IN HIS PREFACE, George Ball says a memoir "is by definition an exercise in self-indulgence." As a preeminent and experienced conceptual thinker, an architect and practitioner of American foreign policy, he can be excused if his own memoirs show some evidence of self-indulgence. The Past Has Another Pattern is much more; it is important reading both for the historian and the general public. George Ball has something to say, and as usual, he says it well, forcefully, provocatively, and with disarming certitude.

His book strikes me as a serious attempt, masked frequently by his sparkling and biting wit, to give some meaning to the last 50 years and to pose some trenchant questions regarding the future. The theme is found in the few lines from T.S. Eliot that set the stage for the recollections, evaluations, and candid personality vignettes that follow:

"It seems, as one becomes older,

That the past has another pattern, and ceases to

be a mere sequence--

Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy,

Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,

Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning

the past.

The moments of happiness--not the sense of well- being,

Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection,

Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination--

We had the experience but missed the meaning. . . ."

We see both the personal and professional George Ball, the urbane man of all seasons, of catholic interests --the George Ball who pulls no punches. It is a highly personal account, sentimental in part as it should be, but with its Socratic discourses.

He describes his early days in Washington, during the depression, with his wife Ruth, his initial experience in organizing a general counsel's office in the Farm Credit Administration. Later during World War II he helped shape Lend-Lease policy and was a member of the Air Force Evaluation Board, which brought him to Europe and, after Germany's surrender, into meetings with Albert Speer, the czar of Nazi war production. In the post- war period Ball was involved with Jean Monnet and worked hard to realize his lifetime belief that Western Europe's capacity for common action was and is today essential to a stable world.

He helped launch Adlai Stevenson in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1956. In describing what he liked about Adlai, we learn much about Ball himself. Of Adlai he says, "His greatest charm was his tolerant view of the world as essentially a comic theater, and he displayed a cynical irreverence."

For Ball, the six years he served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were the best. Starting out as under secretary for economic affairs, he soon demonstrated abilities as a strategist, technician, and crisis manager that made him a natural to succeed Chester Bowles as under secretary of state. When George Ball took on a new key foreign policy issue, he didn't just examine it, but turned it upside down and inside out. A disciplined, rigorous assessment was Ball's trademark. Increasingly his responsibilities in the State Department were broadened by Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

The most dramatic part of the book details George Ball's now well-known role as in-house dissenter, along with the lesser-known role of Arthur Goldberg, on Vietnam. I found nothing essentially new in his presentation, but that is perhaps because I had occasional firsthand glimpses of it as he tried out his "latest paper" on Vietnam on a number of us in whom he had some confidence. Most of the main policy participants, despite different views, will probably judge his account as fair. However, these chapters will give many future historians much to ponder. Many are still groping for some balanced judgment of the searing Vietnam experience, the residue of which continues to plague us.

For those who worked with Rusk and Ball, it seemed that they made a good team despite contrasting personalities and some policy differences, particularly on Vietnam. I continued to be amazed at how stoically and with dignity Rusk permitted his principal deputy to put forward dissenting views. Throughout, they retained respect and affection for one another.

In his memoir Ball is unflinching in posing the hard questions about Vietnam. Calling our involvement an unnecessary tragedy, he asks: "Were our leaders really thinking about the reputation of our nation or primarily of their own place in history? . . . If our Vietnam involvement taught us anything, it is that we should beware of untested assumptions. . . . Today I continue to be preoccupied with the concern that has haunted me for a decade: Will historians, assessing what has happened, quote from T.S. Eliot's Dry Salvages as I have for the title of this book? Will they note the poet's poignant lament: 'We had the experience but missed the meaning'?"

This is also a book of heroes and some villains. Some of the more choice items are these:

Albert Speer: "I knew I should feel repelled by Speer because his willing association with the filthy thugs marked him as a man who had touched evil; yet try as I might, I could not sustain that mood. Speer was not at all in the mold of the brutal Nazi; instead--and this is what made my relatively tolerant attitude toward him inexcusable--he seemed, to use Noel Coward's derisive phrase, 'like us.' "

Jean Monnet and de Gaulle compared: "I saw de Gaulle as a twentieth century Don Quixote, seeking to preserve old forms and restore old patterns. He left little in concrete form." Monnet was "a twentieth century man." He was "a superlative architect, his place in history will not prove evanescent."

J.F. Kennedy: "He was the pragmatist par excellence . . . intellectually alert and quick to understand. . . . He was not . . . profound in either his analyses or his judgment."

Dean Rusk: "My self-contained leader . . . thoughtful and reserved, he possessed a quiet humor, enormous moral resources, and had a deep commitment to strongly held ideas and principles."

McGeorge Bundy: "Because of . . . his devotion to ideas, his loyalty to the President, his sense of fair play, and his recognition of the primacy of the Secretary of State . . . he played a strong hand in formulating our foreign policy."

Lyndon B. Johnson: ". . . remarkably effective man with extraordinary shrewdness, phenomenal driving force, and implacable will."

Nixon and Kissinger: "Nixon's mistakes were concealed under a B,ernaise of Kissingerian abstractions."

This memoir does not limit itself to the past, despite Ball's opening observation that writing a memoir implies some ackowledgement of fading ambition. Ball recalls a story about Bertrand Russell, who, when urged in his eighties to write his memoirs replied, "Who can say that it's not premature? Some day I may be President of Mexico."

"Well I have looked out across the Rio Grande," Ball says, "without seeing a single favorable whiff of smoke, so I am now reconciled. I know I shall not be President of Mexico." This is a sad statement, for George Ball wanted to be secretary of state.

Nevertheless, George Ball will never be a mere bystander. And he gives full evidence of his continuing robust outlook in his concluding chapter, expressing some foreboding over the current mood in the world, the baleful mark of the Vietnam experience on American life, the end of a period of American innocence, and his conviction of the need for a fresh approach. He calls for a calmer U.S. posture towards the U.S.S.R. and for concrete discussions on basic issues of mutual survival based on the recognition there is no such thing as winning a nuclear war. He calls for drastically reduced nuclear arsenals, for arms negotiations before, not after, new weapons systems are created. He is clearly on the side of those calling for a "no first use" declaration. He pleads for restoring wise judgment, constancy, and comprehension to American policy as the best way to correct Europe's alienation from the United States. And for a bit he also turns philosopher and social critic as he confirms his belief in the unity of the family and decries the fading religious convictions of modern society.

But through it all, George Ball retains "a reasoned optimism" as the only "acceptable working hypothesis for self-respecting men and women." "Looking ahead," he says, is "exhilarating." I hope George Ball is around for a long, long time. under Secretary of State George Ball with Robert McNamara at a Pentagon briefing on February 7, 1965. AP