LAST WEEK the House took the first step toward healing a wound inflicted 45 years ago. The lawmakers passed a bill that would formally apologize for the unjust internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II and provide compensation to the survivors. It was a fitting way to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution.

The wartime injustice was hardly controversial at the time. Almost all the leaders of this government acquiesced in the roundup of American citizens and legal resident aliens simply because they were of Japanese origin. Not one of them had been charged with or convicted of any crime, yet even the Supreme Court ratified this gross violation of civil liberties. In recent years, however, and in particular since the 1983 report of a congressionally appointed Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, consensus has grown that apology and recompense were due. The testimony of two members of Congress, Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui, both of California, has been particularly moving and persuasive. Both were interned as small children and have spoken of the humiliation, economic losses and emotional impact of the experience on them and on their families.

Some have questioned the necessity for a money payment to survivors -- each will receive $20,000 -- and we were among those who once thought that such a payment would trivialize the apology by putting a price on the injustice. We have been persuaded, however, that a one-time payment of this kind is just. This in no way diminishes the sacrifices of millions of other Americans who lost liberty and life in defense of this country during World War II. That number includes many Japanese Americans who served in the armed forces and were not interned. But those 120,000 who were singled out and penalized on the basis of race are due consideration of another kind.

Finally, there is another, more broadly based benefit in passing compensatory legislation. By acknowledging and making reparation for this unique deprivation of liberty, this country is stronger, more unified, more just. Americans have recommitted themselves to those very values that wars have been fought to preserve