For serious scholars, and all the more so for those who get their kicks taking potshots at big shots, the public service of John J. McCloy presents a generous target: assistant secretary of war in World War II; a prime mover of postwar Atlantic Alliance affairs; president of the World Bank; high commissioner in charge of West Germany's political and economic rehabilitation; adjutant or adviser to every president from Roosevelt to Reagan.

The law of averages says he had to be wrong some of the time. But nothing--not the natural vulnerability of strong-minded public figures to revisionist reappraisal; not prejudice, ignorance or deep grievances--quite explains the controversy that has suddenly swirled up around Jack McCloy.

The first burst came in the form of a student protest when Harvard University last March announced plans for its Kennedy School of Government to offer 10 scholarships a year to "outstanding German students" for graduate study. It was to be called the McCloy Scholars Program at the suggestion of the Volkswagen Foundation of West Germany, which is putting up the money.

Five ethnic student groups almost immediately demanded that the program's name be changed, charging that McCloy 1) had opposed the bombing of the gas chambers in the German death camp at Auschwitz in World War II and 2) supported the relocation from the West Coast to inland internment camps of 110,000 Japanese-American citizens and resident aliens after Pearl Harbor.

The irony is that the students' protest was inspired in part by an article in Harper's magazine by Alan Brinkley, a Harvard history professor. Brinkley did raise the issues of Auschwitz and the Japanese-Americans. But he called McCloy "a man of decency and integrity" who "had not initiated the relocation plan, and . . . was not a major figure in the decision to implement it."

Nor does Brinkley claim that McCloy was a decisive figure in the rejection of proposals to bomb Auschwitz. "If you say a scholarship can't be named after John McCloy," Brinkley later told the Harvard Crimson, "then you can't name one after Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt or Earl Warren" (the chief justice was California's attorney general in 1942 and an advocate of relocating Japanese-Americans). 5 Making the same point, Harvard stood its ground. Said Graham Allison, dean of the Kennedy School: "(The) attempt to make Mr. McCloy a scapegoat for these events, or to somehow alleviate the wrong suffered in the years past by harming the reputation of a distinguished American, is morally reckless."

Harvard, like McCloy, is held to be prototypical "Establishment." But the word of another Harvard professor cannot be so easily dismissed. Guido Goldmann is the son of Nahum Goldmann, the former president of both the World Jewish Congress and the World Zionist Organization. He is also a specialist on Germany. In a letter to Allison, he holds McCloy blameless in the Auschwitz decision-making: "This charge is a blasphemous distortion of history, and I know that my father, were he still alive today, would have been outraged by such allegations."

Still, the issue lives on. In February, a congressional "Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians" condemned the detention of the Japanese-Americans. Both Secretary of War Stimson and McCloy, it found, had "failed to insist on a clear military justification for the measures (the army) wished to undertake." That was the extent of their culpability.

But not the end of the argument. This month the commission followed up with a recommendation that "as an act of national apology" the U.S. government pay some $1.5 billion in compensation to 60,000 survivors of the internment camps. At this point, McCloy becomes his own worst witness: "I think it's shocking that we should apologize," he said on the "McNeil-Lehrer Report." Even his defenders are taken aback. Angus Macbeth, the commission's special counsel, finds McCloy's position today hard to reconcile with the role he actually played, according to the commission's findings.

McCloy's vehemence owes something to his loyality to Stimson and Roosevelt--and something, perhaps, to his years. John F. Kennedy once offered the consolation, when asked about the excesses of youthful protesters, that "time is on our side." But McCloy is 88, which may be why he seems to be hurrying, with a heavy hand, to the defense of his bosses and his own good name.