Among the foolish and discreditable decisions that this country has occasionally made, few are more offensive than the recruitment of the Nazi rocket engineers. Immediately after World War II, the U.S. Army secretly brought more than 100 of them to this country to continue their work here. Some of these men were implicated in war crimes, a possibility that the Army ignored. In some cases the precise nature of their records is only now becoming clear, with the Justice Department's vigorous inquiry into the possibility that the United States may still be harboring war criminals.

Last March one of the rocket engineers, Arthur Louis Hugo Rudolph, renounced his American citizenship and departed to Germany to avoid deportation proceedings here. A few days ago this newspaper was able to provide a description of Mr. Rudolph's wartime work; it helps to explain his flight. For the last two years of World War II he was running a production line building V-2 rockets with slave labor in underground facilities that a Justice Department official terms "a death factory." After Germany's defeat, the Army immediately brought him to this country where he then went to work first for the Army and then for NASA.

Occasionally people attempt to defend the importation of the Nazi rocket crews as a decision made under the pressure of the Cold War. That's wrong. In 1945, when the rocket engineers were brought here, relations among the victorious Allies were uncertain and uneasy, but it wasn't until 1947-48 that they settled into fixed hostility between the Russians and the West. The Army's embrace of the German engineers was simply a grab for technological advantage. It was both cynical and naive, carried out by some Army officers whose limited experience evidently gave them no sense of the activities in which their new friends had recently been engaged.

It's been a long time since World War II -- 40 years next spring. You will sometimes hear the argument that it's time to forget and to drop the charges against these aging men. That's wrong- headed. There are certain crimes against which there are no statutes of limitations. More important, the crimes committed then -- and the way that the Allied governments dealt with them -- are a crucial part of the past generation's political history. That history, as it is recorded, will affect politics now and in the future, here and in Europe. Assembling the evidence in these cases is a contribution to political integrity. The Justice Department is doing a valuable job. It is asserting the principle that there are certain degrees of moral blindness that the passage of time cannot absolve.