheed to its knees was a combination of inflation, cost overruns on various projects and a new airplane that didn't sell to well at first. It has apparently conquered these and other problems. Thanks in large part to the loan guarantee, Lockheed is making money again. Admitedly, there were some rough spots. At one point, the federal government was backing up $245 million in loans and its supervisory committee was riding herd strictly on Lockheed's activities. The situation grew critical again when the exposures concerning the foreign bribes drove Lockheed's two top officers from office. But the cleanup of the company under Robert W. Haack, who is now retiring as chairman,seems to have been thoroughly and carefully conducted.

Does the Lockheed success story argue for more of the same sort of government rescue operations for other failing companies? No. As a general rule, we don't think the government should be in the business of helping private corporations escape the consequences of their own shortcomings. Lockheed was a special case because of its role as a defense contractor and because a case can be made that some part of its downfall was attributable to various Pentagon decisions. That it all has turned out well is heartening - almost heartening enough to make us think that someday all will also turn out well for Conrail, the government's other venture in trying to turn a failing corporation into a success.