With its vote to pay $1.3 billion in reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps in World War II, the U.S. Senate this week was making a largely symbolic gesture as even the most ardent supporters of the measure acknowledged.

That is a very expensive gesture, especially for a budget already awash in red ink. If the Nisei wanted recognition that they were done a wrong and they certainly seem to have been what's wrong with a formal apology from the government of the United States?The Senate bill, which differs only slightly from a House measure passed earlier, would make a $20,000 tax-free payment to each person involved in the 1942-45 internment. The money would be contained in appropriation bills spread over the next five years, starting with $500 million in the 1989 budget.

There are several reasons to question the award.

First, this is a 43-year-old case. At least half the 120,000 persons involved in the evacuation from the Pacific Coast war zone have since died and would not collect. Any real damages have long-since been swallowed by the passage of time.

Second, the nation has many serious needs that are not being met because of budget problems real needs, not symbolic ones.

Third, a formal apology, an official recognition that the U.S. made a mistake in rounding up citizens and legal aliens, ought to be enough to remove any stigma that Nisei feel. The fact that most Americans are aware of the wrong done to Japanese-Americans and have a high respect for the Nisei should be evidence that there is no "stigma" attached to them.

Fourth, war causes many unfair situations and World War II was no different. Some went to war, some stayed home. Some were crippled. Some lost everything, including their lives; others made a lot of money. Many lives were drastically altered by government decisions. Whether those decisions were wise or foolish, right or wrong, is not something that should be made the subject of hindsight and financial payments.

The reparations bill will go to President Reagan. He should carefully consider the advice of the Office of Management and Budget which recommends that the measure be vetoed.