"PERHAPS it was my imagination," Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in introducing us to his central design as Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, "but in early 1980 I noted on several occasions that Carter seemed to resent my efforts to make him into a successful Truman rather than a Wilson."

This is a telling assessment of Carter's divided view of himself and of the world he confronted as president, and it recurs throughout this jolting account of an administration that started bright with promise and fresh idealism, but which came to be tarnished by confusion and conflict.

The Carter years were, in Brzezinski's view, a time that demanded the crude instinct of power and assertiveness that Harry Truman displayed in the presidency, not the self-defeating pursuit of high principle that Brzezinski attributes to Woodrow Wilson. Within Carter, both impulses struggled to dominate in "a conflict between his reason and his emotions" that left his advisers and allies uncertain what he would finally decide to do about Soviet expansionism, strategic arms negotiations, Iran and other major tests.

Brzezinski has authored a fast-paced, gossipy and occasionally malicious account of those years that sets new standards for indiscreet and combative descriptions of the policy process and its main players. Little more than a decade ago, such a kiss- and-tell volume on diplomacy and politics would have created a scandal in a more Establishmentarian Washington, as Roger Hilsman demonstrated in leaving the Johnson Administration to write about Vietnam. Today, the major question raised about Brzezinski's book has been whether it would beat books by Carter, Hamilton Jordan and Cyrus Vance into the stores. It is a product of a certain vulgarization of service in Washington created by a big- bucks celebrity syndrome of media/publishing competition and legitimized by Henry A. Kissinger's activities in the market place of ideas.

But it is undoubtedly Brzezinski's fascination with history's warts that imparts an excitement and authenticity to this book that the Carter and Jordan memoirs lack, at least for this reader, who first observed Brzezinski as a professor at Columbia University and helped cover him for this newspaper from mid-l978 to mid-1979. You know you are getting a whiff of what really happened, even if it is slanted in favor of the irrepressible, glib "Zbig," who takes an almost boyish pride in pointing to his own manipulations and dissembling as he seeks to move Carter and post-Vietnam America along a path of challenging the Soviet Union more directly.

Brzezinski's device of quoting at length from "journal" notes that he says were dictated at the end of the day during his tenure in the White House's West Wing heightens the tone of immediacy. Controversy and pique have not been air-brushed out in the retelling, and the notes do read as if they were composed at the time--with an eye to a big book later.

For, taken together, the notes and Brzezinski's added commentary inadvertently reveal several profound misunderstandings by its author that seriously distorted the policy process and its results. Perhaps the most fundamental are Brzezinski's repeated misreading of the strange, cold Georgian who defied all the odds to become president, and Brzezinski's narrow perspective on the American political system.

In contrast to the poison-tipped etchings of Secretary of State Vance and a number of his colleagues, Brzezinski is deferential and at times fulsome in his praise of Carter. Despite the disclaimers salted away throughout this volume and the publicity about his fights with Vance over policy toward the Soviet Union, the true target of these memoirs, intended or not, is Jimmy Carter.

In the 1976, Brzezinski signed on with Carter earlier than any other foreign policy expert and provided a Trialateralist prescription for Candidate Carter that appealed to his Wilsonian streak: closer collaboration among the advanced democracies, more cooperation with and aid to the less-developed nations and promotion of a more serious brand of d,etente. In power, Brzezinski moved off of the stated objective of asserting "the primacy of the moral dimension in foreign policy" much more quickly than did Carter or Vance, who continued to take the campaign goals seriously.

Brzezinski identifies five major turning points for the administration--U.S.- Soviet relations, the Middle East, Iran, China and the neutron bomb controversy. Carter at crucial moments "agreed cerebrally," Brzezinski writes of one case that can be applied generally, "but emotionally he thirsted for the Wilsonian mantle-- and this was sensed on the outside and generated the unfair but damaging charge of vacillation."

In fact, Brzezinski seriously underestimated Carter's deep concern about human rights and the revulsion created within him by nuclear weapons. The latter concern kept pulling the president back to supporting Vance's search for a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) despite Carter's growing acceptance of Brzezinski's demands for a tough line against the Russians. That concern also caused Carter to cancel production of the neutron bomb, telling a surprised and disgruntled Brzezinski that if he approved it, "his Administration would be stamped forever as the Administration which introduced bombs that kill people but leave buildings intact."

We can feel Brzezinski, the worldly wise son of a Polish diplomat, wince inwardly as he listens to Carter finish a toughly worded dressing down of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in a May 1978 meeting with an expression of a desire to meet Leonid Brezhnev soon to sign a SALT treaty, "throwing away some of the crediblity for the posture of toughness which he badly needed to convey." And he quotes with apparent approval a judgment by Jordan around the same time that "who the hell knows whether the President will not veer in some direction tomorrow or the day after tomorrow" in dealing with the Soviets.

