WATERGATE conditioned us to think the worst of the Nixon administration's morality, but Seymour Hersh's evidence and his indictment of Henry Kissinger break new ground in this astonishing book. Given Hersh's charges and Kissinger's power, the book's publication is doubtless only the first act. Recriminations, bitter exchanges, and a close checking of Hersh's sources and arguments will follow.

At critical points, those sources are people who have scores to settle with Kissinger. This does not mean they used Hersh, who is one of America's most acclaimed investigative reporters and the journalist who wrote the first account of the My Lai massacre. He interviewed too many persons, his instinct for fraud is too well developed, and information on the years 1968 to 1973 is too plentiful for that to occur. But it is important to point out that key sources for Kissinger's alleged double-dealing in the 1968 campaign-- when he helped Nixon, while simultaneously volunteering his services to Humphrey--were Richard Allen (whom Kissinger unceremoniously dumped from his National Security Council staff in 1969), Zbigniew Brzezinski (who has been dueling Kissinger since their competition at Harvard in the 1950s ended in the latter's favor), and John Mitchell (whose demeanor seemed to change after he went to jail for Nixon's crimes and others did not). Had Roger Morris, a former Kissinger aide and now bitterly critical, not been available, the book would have been considerably shorter, especially in the sections where Hersh details the bloodletting that went on among the NSC staff. For a man noted for the jealousy with which he guards both his reputation and the record of his accomplishments, Kissinger has left in his wake an amazing number of disaffected former associates who still have their tongues. Hersh has apparently found them all.

Two bookend episodes reveal the tone of this extraordinary book. During mid-September 1968, Kissinger refused to join Nixon's election campaign but, according to Hersh, privately agreed to pass secret information to Nixon from the Paris talks where Lyndon Johnson was trying to end the Vietnam war. Nixon welcomed the intelligence. He feared a peace could elect Vice President Hubert Humphrey. With Kissinger's surreptitious help, Nixon moved to undermine the talks. But at the same time, Kissinger also brightened his prospects for future employment by volunteering his help to Humphrey, adding the assurance, "I've hated Nixon for years."

The scene switches to the autumn of 1972. An embattled Kissinger, now Nixon's national security adviser, is in Saigon desperately trying to rescue his reputation by negotiating an end to a seemingly endless war. The president's private polls, however, show that peace could tarnish Nixon's tough-guy image and re-election chances. Alexander Haig, Kissinger's top aide, funnels information to the president to help Nixon short-circuit Kissinger's efforts. "In his treachery," Hersh observes, Haig "was doing no more to Kissinger . . . than Kissinger himself had done to Lyndon Johnson in 1968."

The accounts of these two affairs and 600 similar pages between make up Hersh's relation of the double-crosses, character assassinations, labyrinthine conspiracies, and just plain criminality that he believes formed an essential part of American foreign policy in the Nixon years. For the nostalgic, these were the halcyon years of d,etente, peace in Vietnam, the opening to China, and the apotheosis of Henry Kissinger. After more than a decade of research, Hersh sees those years quite differently. He repeatedly starts an episode by quoting directly from Kissinger's and Nixon's memoirs, and then marshals mind-boggling detail to conclude that those accounts are--to understate--misleading.

A major theme of the book is the duplicity of Nixon and Kissinger. Thus Hersh quotes Kissinger's memoirs berating antiwar activists for doubting that "their own government might be sincere." Hersh then traces how Nixon and Kissinger--while publicly saying they were de-escalating the conflict--secretly bombed Cambodia and considered plans to use tactical nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. Thus Hersh records how Nixon and Kissinger have consistently denied involvement in the overthrow (and consequent assassination) of Chile's left-wing President Salvador Allende in 1973, then gives evidence showing that Nixon ordered the CIA to "get rid of" Allende, worked with fanatic right-wing Chilean army officers to overthrow the Chilean leader, and allowed Kissinger to work as virtually the "Chilean desk officer" in handling daily decisions on the operation. Thus Hersh shows how deeply involved Kissinger was in the tapping of his closest aides' telephones even as he denied the involvement. He allowed the taps, Hersh believes, not only to show how tough he could be, but by tapping the phones of four Jews on his staff Kissinger "played to the anti-Semitism in the Oval Office."

The distinction is admittedly small, but Kissinger actually emerges from this book as a less disrespectable figure than either Nixon or Haig. Nixon is pictured as drunk at crucial moments, including the crisis that flashed when North Korea short down a U.S. plane. The uneasy partnership of these two complex men developed, Hersh comments, because "Nixon had a consuming need for flattery and Kissinger a consuming need to provide it." But Hersh leaves no doubt who was the senior partner: "Whatever Nixon believed, Kissinger soon found himself advocating."

