NOT SINCE OUR helicopters left the roof of the American embassy in Saigon has the national disagreement over our role in the world been broader.

Forty years ago, a substantial group in this country envisioned a postwar world ordered around the beneficent sun of American strength and values. (The "American century" was originally coined by Henry Luce to argue specifically for American opposition to Nazism and Communism, but others applied the term more grandly.) To the opposition, this was simply a new imperialism with an American face. The 20th century, said Henry Wallace, "can be and must be the century of the common mn."

The hoary dialogue has its echo today. But for a generation that is more sophisticated in understanding the impact of process on policy, the central issue is the role of American institutions in translating national needs and motives into international behavior. President Reagan and his followers believe that the American foreign policy process has been crippled by the "Vietnam syndrome"--unwarranted guilt over American values and our recent world conduct that threatens to leave the nation a "pitiful, helpless giant." They wish to reverse the hostility toward the needs of American business that they have perceived in government, the media, and the academy in recent years. They are convinced that we must rearm. Although they differ over the implementation of these ideas, they generally agree--in the president's words--that "we did not seek the leadership of the Free World, but there is no one else who can provide it, and without our leadership, there will be no peace in the world."

It is difficult to conceive of an American intellectual more passionately or articulately opposed to the Reagan view of the world than Noam Chomsky. His perception of American foreign policy and its making is as opposed to the vision of the Reaganites as David Levine's world view is to Norman Rockwell's. Chomsky's is a portrait of corporate executives manipulating foreign policy for profit motives; of Third World peoples devastated for drifting away from the American "Grand Area" of influence; of handmaiden journalists, politicians, and intellectuals shrouding the darker realities of American statecraft under platitudes about idealism and goodwill with an eye toward assuring their flow of rewards from the Establishment.

Chomsky, the distinguished professor of linguistics at M.I.T., first gained world attention in the 1960s for his pathbreaking work demonstrating the innate capacity for language in human beings. A strenuous opponent of the Indochina war, he has in recent years written much on American politics and foreign relations. American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) was a searing criticism of the system of values and decision-making that drove the United States to the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Towards a New Cold War is also a text for its times. The book is based on lectures and articles apearing in such journals as Ramparts, The Nation, Social Policy, and Inquiry, as well as a host of foreign publications from 1973 to the present. Its heavily documented pages treat a range of issues from American involvement in East Timor and Latin America to Henry Kissinger's memoirs (which "give the impression of a middle-level manager who has learned to conceal vacuity with pretentious verbiage") to Israel and the Palestinians. But the volume's most persistent and pertinent contemporary message is Chomsky's warning against the effort, begun during the Carter administration and enlivened under Reagan, to overcome the Vietnam syndrome.

To Chomsky, the syndrome reflects "the reluctance on the part of large sectors of the population of the West to tolerate the programs of aggression, subversion, massacre, and brutal exploitation that constitute the actual historical experience of much of the Third World, faced with 'Western humanism.' In part as a consequence of the Indochina wars, dangerous feelings of sympathy for oppressed and suffering people developed in Western society. These had to be reversed and the image of Western benevolence restored, a difficult task, but one that was forthrightly addressed and carried out with great skill by the Western propaganda system."

Accepting this argument requires accepting Chomsky's description of the system that makes American foreign policy. He believes that our international relations are guided by "the primary commitment to improving the climate for business operations in a global system that is open to exploitation of human and material resources by those who dominate the domestic economy." This commitment is "portrayed as guided by the highest ideals and by deep concern for human welfare." The arrangement is mitigated somewhat by the impact of pressure groups and by conflicts between corporations and government institutions and between corporations themselves, Chomsky concedes, but these influences are only of the "second order" of magnitude.

The American foreign policy elite and its Soviet counterpart have a vested interest in maintaining hostility between the superpowers, Chomsky believes. He sees the Cold War system as "a macabre dance of death in which the rulers of the superpowers mobilize their own populations to support harsh and brutal measures directed against victims within what they take to be their respective domains, where they are 'protecting their legitimate interests.'"

This analysis is not unique among foreign policy thinkers, but Chomsky espouses it with a singular lack of ambivalence. He adduces example after example to illuminate how American policies have led knowingly to large-scale human suffering. He has read widely and commands an impressive array of evidence to show how American weapons were used by invading Indonesians, for instance, to slaughter one quarter of the population of East Timor. "The U.S. government has been backing the Indonesian military not because it takes pleasure in massacre and starvation, but because the fate of the Timorese is simply a matter of no significance when measured against higher goals. . . . Indonesia has been a valued ally. The military rulers have opened the country to Western plunder, hindered only by the rapacity and corruption of our friends in Jakarta. In this potentially rich country, much of the population has suffered enormously--even apart from huge massacres, which demonstrated proper anti-Communist credentials to an appreciative Western audience--as the country has been turned into a 'paradise for investors.'"

Vivid as these illustrations are, they have the paradoxical effect of weakening Chomsky's argument. The material presented in this volume is so overwhelmingly weighted toward an interpretation of American motives and actions as consistently evil that the author's credibility is diminished. Nor does he do much more than ask the reader to accept on faith that business exerts the influence on our foreign policy formulation that he insists it does. "We are dealing here with a form of taboo," he writes, "a deep-seated superstitious avoidance of some terrifying question: in this case, the question of how private economic power functions in American society." One wishes that Chomsky had attacked the terrifying question with the precision and detail that he employs to demonstrate American atrocities.

This book is an indictment of the American foreign policy process, but the author refrains from applying his formidable intellectual gifts to the problem of how to change the structure of decision-making. "The rivalries within the international system, the increasingly severe economic crisis, and the objective crisis over resources and destruction of the environment pose nontrivial problems for established power," Chomsky writes, "and create opportunities for those who are committed to a different vision of the future than the one put forth by its spokesmen. The drive towards intervention, militarization, increased authoritarianism, submissiveness to the doctrinal system, and possibly eventual nuclear destruction is the result of human decisions taken within human institutions that do not derive from natural law and can be changed by people who devote themselves to the search for justice and freedom." Still, aside from calling for increased popular participation in foreign policy decisions, Chomsky offers no systematic blueprint for the political action required to transform existing institutions.

Towards a New Cold War provides a useful counterweight to the most extreme advocates of an aggressive American foreign policy. The book is infused throughout with an admirable degree of moral passion, and it provides a public service in reminding Americans of the dark side of our international behavior. But the book shrinks from providing the greater contribution it might have made had Chomsky not only indicted the existing foreign policy establishment but also shown citizens committed to his different vision of the future how they might work to remake it.