Brzezinski sees an "excess of chivalry" in Carter's turning down his suggestion that they bug the Israeli and Egyptian cottages at the Camp David Summit. In the Iran crisis, Vance, his deputy Warren Christopher and Vice President Walter Mondale repeatedly "appealed to Carter's humane instincts" in opposing Brzezinski's flat recommendation that the United States should support and if necessary initiate a coup that could bring "a massive crackdown which will involve a lot of blood being spilled." (Brzezinski maintains that Carter finally agreed with him on that course of action and instructed the ambassador in Tehran, William Sullivan, to convey that agreement to the Shah. "Alas, nothing happened," Brzezinski records.)

In short, Brzezinski confirms in unequalled depth and rancor the administration's divisions, which he once denied even existed and which he continues in this book to say were gravely distorted by the press in general and The Washington Post in particular.

Evidently Vance represents for Brzezinski far more than a difficult debating partner or an allegedly weak- willed adversary in policy battles, as suggested in the press accounts of the time. Vance and Christopher were "American lawyers of liberal bent" who held "the quaint notion . . . that the remedy to (Iran's) revolutionary situation was to paste together a coalition of the contending parties." In dealing with the Russians, these same lawyers tended "to equate foreign policy with endless litigation and to confuse d,etente with acquiescence."

In fighting Vance, Brzezinski saw himself fighting a WASP elite whose vitality had been sapped by Vietnam and whose nerve in directing foreign policy had been shattered, an elite that speaks now with a maudlin and indecisive voice and vaunts diplomacy over national security concerns. Brzezinski's frustration boils over at his self-admitted inability to win Carter away from this elite, as when he recounts with barely disguised bitterness trying to reach Carter and Vance as Iran crumbles on a Sunday morning, only to be told they are at church together at Camp David.

Brzezinski vividly contrasts his own success in moving quickly to normalization of relations with China to Vance's failure to establish a working relationship with the Soviet Union. But in assigning so much credit to his tactics, he underestimates the most important factor: on China, Carter knew what he wanted and how to get it. With the Russians, that never seems to have been the case.

The other historical record that Brzezinski is at pains to establish is his own relative lack of involvement in charting Middle East policy. He is generous to Vance's tireless efforts there and succeeds, in my view, in countering the unjustified frequent allegation that the national security office directed a biased campaign to undermine Israel.

Like much of the coverage of foreign policy in the Carter years that he deplores, Brzezinski's book deals to a great extent in personalities.(He seems to acknowledge this at one point, noting that "Few people outside the government realize the extent to which policy is hammered out through bureaucratic and personal rivalries.") But it is difficult to assess immediately whether his sharp judgments on his colleagues will ultimately prove to be more damaging to them, or to him.

Walter Mondale, a man of "inner tension and insecurity," is portrayed as repeatedly toadying to domestic political interests and backing off of tough positions when a crunch comes. George Ball is a prevaricator, Helmut Schmidt a hypocrite and bully, Edmund Muskie a nonentity in the shaping of policy, and Admiral Stansfield Turner is not very smart, disliked and at times scorned by Carter. Ambassador Sullivan and Vance's Soviet expert, Marshall Shulman, skate on the edge of national treachery in Brzezinski's view.

Even minor characters "Zbig" praises are slipped poisoned bon-bons: Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin is quoted as denouncing a Soviet colleague and later telling Brzezinski that Brezhnev could never keep up with Carter in a direct discussion of SALT. In seeking to praise Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke's work on China, Brzezinski establishes that Holbrooke worked outside of Vance's control on the issue.

In the end, the book indirectly tells us a great deal more about Brzezinski than I suspect he suspects. That four years at the pinnacle of power leaves him without a single serious observation or comment to make on the role of Congress in foreign policy or with little to say on the institutional strains between the press and government suggests a narrow, overly manipulative understanding of the American political process.

The gradual alliance he forms with Hamilton Jordan and other domestic advisers to Carter is not described here in terms of the pulling and hauling of politics and policy, but almost always in terms of how Brzezinski works with those advisers to maneuver the president or other figures in the executive branch.

For Brzezinski does not come to his strong anti-communism through a standard conservative respect for the status quo and privilege. Nor is it a predictable reaction to Russian rule by an East European ,emigr,e. That is shown, I believe, by his quite serious argument here and elsewhere that America most move to "give order and stability to global change" that in the long run threatens us with global anarchy rather than Soviet domination.

Brzezinski is a cultural conservative, the descendent of an upper-class Polish family that has seen much of its civilization crushed under the boots first of the Nazis and then of the communists in this century. He responds with a sensibility that must resemble what ancient Greeks felt as the Romans imposed an empire on them, and what the Romans then experienced as the Goths destroyed their world. It is a conservatism that is not rooted in the American system or psyche, nor even in specifically American values. And it is a conservatism that a Georgia farmer had as much trouble understanding as the Polish academic had in understanding Jimmy Carter's deepest beliefs and aspirations.