As Hersh portrays him, Haig does not so much appear in this book as slither through it. Haig would have gladly played Iago if only either Nixon or Kissinger had been pure enough to be Othello. According to Hersh, Haig so avidly handled the messy details of wiretapping the other Kissinger aides that he "truly seemed to enjoy the snooping." Once Haig has a direct line to the Oval Office, says Hersh, Kissinger becomes the next victim, and despite the previous hundreds of pages detailing Kissinger's indiscretions, it takes a hard-hearted reader not to sympathize with him as he works for peace in Vietnam while the president and the faithful (to Nixon, for now) Haig work fervently to undercut his efforts.

Such vignettes are fascinating, but this book is more than a list of titillating anecdotes. These men, after all controlled the world's most awesome power. They used it, Hersh believes, to destroy parts of Southeast Asia and to bring the world dangerously close to nuclear conflict. Hersh is concerned how personal weaknesses lead to policy failures.

Hersh is extremely critical of Kissinger's conduct of the Vietnam negotiations. State and CIA knew the war could not be won. But Nixon disagreed. He and Kissinger quickly settled in 1969 "on the one overriding principle that would guide Vietnam policy for the next four years: South Vietnam must remain non-Communist forever." They would accomplish the impossible by bombing relentlessly. "Tell those sons of bitches," Nixon instructed Kissinger, "that the President is a madman and you don't know how to deal with him." The "madman's" first step in Indochina was secret, massive bombings of Cambodia, where the North Vietnamese had bases. Hersh adds to William Shawcross' standard account, Sideshow by indicating how Cambodian forces affiliated with the CIA and Green Berets helped overthrow the neutral Sihanouk regime. Hersh strongly implies that U.S. policy opened the way for the genocide that claimed millions in Cambodia after 1975.

Against the background of the Cambodian debacle, a farcical attempt to invade Laos, and antiwar marches at home, Kissinger began negotiations. Talks moved slowly until North Vietnam launched an offensive in 1972 just as Nixon prepareunts are--d to crown his career with the Moscow summit. Pleading that "somebody . . . use some imagination--like Patton," Nixon accelerated the bombing and mined key North Vietnamese ports used by Soviet and Chinese ships. The offensive stalled and Nixon scored in Moscow. But at that point, Hersh believes, Kissinger moved off increasingly on his own.

Believing a quick deal was imperative, he made key concessions that brought an agreement with the North. Nixon, however, no longer wanted to deal on Kissinger's terms. The president got his way when South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu rejected the treaty. With his reputation at stake, Kissinger, in an unbelievable bluff, told the world, "Peace is at hand." When the president considered using the most deadly bombing yet to cover his final retreat, Kissinger, according to Hersh, positioned himself to Nixon's right and urged him on. As for Thieu, Kissinger supposedly told aides, "We'll kill the son-of-a-bitch if we have to." He finally obtained Thieu's agreement by secretly assuring him that in any future crisis Washington would provide aid-- that is, more bombing. For these activities Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize.

At points the quantity as well as quality of Hersh's evidence needs examination. The existence of "a proposal to assassinate Allende" rests apparently on the testimony of only one, not unbiased, former NSC official. So does Nixon's dismissal of Africa in his contemptuous remark to Kissinger, "Let's leave the niggers to Bill (Rogers) and we'll take care of the rest of the world." Only one "eyewitness" is cited for Kissinger's remarkable outburst to his staff at the 1972 Vietnam talks: "You don't understand. I want to meet their (North Vietnam's) terms. . . . I want to end this before the election." The book is not footnoted; at times, Hersh includes long, usually quite fascinating notes at the bottom of a page, but these usually provide less the source of a statement than an explication of it. The "Notes" section at the end of the book only infrequently substantiates specific statements. It instead gives general sources for each chapter, and when indicating interviews tells more about where they were held than the interviewer's revelations on a point-by-point basis.

Hersh says Nixon and Kissinger refused his repeated requests for interviews. Nixon's refusal is understandable. If as president he so hated confrontation that he had to talk with one of his closest personal friends, Secretary of State William Rogers, through H.R. Haldeman, Nixon presumably would not want to go one-on- one with Hersh. It certainly would not have been like a discussion with David Frost. Kissinger's reluctance is more difficult to fathom. Ever since 1973, when according to his friends, Hersh believed Kissinger did not tell the full truth about his role in the wiretaps or the overthrow of Allende, the journalist has published pieces of his counterevidence in The New York Times and elsewhere. Others of his discoveries have quickly circulated more informally at think-tank seminars. Hersh's general arguments were known, and the only way Kissinger could have neutralized the damning stories was to offer Hersh opposing evidence, deny them to him directly, or wait and launch a public broadside on Hersh's facts and motives. He did not, unfortunately, choose the first two alternatives.

