The first -- and hardest -- thing to remember about what has happened in the Philippines is that it was not preordained. Just a few days ago the present outcome did not seem possible. That has been the whole story of Corazon Aquino's remarkable (and stubborn) ascent to the presidency of the country and the simultaneous departure of Ferdinand Marcos. There is a process in politics whereby we forget almost immediately what the terms and probabilities were before -- before the surprise election result, before the unexpected win of some candidate or proposition, before the public did what the pollsters said it wouldn't, or the public official did what the pundits said he couldn't. So before the next phase begins in earnest, the phase in which the surprise government must govern and critical attention is turned to this pursuit, it is well to note the magnitude of what Mrs. Aquino and the (former) opposition movement have already achieved. That achievement has been staggering.

The elements that went into the campaign and made it work will all be needed in the struggle to come: fortitude, patience, intelligence and a capacity to let the larger interest of the country take precedence over lesser human emotions such as a desire to punish or to have the last word. Great care has been taken to limit the violence. This care must be preserved and extended now as the country gets down to the business of trying to restore the health of its distorted and looted economy, rehabilitate its armed forces, revitalize its political institutions and deal decisively with a communist insurgency that may -- we certainly hope so -- be the principal loser, next to Ferdinand Marcos, in the events that have taken place.

As David Broder notes in a column on the opposite page today, American political leaders from the administration to Congress dealt with the chaotic situation in the Philippines surpassingly well. No doubt some part of the current anxiety as to what will happen now is based not just on reasonable and legitimate uncertainty about what an Aquino government will do, but also on collective memory: We are, in this country, alas, all too accustomed to seeing our ministrations and our intentions go awry in dealing with such transitions of power, and there is in Washington a kind of hold-your-breath and cross-your-fingers anxiety right now, the presumption being that, so far, the thing has gone too smoothly to last or to be real. But it is just barely possible that sensible policy, which is what we have had, will produce a sensible result.

A word on Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, no favorites of ours. One of Mrs. Aquino's larger acts of statesmanship has been her insistence that a vindictive, divisive policy not now be pursued by the victors, an insistence which has included her assisting in the granting of safe passage to people she has firm reason to believe conspired in the murder of her husband. She has put the restoration of civil peace and well-being to her country first.

The question now arises as to where the Marcoses and their entourage will go. We hope that should they ultimately decide to avail themselves of President Reagan's offer of asylum in this country there will not be a countereffort to prevent it. The United States must take responsibility for its actions and its alliances over time; it must honor its word and respect its obligations. This country worked with Ferdinand Marcos, for better and, God knows, for worse over two decades. It gave and it took and it allowed him to develop a certain level of expectation as to how we would behave if he were in danger. It is up to the United States to take him in if he should wish to come. To do so would not mean that we love him. It would mean only that this country recognizes everyone's best interests -- including that of Mrs. Aquino.