IT HAS BEEN REMARKED THAT Henry Kissinger's life and career have progressed upward because he has been able, at each critical juncture, to transform himself into something else -- to rise to each occasion, to meet each test of new circumstance and new opportunity. A traumatized teen-age refugee from the Nazis in the late 1930s, he was by 1945 the American sergeant in charge of a small town in occupied Germany, imposing the Allied will by manipulating the ingrained habit of former SS officers to obey orders. A frumpish, ponderous professor when he arrived in New York in the mid-1950s to write a book under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations, he emerged as a suave establishment figure, a special protege and later a valued friend and advisor to Nelson Rockefeller. A man who had cuttingly criticized Richard Nixon, both publicly and privately, and was the object of special suspicion within the Nixon entourage, he became the one oasis of distinction in the desert of that mediocre and squalid administration.

With publication of the first volume of his memoirs -- White House Years -- Kissinger seems, at least in one sense, to have done it again. As a work of literature, this is an elegant and impressive book. One recalls the dense, convoluted, abstract prose of earlier Kissinger books, from which the reader could extricate himself only with the aid of a machete. Philip Moseley, director of the Russian Institute at Columbia, who edited Kissinger's Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy for the Council on Foreign Relations, admitted to cutting it by a third in six weeks, and was sure he could have improved it further with more time. Kissinger was furious, but not at the time in a position to resist. In contrast, this book is a pleasure to read. The writing ranges from clean, sure narrative reporting to gemlike definitions of complicated diplomatic situations and philosophic observations that occasionally rise to the level of majesty. The reader is propelled by a powerful and lucid intelligence -- sardonic, cynical, manipulative even when self-deprecating, yet always compelling. The encapsulated portraits of foreign leaders are sensitively observed and skillfully drawn (by comparison, most administration figures come off as thin and two-dimensional, confirming the truth that Kissinger's passion is diplomatic, not bureaucratic).

The piecemeal assessments of Richard Nixon that run through the book are often brilliant and telling. They praise Nixon for a sturdy capacity to make tough, unpopular decisions (usually, in Kissinger's view, "the right course"); more often they take note of the man gnawed by an ineradicable sense of inadequacy -- as reflected in an inability to argue down his cabinet officers face-to-face, a tendency to elliptical instructions, a deep need for secretiveness and periodic withdrawal, a lack of social and physical graces and a consuming hunger to avenge numberless humiliations suffered at the hands of his "enemies." If some enterprising editor were to collect all of these fragments into one chapter or short book, the result might well be the most [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] we have yet on that strange, willful, paanoid and resentful figure.

These virtues notwithstanding, the book suffers from serious flaws. It is not only overlong (1,476 pages of text) but paralyzingly detailed, a setting down of nearly every meeting, mission, conversation, cable and memcon in which Kissinger was involved as policy advisor and negotiator during the first Nixon term. Collectively, this relentless (sometimes repetitious) marshaling of the facts testifies to the scope and severity of the challenges he faced, the merciless pace and pressure at the top levels of Superpower enterprises, and the enormous expenditure of intellectual and animal energy required to cope with, let alone master, events.

In the end, unfortunately, one feels more overpowered than enlightened. There is no serious attempt at reflective distillation of the experience -- only a headlong rush to establish a record, defend a stewardship, and respond to vehement critics, of whom there are many. Why the rush to publication without more reflective assessment, especially by a professional scholar who must know the hazards of attempting historical judgments too soon? Well, not to put too fine a point upon it, there was all that money which might not have waited, and there was the felt need to sustain the high profile of the Stateman-Celebrity whose public career is perceived to be not yet at an end. Given his keenly intuitive sense of situation, Kissinger understands better than most that this is the Age of the Celebrity and that a popular image is an important reinforcement of power. Such impulses are understandable, but they tend to discount the historical significance of the book. Still, the luster of Kissinger's image as statesman is more reliably maintained through his written works than through his television appearances with David Frost: their Cambodian debate brought to the screen two sluggish professional wrestlers pretending to inflict excruciating pain on each other, for money.