A public attack by Kissinger on the book now has its dangers. A separate, detailed response will mostly interest a few experts and their graduate students. Nor will such an attack be easy to launch successfully. Hersh's strengths are his awesome thoroughness in exhausting valuable but overlooked secondary sources, and the energy he has devoted to declassifying top secret documents. His account of SALT, for example, profits from an intelligent mining of negotiator Gerard Smith's memoirs, Doubletalk: The Story of the First Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Most of the facts about the Allende episode were revealed eight years ago in ts are--Senate hearings and then the book, The United States and Chile by James Petras and Morris Morley. Hersh adds fresh details and an emphasis on possible assassination plans, but he draws conclusions very carefully: "Just who was responsible for what" in the killing of Allende "is impossible to determine." Specialists who begin by checking Hersh's evidence will probably end by learning from him how to locate sources, and the strength of important parts of the account rests on Hersh's ability to provide several witnesses to a key event.

Hersh does make mistakes. He twice uses Enver Hoxha, the Stalin of Albania, as a spokesman for "the Communist world," when Hoxha might not even represent a majority of Albanians. Hersh denies Kissinger's belief that State Department China experts tried to frustrate the White House plan for a quick approach to Peking and then, two pages later, acknowledges the experts dragged their feet by arguing for a Chinese "unilateral gesture of good will" before any high-level visit. Kissinger's secrecy in that affair becomes more understandable. Most dramatic is Hersh's claim that Nixon and Kissinger believed they could keep South Vietnam forever non-communist. The direct evidence for this allegation is slight. Hersh indeed soon shows convincingly that the ensuing bombing plans aimed less at saving Vietnam than saving Nixon's election chances in 1972. So did the timing of U.S. troop withdrawals.

It is not difficult to list names of people who will identify these and other problems in the book. But Hersh might be surprised by some who like it. Right-wing critics have long accused Kissinger of being soft on communism and having too Spenglerian a view of America's future. They also thought he was too clever by half in covering his tracks by manipulating the media. Hersh provides ammunition for all these assaults. His accounts of SALT and the Vietnam negotiations reveal Kissinger to be confused and finally prepared to make major concessions for more abstract gains (for instance, American wheat for Soviet pledges of good behavior). His telling of how Nixon and Kissinger were prepared to isolate Taiwan in order to gain an audience with Mao Tse-tung is almost enough to resurrect the old China Lobby. Kissinger's urgency in pursuing peace in 1972 over Nixon's objections indicates his realization that time was no longer in America's favor. Again, Hersh's sources shape such stories. For example, John D. Negroponte, then a Foreign Service officer and now President Reagan's war-fighting ambassador to Honduras, apparently talked at length about Kissinger's mishandling of the Vietnam talks. As for the press, Hersh emphasizes how Kissinger protected himself by manipulating the media's might. He says Kissinger leaked self-serving material to Marvin Kalb (and then played to Nixon's prejudices by telling him that Kalb was "an agent of the Romanian government"). Hersh believes Kissinger particularly used James Reston and Joseph Alsop during 1972-73. "The routine resembled an implicit shakedown scheme, in which reporters who got inside information in turn protected Kissinger by not divulging either the full consequences of his acts or his own connection to them."

But conservative Kissinger-haters should pause before making this book their own. Hersh never attacks d,etente, the Vietnam peace, the plan to isolate Taiwan, or the SALT objectives. He condemns the duplicity, secretiveness, confusion, and outright fantasies that corrupted those policies and--in the cases of d,etente and SALT--left a legacy that distorts and infects policy and discourse a decade later. Kissinger's and Nixon's errors benefited those who put Reagan in power, and for those mistakes, as well as for the damage done to the democratic process, Hersh will not forgive the two men.

In the end this book is concerned with more than anecdotes or Kissinger's reputation. The concern appears vividly when Hersh repeats Kissinger's oft-declared assertion that if Watergate had not intervenere--d, he and Nixon could have saved South Vietnam. Hersh ridicules that claim, but then focuses on "the basic vulnerability of their policy: "They were operating . . . among a citizenry who held their leaders to a responsible standard of morality and integrity." For millions of Asians and thousands of Americans that standard was raised too late. This extraordinary account explains how the corruption of the political process can lead to such tragedies.