SALT II SEEMS DESTINED to be eternally pushed aside for something else. Lately, Senate ratification of the accord took a back seat to the issue of the Soviet troops in Cuba. As far back as 1976, Kissinger's attempts to turn the Vladivostok accord into a final treaty were set aside by the Ford administration due to political pressures. Since the Carter administration has been in charge, Angola, China, and many other things have postponed conclusion of the treaty.

Now comes Strobe Tallbott, the translator and editor of two volumes of Khrushchev's memoirs, a Yale graduate, Rhodes scholar and, at 33, Time magazine's golden-boy diplomatic correspondent. Talbott has produced Endgame , which calls itself "the inside story" of the SALT II negotiations. But the book, like the treaty, may be shoved aside due to forces beyond its control.

The theory behind the book is clear enough: last winter, when the accord was nearly finished and journalists were predicting a "great national debate" in 1979 over Senate ratification, it looked as though the debate would turn on the negotiations themselves: who traded what, who gave in more, who said what, who struck whom. Therefore, an inside account would be indispensable around Washington and highly marketable, too.

But true to form, the predicted SALT debate has not ocurred: it has been eclipsed by other, more ominous issues. The president's Punch and Judy show last summer in fixing the nation's attention on energy and then firing three cabinet officials, only one of whom had anything to do with energy; the pseudo-confrontation with the Soviet Union over the troops in Cuba; the Kennedy candidacy -- all have raised doubts about the president's ability to orchestrate the public behavior of his administration in some meaningful way. So now, who said what on the secretary of state's airplane two years ago doesn't matter.

This is too bad for Talbott, who has written a remarkably detailed and readable history of the horse-trading within the administration and with the Soviets. Highlights of the book appeared as a Time cover story last summer, but SALT students will delight in the amount of additional facts in the book-length version.

Endgame has its problems. Its supposed strength -- a plethora of detail and absence of background explanations or analysis -- is also a weakness. The book will be of interest only to people who care about the details -- because it lacks discussion of the larger themes. There is no chapter on the overall direction of the U.S. Soviet military balance. There is no analysis of the rise of Henry Jackson, Richard Perlen and Paul Nitze as domestic political forces. We hear endlessly about the sparring between the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, but are never told why the different bureaucracies take the different positions they do, and cling to them so firmly. And although Talbott's background in Russian studies uniquely qualifies him, he hardly ever backs off to analyze Soviet aims and motives in the talks.

One would not be so hard on Talbott except that these days we expect our best journalists to be good historians too -- look at Laurence Stern's The Wrong Horse , or John Newhouse's still-classic history of Salt I, Cold dawn . Talbott is clearly one of our most intelligent journalists, and had demonstrated in his Khrushchev coup a knack for publishing books that count.

But Endgame falls between stools. The book jacket calls it "a remarkable synthesis of journalism and history" yet it is neither. We are never told the relative veracity of the myriad accounts of meetings and corridor conversations, so must accept all these details as equally true. But they are not all equally true. Walter Slocombe's office in the Pentagon is not "windowless." The leading plan for protecting MX from a Soviet first strike, the MAP system, was not, as Talbott says, an "expropriated" version of Alps, a scheme Paul Nitze proposed in 1978 to protect the Minuteman force. And Talbott hardly gives us the "inside story" of Brezhnev's illness. Instead, "over the years he [brezhnev] had eaten too mucy starchy food, smoked too many cigarettes, drunk too much vodka, and undergone too much stress. Now he suffered from a variety of chronic respiratory, circulatory, and neurological ailments . . . He had his bad days and his good days." How many of us fit that description?

Nor is Endgame quite history, although it appears to be written largely from the perspective of the secretary of state. I deduce this on the basis of the many asides Talbott makes about Vance's feelings -- and the absence of such remarks about the emotions of Brown or Brzezinski. ("Whatever misgivings Vance felt, he suppressed them with relatives ease." Or, "the cameras, the lights, the array of dignitaries at the foot of the steps to the Air Force plane, the limousines, the motorcade, the VIP guesthouses in Lenin Hills -- all this was heady stuff, ever for Vance. The skepticism began to dissipate. Maybe something would come of these talks after all . . . ."

Ironically, Talbott's apparent familiarity with Vance's views undermines the authoritativeness of the book. There are other views of the key events, which get little or no notice. An obvious example is Talbott's account of "comprehensive" SALT proposals the Soviets rejected in March of 1977 (after the heady events described above), which turned Vance's first Moscow trip as secretary into humiliation. Talbott's account of the orgin of these proposals acknowledges that the idea came from the National Security Council, which also drafted the next of the proposals. But the onus for persuading the administration to try this approach is laid on Harold Brown. (A source in the book says of Brown's presentation to Carter: "It was like a beautifully tied, juicy fly dropped right in front of a hungry trout's nose. The President bit and swallowed right away.'" Talbott calls the proposals "a debacle" and "a diplomatic disaster."

But a contrary view holds that in early 1977 it was widely accepted in the SALT bureaucracy that they might try for something quite sweeping, and that the decision to go ahead with the "comprehensive" proposals came as no surprise. Moreover, instead of being a "disaster," the March 1977 proposals had a beneficial effect: They tabled for the first time such issues as ICBM modernization and limits on the number of warheads per missile, which ultimately found their way into the final treaty, making it a stronger document. I do not say this interpretation is right, but it is certainly not so outrageous as to be generally ignored by Talbott.

But having said that Endgame won't be the hot item its planners may have wished, and that it is not the definitive book on SALT II, I should add that it can be read as a guide to Carter's handling of SALT, and thus is highly relevant. We see, at key moments, that Carter spoke out of SALT in ways contrary to the line that his capable lieutenants, Vance and Brown, had agreed on, thus raising Soviet suspicions and complicating and protracting the negotiations.

And just as, last summer, Carter fired cabinet officers for behavior he had not discussed with them directly, Endgame shows how Carter has allowed Vance and Brzezinski to pursue their own, conflicting strategies for dealing with the Soviets -- thus creating more confusion and friction than perhaps was necessary. And we see Brzezinski being allowed to play with the Soviets, as though they were toys, and like toys, insensate and incapable of retaliation -- for instance in his courtship of Georgy Arbatov as a "favored" envoy in order to downgrade Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, who had enjoyed official favor under Kissinger.

But the reader must seek out these examples. Except for occasional comments, Talbott does not analyze for us how well or badly the Carter White House has handled SALT. Surely it is a subject on which Talbott has views; but he has chosen not to share them. Once again, Salt ii has been shortchanged.