Despite obvious differences of personality and style, Nixon and Kissinger are in important respects the same kind of person -- secretive, suspicious, instinctively authoritarian, tough-minded and concerned to be perceived as such -- and the book obliquely reveals this strong psychic bond. Nixon distrusted the bureaucracy, fearing its disloyalty; Kissinger distrusted it as a bog into which creative diplomacy disappeared. From these commonalities came the "options system" of presenting foreign policy issues in a way that permitted the National Security Adviser to homogenize the views of the State and Defense departments before putting them before the president, and that permitted the president to decide without going through (what was for him) the exhausting, distasteful process of hearing and weighing the departmental positions face to face. This system put Kissinger athwart the main channel to the president on all national security affairs, and through a combination of his diligence, astuteness and ability (and Nixon's determination to conduct all major foreign policy in the White House), it was soon the only channel.

The arrangement was abetted by the appointment of William P. Rogers as secretary of state. Deliberately chosen for his lack of previous experience in foreign affairs, Rogers was thereafter systematically excluded from participation in major undertakings. Why he clung to office after repeated humiliations is one of the fascinating minor questions of the Nixon period. (At the 1972 Moscow summit, Kissinger was lodged with Nixon in a Kremlin apartment; the secretary of state was half a mile away in a vast tourist hotel. On the China trip, Chou En-lai informed Kissinger of Mao's immediate wish to receive Nixon. In the process of quickly assembling the small American party, the secretary of state was left out. Of this incident, Kissinger writes, "Nixon told me five days before that he wanted Rogers and Assistant Secretary of State Marshall Green to be occupied elsewhere so he could discuss sensitive matters with Mao and Chou.")

Kissinger's rise to undoubted power and prominence thus owed a great deal to Nixon's peculiar modus operandi in foreign and defense affairs. In a more open and discursive administration, he would have been only one of several competing advisers with his influence correspondingly diluted. Under Nixon, he became the principal keeper of the keys -- the adviser, spokesman and negotiator on all major foreign policies. Nor did he normally act through the departments and agencies, but behind their backs. In national security affairs, the Nixon administration was really a "government by back channel," all of its important processes dominated by secret lines running from Kissinger to Dobrynin, Yahya Khan, Chou En-lai, Le Duc Tho, Gold Meir, et al. This "government within a government" led unavoidably to the alienation of senior policymaking officials in State and Defense who naturally resented their functional displacement. Thus was precluded any development of a "team spirit" and thus it was easy for embittered departmental officials and ambassadors to dissociate themselves from policies with which they differed. Obsessive secrecy and control in the White House led to calculated leaks and bureaucratic obstruction, which, in turn, led Nixon and Kissinger to wiretapping. As the Watergate troubles gathered, Nixon's fear of bureaucratic disloyalty approached a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This highly centralized mode of governance, while not unconstitutional, runs hard against the American grain of more open, if somewhat (in the short run) less efficient policymaking, combining as it does an excess of secrecy with a strong impulse to discount or circumvent public opinion. It nurtures precisely the attitudes land values that led to Watergate abuses, and so to the distrust of authority and the political apathy that define the privatism and loss of consensus in American society today. Kissinger does not acknowledge the linkage between his conduct of office and that result.

Every statesman must struggle to perceive, shape and maintain the international power balance, but Kissinger is among the few modern practitioners who have raised this fundamental task to the level of theology. The book confirms him as a doctrinaire high priest of "geopolitics" in seach of "equilibrium," and it is a sternly demanding quest involving dedication to a life of "imperfect choices, partial fulfillment and the unsatisfying tasks of balance and maneuver." He shares with many others the premise that the key to global balance in the modern world is the U.S.-Soviet relationship; he departs from most in verbally insisting that there are really no other relationships of consequence In his view, U.S.-Soviet interactions pervade every issue on the glove; there are no local isolable crises; "linkage" is universal, and "credibility" the only goal. Examined closely, his "foreign policy design" seems therefore to consist of nothing much more substantial than the manipulation of these abstractions; his "structure of peace" comes down to a loose network of perishable personal relationships.

