THE CONGO CABLES by Madeleine Kalb opens--and unfolds--like a good, feet-in-front-of-the-fireplace, suspense thriller:

"On September 19, 1960 the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Leopoldville, capital of the newly independent Republic of the Congo received an unusual message from his superiors in Washington via a special top secret channel. Someone from headquarters . . . would be arriving in about a week with instructions for an urgent mission. . . . He proved to be the CIA's top scientist and he came equipped with a kit containing an exotic poison designed to produce a fatal disease indigenous to the area. He informed the station chief that the lethal substance was meant for Patrice Lumumba, the recently ousted pro-Soviet prime minister of the Congo, who was trying to return to power. The poison, the scientist said, was somehow to be slipped into Lumumba's food--or even his toothpaste."

The story of the early years of Congo independence, from 1960 to 1963, has never been told with such energy and elegance. While the analysis at the end is disappointingly weak, Kalb makes an important contribution by writing from the vantage points of three major outside actors--the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations--and by putting the Congo story in the broader context of superpower rivalry over Berlin, Cuba, and the emerging nations of the Third World.

Most of the detail has appeared elsewhere, mainly as bits and pieces in scattered places. Participants from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations have published memoirs, as have U.N. officials who were in charge of the Congo operation. New facts were uncovered by the Senate Intelligence Committee's 1976 report on CIA abuses. To these accounts, Kalb, a specialist in U.S.-Russian relations, adds the views of Soviet leaders, meticulously recorded when she lived in Moscow during the critical years of 1960-63.

With great narrative power, she gathers the separate accounts into one coherent story.

On June 30, 1960, the Belgian Congo was granted independence, and Patrice Lumumba became its first prime minister. Within days, the country slid into chaos as Congolese troops mutinied and Belgium supported the secession of Katanga province, where a Belgian corporation had enormous holdings of copper and cobalt mines. Lumumba asked the United States and the United Nations for help. The United States declined to act alone but agreed to sponsor a U.N. peacekeeping mission. Before U.N. troops arrived, Lumumba appealed to Krushchev for Soviet aid to end "Belgian aggression."

The stage was now set for the first major cold war battle for dominance in Africa. Here are the players and their roles:

Under Eisenhower, the United States has two major objectives: To replace Lumumba (who is viewed as "an African Castro") with staunch pro-Westerners and to interfere as little as possible with Belgium in Katanga. Krushchev's aims--to keep Lumumba in power and to expel the Belgians entirely--are diametrically opposed. The United Nations tries to appear as a disinterested referee, while leaning toward the Americans. It refuses Lumumba's pleas to retake Katanga and stands by in September 1960 when Joseph Kasavubu, the Congo's pro-Western president, dismisses Lumumba from his post. Enraged, Krushchev attacks U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and tries to replace him with a troika of three officials, drawn from the East, the West, and the Third World.

On the eve of Kennedy's inauguration, Lumumba dies under circumstances not yet fully explained. Influenced by liberals like Adlai Stevenson and Chester Bowles, the new administration shifts U.S. policy. A broad-based coalition government, including Lumumba supporters, is now deemed acceptable, and diplomatic pressure is applied to end the Katanga secession. In July 1961, the Congolese parliament meets to choose a new prime minister. U.S. and Soviet agents engage in intense competition to influence the outcome. According to a later New York Times account, the Soviets are "outbid where they could not be outmaneuvered," as the parliament names the U.S. choice, Cyril Adoula, to succeed Lumumba.

Over the next 18 months, diplomatic pressure fails to bring Katanga back into the fold. Its leader Moise Tshombe, backed by Belgian industrialists and foreign mercenaries, plays an elaborate delaying game. Not until December 1962, with the Adoula government about to fall, does a reluctant United States agree to the use of a U.N. military force to re-unite the Congo.

For connective tissue, Kalb uses the "Congo cables," over 2,500 formerly classified U.S. government messages and memoranda, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The declassified cables, themselves, contain no surprises. They do provide new details about decision-making inside the U.S. Government. For example, President Kennedy, whose instinct was to press hard for an end to the Katanga secession, was convinced to hold back at times by the British Ambassador David Ormsby-Gore. We also learn new uses for American foreign aid. In 1962, Adoula is trying to negotiate an end to secession with Katanga leader Tshombe, who guzzles whiskey continuously as they talk. When Adoula's stocks run dry, Tshombe threatens to walk out. Only a last-minute re-supply effort by the U.S. embassy keeps the talks going.

That CIA poison les.