If America lets Chrysler fail, it will be because we have succumbed to what might be called "disaster as a spectator sport": That is, we are so used to observing serious human and social tragedies on television and at the movies that we are too numb to act when faced with a real disaster -- a disaster we have the power to prevent.

The sole question facing Congress can be simply stated: is federal assistance to the Chrysler Corporation in the national interest? I believe it is, for the following reasons:

A Chrysler failure would be more expensive to the taxpayer than any risk or loss under a loan guarantee. Chrysler needs a loan guarantee of $1.5 billion to help it continue to convert its plant and equipment to build more and more fuel-efficient cars. If Chrysler fails, the Treasury Department conservatively estimates $2.75 billion in federal revenue loss. In addition, there is a potential $1.1 billion pension fund shortfall that, by law, must be met. Moreover, some pensions are not insured. Those people would be left with nothing.

A Chrysler failure will rob America of a major producer of fuel-efficient cars. Chrysler currently has the best fuel-economy average of the domestic auto makers. More important, over the next 18 months Chrysler will be the only domestic auto company able to produce 500,000 fuel-efficient cars to meet current high demand. Without Chrysler, almost all those sales will go to foreign auto makers, costing the United States another $3 billion in balance-of-trade payments.

A Chrysler failure could, within one year, raise the national unemployment rate by 0.5 percent. It could put as many as 545,000 people out of work. Of the 5,000 Chrysler dealers and 19,000 Chrysler suppliers, thousands are small businesses that would face bankruptcy. The loss in revenue to state and local governments could be as high as $266 million annually.

A Chrysler failure will devastate Detroit, as well as a number of other communities. Detroit is finally making a comeback. What does it gain us to put federal renewal monies into Detroit with one hand and vote for Chrysler to collapse with the other? In reality, there is little difference between a Chrysler rescue and a New York City rescue.

Notions that Chrysler can reorganize and thus avoid either a loan guarantee or a failure are ill conceived. Chrysler already is reorganizing. Two plants have been closed. Executive salaries have been frozen or cut. A new management team is now in place, and it has cut operating expenses by about $1 billion a year. Some 29,000 people are on indefinite layoff. Chrysler will be making its own four-cylinder engines in July. It will be producing just three car sizes in 1985 instead of five -- all smaller cars.

The idea that, if Chrysler goes under, its efficient operations will be purchased and kept going and the inefficient operations shut down is also largely a myth. Like the other auto companies, Chrysler's operations are highly integrated. For Example, the popular Omni and Horizon models are only assembled in Belvidere, Ill. No parts are made there. The guts of the cars come from 10 other Chrysler plants and 1,000 different suppliers, and the engine is made by Volkswagon. In short, you cannot buy the Omni product line without buying up a good part of Chrysler, and such a buy is simply not economically attractive to other auto companies.

Of course Chrysler workers must make a sacrifice. The real question is how much of a sacrifice. The real question is how much of a sacrifice is enough. It has not been fully recognized that the workers have already made a very substantial sacrifice of pay and benefits that will save the corporation $203 million. That $203 million is actually more than the equivalent of a one-year wage freeze. Perhaps labor will have to do something more. But a worker contribution without matching commitments from Chrysler bankers, shareholders, suppliers and dealers is not an equitable rescue package.

Finally, it should be understood that a loan guarantee to Chrysler does not set any sort of precedent. There are $408 billion in outstanding federal loans and loan guarantees to various individuals and corporations throughout the country. The House Banking Committee handling Chrysler legislation has, this year alone, provided loan guarantees for synthetic fuel programs and for agricultural interests to put up gasohol plants. Each year that same committee authorizes a substantial budget that underwrites FHA loans -- a form of loan guarantee to individual homeowners.

The question before Congress is not why Chrysler is on the verge of bankruptcy. Regardless of who is to blame, whether it is OPEC's oil pricing and production policies, federal overregulation or just plain poor management, the result is the same. The future of hundreds of thousands of American workers, their families and their communities is at stake if we allow a Chrysler failure and the devastating effects that would result. It is a disaster we have the power to prevent.