SOME YEARS AGO when I was talking with Abe Rosenthal in the editor's office at The New York Times, one of his colleagues wandered in and I found myself shaking hands with the head of a plastic chicken. "That's Punch," said Rosenthal, as Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher, went off to shake chicken with someone else. It served me right to have some boring visiting fireman's question frozen on my lips. Having now read the 600 pages of Harrison Salisbury's history of The New York Times, it is obvious in that its publisher has a useful knack of keeping his thoughts to himself.

Salisbury describes a party given by designer Mollie Parnis for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (hugging the secret of his impending visit to China) and former president Lyndon Johnson, and later has Parnis recalling how Punch Sulzberger had hardly a word for either: "He spent all his time out in the other room talking to the Secret Service men about their walkie-talkies."

The date of the party is the clue to Sulzberger's behavior. It was June 10, 1971, and the next morning he had to tell Rosenthal and his senior men whether he was going to allow the Sunday edition of June 13 to carry to text of the Pentagon Papers, the bureaucratic history of the Vietnam war through the administrations of presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

This was a Mississippi of a leak diverted to The Times by Daniel Ellsberg. It was 43 volumes with some 4,000 pages of classified documents (the four additional volumes of diplomatic papers in the official archive were not in The Times' possession) and Neil Sheehan and 17 staffers had been holed up for weeks in the New York Hilton trying to chart the main currents, expecting the FBI to arrive with the next ham sandwich.

Sulzberger had approved the idea of a narrative but publishing documents stamped "Top Secret" worried him. For Rosenthal, who is sensitively portrayed by Salisbury, it was a resigning issue: no documents, no story. Sulzberger summoned him to his office early on June 11. "I have decided," he said "you can use the documents -- not the story." The joke took a few moments to register, but the decision was firm and historic and Sulzberger never wavered in the subsequent legal battles with the Nixon, administration. The trouble is that once again we learn little about his thinking. No doubt his basic judgment was to trust his editors.

But here too, Salisbury's account, as he acknowledges, is notable for illuminating how little moral or philosophical debate there was about printing what Sheehan called the "thermonuclear vial" while America was at war, thereby forcing the newspaper into a confrontation with Washington that Sulzberger's prodecessors would have evaded. Salisbury puts it down to the habit of men who work together developing a common view where assumptions need not be stated and code words suffice to convey a range of meaning. It is, I think, an accurate explanation, but it is not an indulgence Salisbury extends to the men in government and the White House. Their Pentagon Papers discussions, as derived from Salisbury's sight of John Ehrlichman's yellow pads, are harshly assessed as the exclusive explanation of their motives.

Inevitably, perhaps, this is the stance throughout Without Fear or Favor, it is the history of The New York Times but not of its times but not of its times. It unravels drama upon drama -- from the suppression of an anti-British interview with the Kaiser to the Bay of Pigs and the Glomar Explorer affair of the sunken Russian Submarine and the CIA -- but in the more recent episodes it does not attempt to understand the reasoning of men in authority who opposed the paper of consider episodes in wilder perspective. It does not, for instance ponder the problem that while we were all busy exposing the inefficiencies and corruptions in Saigon and Phnom Penh, where we were free to do it, nobody was willing or able to focus the same cold reportorial eye on the imperialism of the North Vietnamese or the genocidal tendencies of the Khmer rouge.

But if it is more journalism than history, it is brilliant and diligent journalism, ingeniously well-crafted, vigorous and unrepetitive in language (none of the Chinese water torture of David Halbertam's comparable The powers That Be). Salisbury goes to far with his central theme of the Pentagon Papers in trying to suggest that their publication by The Times and the paranoia induced in Nixon's administration provided the dramatic scenario which inevitably led to Watergate. This appears to undervalue the historic role of The Washington Post. The evidence is that the Pentagon Papers intensified but did not orginate the sense of beleaguerment in Nixon's White House and that the embryo of the plumbers' unit had been conceived before 1971. (CONTINUED ON PAGE2)

Salisbury has nonetheless done a remarkable job, in uncovering the full story of the Pentagon Papers. It is astonishing to read how Ellsberg spent a fruitless year trying to persuade notable antiwar politicians, such as senators Fulbright and McGovern, to unveil the papers, or how national press and television failed to follow any of the earlier leads, not least of them the Boston Globe story of March 7, 1971, which quoted Ellsberg and juicily trailed the paper.

There are some compelling vignettes:

Chief Justice Burger, standing on the doorstep of his home in his bathrobe with a long-barrelled steel pistol in his hand, listening to two Washington Post reporters explaining why they were knocking at his door at 11 p.m. (They had come to find out if the government was applying to continue the temporary restraining order oon the the Post publication of the Pentagon Papers.) Editor Ben Bradlee understandably did not report the incident that night as his paper headed towards the Supreme Court.

The "Top Spook" episode, in which a high, pistol-packing official of the National Security Agency comng clandestinely to New York after The Times' first court victory to whisper how The Times might defuse the papers.

The theatrical moment at the appeal hearing in camera against The Washington Post when a top ranking aide to the director of the national Security Agency handed a briefcase to Chief Judge David L. Bazelon saying that in it there was an example of how publication of the Pentagon Papers could threaten the security of the United States. The judge unlocked the double-locked case and took out a large Manila envelope. Inside there was a smaller Manila envelope. He opened that to find a third envelope, this one with a red seal and ribbons. He broke the seal. The communiction he handed round to hushed prosecution and defense lawyers citied the cable contained in the Pentagon Papers which would reveal that the National Security Agency had the capacity to intercept North Vietnamese radio communications and breaks their code. But the cable struck a chord with George Wilson,The post's Pentagon correspondent. He had seen it published somewhere already. Was it not on page 34 of the 1980 Senate Foreign Nations Committee hearings on the Toukin Gulf incident, and did he not happen to have a copy those hearings in his back pocket? Collapse of government lawyers. . .

Sallsbury's accounts of the secret court hearings on the Pentagon Papers, exposing the hollowness of the government's national secuirty cases, are published for the first time and they are the highlight of the book. They remind us again, through I shall get in trouble for saying so, of the superior sophistication of American discussions of press and government. There is a recognition, and it is given judicial expression in the United States which it is not in Britian, that free speech is mere hot air unless there is also a right to free flow of information. When The Sunday Times of London defeated the government's attempt to suppress the cabinet diaries of Richard Crossman, I could wish it had been with less reluctance from the lord chief justice and more with the ringing words of Judge Gurfetn that "a cantankerous press, and abstinate press, an ubiquitous press mut be suffered by those in authority. In order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know. . . ."

There will be many an echo of the words eitcited by The Times , its lawyers and editors. It is achievment enough. Salisbury and his blurb writers unhappily stray into condescending hyperbole to the effect that The New York Times is the greatest and most responsible newspaper of the 20th century with the most esteem, the most influence, the most resources, the most hot coffee, etc., etc. There are several contenders for the title of world's greatest newspaper and they are not all in the United States. But, if not necessarily the best, the American press remains the freest in the world and what it does with that freedom matters intensely to those of us outside who argue for the banevolence of liberty. This book, for all its irritations, intensifies our admiration and quickens our expectations.