As the monsoons gather speed, sinking hundreds of tiny boats and drowning thousands of frightened people, will we experience the same remorse we feel - or should feel - because we failed to rescue Jews from the Holocaust?

If we do not move quickly to collect those now afloat, the monsoons will settle the matter. But we could quickly mobilize an armada of ships to save thousands from death. That is not beyond our resources - far from it. The Department of Defense has transports available; it should be directed to use them. Ships can be chartered on the West Coast, in Hong Kong, throughout the world. The navy should stop interpreting the rule of the sea too literally; they need not find a vessel actually foundering before rescuing its otherwise doomed passengers.

Today, the Carter administration is, within the stifling limits of cautious diplomacy, properly seeking to share the burden of the boat peole with other governments. The president discussed the problem in Tokyo, and United Nations Secretary General Waldheim is convening another solemn conclave in Geneva on July 21. Yet the diplomatic mills grind at a pace indifferent to monsoons or other phenomena. We have seen it all before. Forty-one years ago, in July 1938, President Roosevelt called the nations together at Evian to concert efforts to rescue German Jews from the oncoming Holocaust. The statesmen arrived, made speeches and departed. They left behind an Inter-Governmental Committee on Refugees that dawdled until the war made further efforts impossible. We have had to live with our shame ever since.

In rescuing the Jewish people, we first had to persuade Hitler to let them out. But the boat people are already out-pushed out-precariously drifting in international waters and crying to be heldped. Nobody knows the number already drowned - perhaps 30 to 50 percent of the thousands who squandered their savings for a ticket to death. Still the process goes reletlessly forward. Vietnam is regulating its Chinese residents at a rate of 45,000 a month, while 10,000 to 15,000 Vietnamese are escaping.

In spite of the heroic efforts of a handful of dedicated officials, our government is paralyzed by bureaucratic flatulence. There are a dozen glib rationalizations for inaction. We cannot afford to save suffering humanity, we are told, because we must balance the budget. Were our government to take too strong a lead, other nations, it is argued, would wash their hands of the matter, dismissing it as our problem - another sour fruit of the Vietnam War. Moreover, it we save those now afloat, won't Vietnam simply push out more Chinese?

What a defeatist litany and what craven nonsense! The problem is finite, not open-ended; Vietnam had only 1.8 million people of Chinese extraction and probably more than half have already been expelled. We can shame other nations into contributing ships and funds. We spend billions for weapons to kill masses of people; should we not spend a small amount more to save masses of lives?

Sending ships stocked with supplies will, of course, only buy time, preventing thousands from drowning or starving while diplomacy plods. The Philippines and Indonesia may make islands available as at least temporary havens, and our diplomats are exploring other possibilities. Meanwhile, we must use full diplomatic leverage to find the refugees permanent homes. Since most of them are of Chinese derivation, we should not let or current infatuation deter us from pressing Peking to take a larger share. The causal relationship - if any - between this new diaspora and China's military "lesson" to Hanoi is far from clear. But, though perhaps a quarter million have already been pushed across the border into China, what is another million more or less, in a population a thousand times that large?

We think of ourselves as a humane people, talking incessantly of human rights. If we execute a convicted murderer, many Americans have hysterics. But is our imagination so feeble that we feel compassion only in the narrow focus of individual agony, while averting our eyes from the death of thousands? Have we become so self-centered that we cannot concentrate long on the suffering of anonymous humanity with whom our only common experience is living on the same planet?

We Americans need a cathartic experience to purge us of self-pity. Far too preoccupied with our own psyches, we are on the way to becoming a petulant, selfish, ingrown people. What could more elevate our national spirit than participation in a great humane enterprise? What could more lift our hearts - or better evoke world admiration - than the spectacle of a flotilla of our own ships embarked on the most spacious operation of mercy ever undertaken? It would help us recognize the essential pettiness of our domestic concerns. After all, we could be worse off than spending an extra hour in a gas line. We could be in an open boat as thick with wretched humanity as flies on a sugar loaf, rolling ceaselessly on a turbulent sea and drifting toward almost certain death.

Let us thing about that as Americans - for the good of our souls. CAPTION: Illustration, no capition, By Auth for The Philadelphia Inquirer