In recent weeks a group of forgotten Americans at last has begun to penetrate the moral ennui of the American public. Televised images of the plight of Amerasians left behind in Southeast Asia by Americans have seared our collective conscience. Who can forget the pitiful sight of those manifestly half-American children standing in the monsoon rain of Ho Chi Minh City and begging American TV crews to save them from a land where they are not wanted?
Major coverage of their sad story is long overdue. Fortunately it came at a time when a measure to help some of the Amerasians escape their sufferings was before the Congress. This bill, designed to permit more rapid immigration by any Amerasians who can offer documentary proof of their heritage, was signed into law Oct. 22. The new law will liberalize the US bureaucratic tangle which today prevents most Amerasians from coming ''home.''
However, before we congratulate ourselves too much for our national magnanimity, we ought to consider what we will not be doing for the Amerasians under the provisions of this law. Worthy though it is, the law is minimalist. It will notm enable the great majority of Amerasians to escape their plight because they lack any documentation other than the color of their skin or the shape of their features. Furthermore, the law will do nothing to aid immigrant Amerasian refugees make the difficult transition into a new life.
Addressing the Southeast Asian situation a Hanoi Foreign Ministry official, Nguyen Phi Tuyen, recently said, ''Amerasians are the consequence of the American war of aggression, therefore Vietnam thinks the US government must bear the responsibility for the Amerasians.'' Once again Vietnam has thrown down the moral gauntlet before Americans.
We should take up the challenge. Instead of stopping complacently with a liberalized immigration law, we should view that measure as a first step - necessary, but not enough. We need to do much more for the Amerasians left behind in Asia. Why can't the United States be as generous as France was in its treatment of Franco-Indochinese? Why can't we, too, open our hearts and wallets unselfishly to these abandoned half-Americans? We may be able to push the memories of our poiltical-military setbacks in Vietnam out of our minds, but our national conscience should not permit us to do anything short of our utmost to aid the Amerasians.
Vietnam's challenge to Americans to meet our moral responsibilities is echoed widely throughout Asia by our friends as well. Many Amerasians exist in equally deplorable conditions in Japan, Korea, Tai-wan, Thailand, and the Philippines. It is not a problem unique to Indochina. Any place American servicemen have been stationed in Asia there are Amerasians left behind as a reminder to the ethnically ''pure'' Asians of their relationship with the US. All of these lands are anxious to have us take back the Amerasians they detest because of what they represent to the Asians.
The US's next step should be to adopt a positive program to facilitate the speedy entry of allm Amerasians regardless of their ability to provide written documentation of their heritage and to provide these abandoned Americans with the wherewithal to adjust to productive lives in the nation responsible for their birth. The French did this for their offspring. We have done as much, or more, for numerous refugees with no direct claim on our good will.
How can we do any less for our own children? The moral imperative is clear: the American people and their government should do no less than the maximum for the abandoned Amerasians.