WHEN JUAN DOMINGO PERON became the dominant political figure in Argentina at the end of the Second World War his followers made social justice their flag, while his opponents insisted on preserving civic freedoms and institutional autonomies. From this perspective it can be said that Per,on divided justice in Argentina. But Coronel Peron did more than that: in three short critical years he created a new political order.

Soon after the coup of June 1943, Per,on, highlighting and solving social problems with the power granted to him by the military government he so deeply influenced, astutely aligned the army, labor and nascent industrial interests. In 1946 Peron then beat an alliance of the traditional parties and legitimately obtained the presidency. Despite revolutions and proscriptions he has dominated Argentine electoral politics ever since. (Next October 30, eight years after Per,on's death and 37 years after his first electoral victory, Argentines will go to the polls and as in 1946, whether they admit it or not, most will vote as Per,onists or anti-Per,onists.)

Joseph A. Page's extensively documented political biography of Per,on is a valiant, though I believe unsuccessful, attempt to come to terms with this most controversial, confusing and brilliant of Argentina's military/politicians. Page--who teaches at Georgetown University Law School and is the author of The Revolution That Never Was (northeast Brazil 1955-1964)-- has labored under two handicaps: many facts about Per,on's life are not yet available and Page himself is not professionally equipped to go into depth about the history and culture of Argentina. Page's account of Per,on's early life and family background examines familiar speculations in the light of a few known facts and arrives at no firm conclusions. The author also reports on a trip he took to Per,on's native town of Lobos in 1980. But Page does not provide a cultural and historical setting for the Argentina of 1895 when Per,on was born; nor does he describe the Argentina of 1911 when Per,on entered the military academy.

A lot was happening in the country in and around the turn of the century: there was almost a war with Chile; a revolution failed in 1905; 1910 had been the year of the Argentine centennial; it was a time of immigration, large investments and big speculative profits. Argentina was a far more vibrant and optimistic place than it is now. This is the milieu in which Peron was growing up. How did he, and others like him, interact with it? Well researched speculative answers to these questions would add to our knowledge.

The exclusively military part of Per,on's life might provide clues to the development of Per,on's thinking and the manner in which he identified problems in his political years. For example, Per,on's military studies and writings, and his travels in Patagonia and Chile, signal his abiding concern with geopolitics. This interest was carried over into the foreign policy of his first presidency when important emphasis was given to Argentina's territorial claims. Naval incidents with Great Britain followed in the '40s and the course was set for an eventual conflict with Great Britain over the South Atlantic. Page does not explore in depth Per,on's intellectual development; though he does gloss a few critical comments about Per,on's academic accomplishments that he finds in military records.

Page is at his best when he describes how coronel Per,on manipulated the army in 1944 and, at the same time, established an independent power base with the labor unions. Certainly these end-of-the-war years were a period of confusion in Argentina, and Per,on took advantage of that confusion to forge a tacit alliance between labor and the armed forces. He also foiled attempts by his service rivals to recreate the understanding that had existed between the armed forces and traditional sectors of Argentine society.

As a tactician, and Page mentions this quality many times, Per,on was a master of ambiguity. His strategy to achieve his political goals had been simple and direct like his speeches. In 1946 when Per,on became president he was a large, handsome man with a winsome smile and a facile and comfortable manner that could put even those who disliked him at their ease. He was a great communicator.

Page discusses how Per,on overcame institutional opposition in his first presidency. The president did not compromise. Per,on would put an offending institution into "lockstep" or what the Germans had called Gleichschaltung. In this way his party, unions, universities, the supreme court, and the constitution were all "Per,onized."

Page believes that "Per,onism was not a criollo variant of Italian-style totalitarianism," and he argues unconvincingly that the opposition often unduly provoked the Peronists. For example, legislators of the Radical Party, because they "compounded their principled opposition with intractability, frustration and intellectual snobbery" in part contributed to the fate that they endured. In general, Page has little regard for the motivation and the manner of anti-Per,onists. I believe that this is the most serious error of evalution that Page makes in his biography and it has many ramifications.

What sometimes disguises the totalitarian strains of Per,on's first presidencies is not Per,on's popularity-- Hitler was popular and so was Mussolini--but the perception that the basic commitment of Per,onism is to social justice. This is expressed especially through the cult of Eva Per,on. Page's two chapters on Per,on's wife are among the best in the book.

But this commitment was compatible with the use of right-wing totalitarian methods to govern Argentina. In fact it might be said: Per,onism made totalitarianism work by enforcing redistributive policies. This then is the dilemma that Per,on presented the Argentine people: an apparent choice between social justice and freedom.

In the most poignant paragraph of this biography Page quotes Argentine author Ernesto S,abato's description of his elation over the victory of the anti-Per,onist revolution of 1955, a feeling that S,abato tempers when he spies in the corner of a kitchen two old women.

"That September night in 1955, while we doctors, farm-owners and writers were noisily rejoicing in the living room over the fall of the tyrant, in a corner of the kitchen I saw how two Indian women who worked there had their eyes drenched with tears. And although in all those years I had meditated on the tragic duality that divided the Argentine people, at that moment it appeared to me in its most moving form."