Perhaps one of the finest accomplishments of the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson is the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment. Critics argue that the amendment has worked against long-range US-Soviet accord.
The fact is Jackson-Vanik has worked to the benefit of all mankind by underscoring the right of persons to leave a nation.
Let's consider Jackson-Vanik for a moment.
On Sept. 14, 1973, the distinguished Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov sent a remarkable ''open letter'' to Congress urging adoption of the Jackson-Vanik legislation linking trade benefits for the USSR to ease Soviet emigration procedures.
Current critics of Jackson-Vanik, drawing upon arguments advanced by former President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, perceive the ammendment as having been counterproductive by actually reducing emigration. They cite statistics showing that Jewish emigration jumped from several hundred in 1968 to 35,000 in 1973. The escalation was seen as due to Nixon's ''quiet diplomacy,'' while the decline after 1973 was viewed as due to Jackson-Vanik's open pressure.
But the evidence is overwhelming that Jackson-Vanik made possible the emigration of large numbers of educated Jews and in no way was responsible for lower emigration figures.
The vagaries of Soviet emigration policy cannot be seen as directly or even indirectly related to the congressional amendment.
* The USSR in March 1973, keenly aware of the yet-to-be-enacted Jackson-Vanik amendment - it was approved by both houses on Dec. 20, 1974 - revoked an incredible 1972 edict that had imposed exorbitant taxes upon Jews with a higher education seeking to emigrate. The amendment would refuse most-favored-nation tariff treatment and subsidized credits to communist governments that extracted more than a ''nominal'' tax on exit visas. Some 1450 Jews had to pay approximately $7 million during that eight-month period. How many were kept from applying because of the high tax is not known. What is known is that tens of thousands who emigrated after March 1973 were not hindered or stopped because they could not afford to pay the ransom tax.
* Similarly, Romania this past June revoked a decree requiring huge taxes from would-be emigrants who had acquired higher education. Jackson-Vanik provisions were clearly responsible. Jewish emigration from Romania rose by 50 percent last year.
* Soviet Jewish emigration began dropping in early 1974. But this took place almost a full year before the amendment was voted upon by Congress.
* Dr. Kissinger, in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on Dec. 3, 1974, clearly indicated that the Soviets were prepared to acquiesce with the requirements of Jackson-Vanik. If they later repudiated such assurances, it was probably due to a totally different amendment to a different bill - the Stevenson amendment - which put a severely restrictive ceiling on credits to the USSR, thereby negating the Soviet-American understanding on emigration.
* Between 1976 and 1979, while Jackson-Vanik was in force, Soviet Jewish emigration rose annually, reaching an unprecedented 51,000 people in 1979.
* Hungary was granted most-favored-nation tariff treatment under the provisions of Jackson-Vanik in 1978. It is inconceivable that the USSR would have permitted Hungary to accept this arrangement if the Kremlin had firmly opposed the amendment.
Jackson-Vanik was the first piece of American legislation that was inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - specifically Article XIII, the right of everyone to leave any country. Particularly appropriate for a ''nation of immigrants,'' Sakharov also considered it essential for establishing the ''mutual trust'' needed for detente.
For Sakharov, Jackson-Vanik constituted a ''policy of principle'' which, if rejected, would signify ''a betrayal of the thousands of Jews and non-Jews who want to emigrate, of the hundreds in camps and mental hospitals, of the victims of the Berlin Wall.'' His ''open letter'' to the Congress a decade ago is as valid now as it was then.