A STATESMAN'S MEMOIRS make special claims. They purport to give us the inside story of great events, to reveal the personalities behind deceptively bland communiquers, and almost inevibably they extol the role of the author in those events. Charles Yost, though a very distinquished American diplomat who has served as ambassador to three countries as well as to the United Nations, is not that kind of man and has not written that kind of book.

Instead he has produced a remarkably thoughtful work of which the rather drab title, History and Memory , gives only a hint. In fact there is not much in the way of memory, beyond the charming first chapter in which the author recounts his student life in Paris in the late 1920s when he danced all night in a burlap sack at the "Quatz" Arts ball, watched Stravinsky direct his Histoire du soldat and Ravel conduct the first performance of Bolero , saw Serge Lifar dance in Diaghilev's Prodigal Son and Poincare and Briande debate at the National Assembly, and then went off for a wanderjahr that took him from Granada to Leningard and Istanbul. Unfortunately Yost cuts these pages short in order to get into the real substance of his book.

What is that substance? Well, not exactly history, although there is a good deal of that, so much as a meditation on the events of his time. That, too, of course, is history, but of a very special sort. For what Yost has done is to use the events of the relatively recent past to understand why this century has turned into such a calamitous time, to determine, in his words, "where we and our fathers went wrong, how and why we brought upon ourselves these catastrophes, all of which were avoidable." And catastrophes they undoubtedly have been: two cataclysmic world wars, genocide, exhaustion of natural resources, asphyxiation by overpopulation, and the specter of nuclear annihilation.

Those expecting the traditional stuff of memoirs, autobiography laced with self-justification, will be surprised and perhaps initially disappointed. Charles Yost is not interested in telling the story of his life, and even less in defending his part in the great events he witnessed -- such as the Potsdam and San Francisco conferences -- or in which he participated as a high government official. I, for one, would have liked him to have been less self-effacing, for what does emerge form the few glimpses we are allowed is a man of sensitivity and intelligence who also has the rare qualities of modesty and practicality.

Instead of a memoir he has written a highly personal capsule history of the 20th century. This is a big order for a medium-sized book which also tries to do a number of other things, such as suggesting how to make sense of the current mess and how we might even hope to emerge from it with our civilization intact. It is a tribute to Yost's scholarship and his wonderfully lucid literary style that he pulls this feat off with distinction. It is not easy to write modern history and sound original, nor to diagnose the current malaise and not sound preachy. But Yost does both, and the result is a book that, while not telling us anything new, illuminates the past in a way that helps shed light on the present.

The theme that runs through his survey is that people learn little from history, or that they learn the wrong things. In his discussion of the Soviet revolution he quotes Marx's famous dictum: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighl like a nightmare on the brain of the living." It is a judgment that applies to all societies, even though few, our own included, are willing to admit it. Yost provides ample evidence.

In doing so he is not reluctant to express his own opinions. He believes that FDR. whom he much admires, made a mistake in not pressing Stalin for firm postwar commitments early in the war, that the Yalta settlement was realistic, that the cold war could not have been prevented despite American insensitivity to Russia's security anxieties, that the United States exaggerated Soviet and Chinese objectives in Korea, and that American officials have persistently misread Soviet intentions.

He is particularly critical of the covert intelligence apparatus, which he believes has produced little that could not be gleaned from an intelligent reading of newspapers. The problem with intelligence gathering, he points out, is that the agencies tend to report what they think the policy-makers want to hear, and that the policy/makers will listen only to what they are predisposed to believe. The Vietnam war is one example. Fear that the Soviets might be tempted to launch a nuclear first strike or to invade western Europe is another. "Whether or not the Soviets have or will have the capability to make these moves, which is dubious," he writes, "there is hardly a shred of evidence from any sort of 'intelligence,' covert or overt, that they have ever had the slightest intention of doing either."

With regard to the Soviets, Yost asks us to look at the history of invasions of their homeland, at their current enemies in both the East and the West, at their restive and unreliable satellites, at their technological backwardness, and at their persistent failures in the Third World. "This military bias in national priorities does not necessarily reflect aggressive intentions," he suggests, but rather "on the one hand, a national psychosis and, on the other, real vulnerabilities."

There is a good deal of this, and more, in a book that manages to be both provocative and informative, which ranges from a discussion of military balances to the impact of scientific revolution on human consciousness, from moods of alienation to the periodic crises of representative democracy. Though Yost's prescriptions seem a bit of an anticlimax, he has done a splendid job of illumination.

My complaints are two. First, that he stands too far back. There are a number of cases in which he describes events -- for example, the State Department's reaction to the invasion of South Korea -- as a historian looking at yellowed documents rather than as one who could tell us how it seemed from the inside. Second, the book has been stingily produced. It is replete with errors that a good copy editor should have caught; for example, at the top of 12 succeeding pages, the title of Chapter 3 is misprinted as "Course and Consequences of World World I." The book lacks adequate footnotes, though it has numerous quotations one would like to be able to track down. This is false economy, which is all the more glaring because of the high quality of the prose and the analysis.