One seses that U.S. foreign policy requires a more tangible, less evanescent, less arid formulation before it can regain the solid public support it needs for effectiveness. Moreover, this assumption that Soviet influence is everywhere and must be resisted everywhere takes us back to the mid-1950s, ignoring the since discovered truth that ideology is in most places a thin veneer spread over deeply rooted assertions of nationalism that can only be marginally influenced by the Superpowers.

Kissinger kept thinking the key to ending the Vietnam war lay in Moscow, or possibly in Moscow and Peking. It lay in Hanoi. He thought India's intervention in East Pakistan and Syria's attack on Jordan were "proxy wars" waged for the benefit of Soviet policy. He was wrong. Undaunted, he continued to apply his global abstractions with disastrous consequences for Chile, where he secretly intervened to undo the wholly legal and constitutional election of a Chilean Communist, Salvador Allende. Kissinger was not faintly interested in Chile, per se, or gifted with any special insight as to how the Allende affair might have played out if left alone. He was interested only in applying the iron logic of his geopolitical theory, according to which Allende had the "patent intention" to achieve "Communism" which would involve "sooner or later establishing close relations with the Soviet Union." That was sufficient justification to throw a neighboring nation into the convulsions of a murderous military dictatorship.

The perils of infatuation with high-level abstractions seem most evident in the Kissinger effort to resolve the Vietnam war, which required four destructive years and consumed 500 pages of the book. Nixon and Kissinger found themselves in early agreement that considerations of national "honor" precluded a quick exit. As the situation evolved, it became evident that "honor" required no less than the permanent anchoring of a non-communist regime in South Vietnam. This was, to say the least, an astonishing conclusion to reach in 1969; it had been the goal of every U.S. Administration since 1954, and it had proven unrealizable even when 550,000 American troops were developed in South Vietnam. Now total withdrawal of these troops was recognized as a domestic political necessity.

Two questions arise. First, why did Kissinger believe that "honor" prohibited an orderly strategic departure based on the assumption that, after training and equipping a South Vietnamese Army of more than 800,000 men over a period of 17 years, and after fighting fiercely with our own forces for four years, we had done all we could for Saigon? In a word, because "credibility" demanded it -- and never mind that our NATO allies were long since convinced of the futility of the enterprise and worried that the United States was poorly deploying our military and political energies, quite possibly to their detriment; never mind that the Russians could only be comforted by persisting American failure on a far peninsula; never mind the wasted years, the continuing large-scale loss of human life, the embittered divisions in American society growing deeper every day.

The second question is, what made Kissinger think he could pull it off, recognizing not only the domestic opposition and the relative fragility of the Saigon regime, but especially the "hatred and pathological distrust between the Vietnamese parties"? This last was proof positive against any genuine modus vivendi ; it meant that the Kissinger "solution" accepted a state of permanent war between the parties, held in check only by a permanent readiness to apply American airpower whenever and wherever necessary to assure survival of Saigon. But was there in 1972 any real basis for the belief that Congress and the American people would support a permanent military commitment to South Vietnam, especially in a situation where the high probability was that it would have to be invoked frequently? The entire previous four years had been consumed by a savage struggle between Congress and the executive branch over the pace of our extrication from Vietnam and over the scale of our involvement in Cambodia; these contests had torn the social fabric to shreds; there was no resilience left in the body politic to accept new military commitments in Indochina.

Kissinger indicates his belief that the political resilience was in fact there. On that reading, his conclusin in the book that the subsequent erosions of Watergate are to blame for the failure to realize the outcome he envisioned is largely an alibi for his own misjudgment. But there is another possibility that cannot be lightly dismissed. It is that, had there been no Watergate disclosures, Nixon would have tried to tough it out, insisting on his 1972 electoral "mandate," accepting even deeper and more disruptive domestic turmoil and planning to contain it by widespread wiretapping and similar measures designed to neutralize or suppress growing internal opposition. That readiness to violate the constitutional rights to citizens was the thrust of the 1973 White House surveillance plan (the so-called Huston Plan, which, despite formal cancellation, was in fact never fully repudiated). It would be surprising if this alternative had not occurred to Kissinger for whom "credibility" in Vietnam was close to a doctrinal imperative and whose career suggests a belief that it is possible to get away with almost anythng if one is clever enough.