NATIONALISM and internationalism, war and peace, cynicism and idealism were curiously intertwined in the 1930s, the decade before the entire world would be engulfed in a brutal conflict. After the tragedy of the First World War, there had been determination everywhere to overcome national egoisms through international organization and pacifism. At the same time, the Depression, the rise of Nazism, the German-Soviet nonaggression pact -- these developments of the 1930s indicated a contradictory trend, toward the growth of state power, nationalistic economic planning, and Machiavellian diplomacy unprecedented in modern history.

It must have been terribly difficult in these circumstances to maintain a sense of certitude and to feel that one correctly understood the direction in which history was moving. Richard Sorge may have been one of the few exceptions.

Born of a German father and a Russian mother, Sorge belonged to the generation of Europeans who experienced at first hand the horrors of the World War and who fell under the spell of the Communist International and the Soviet Union. They seemed to represent an alternative to the traditional state system that had produced misery at home and aggression abroad. To work for a better world, Sorge and many of his contemporaries convinced themselves that they should identify with the aims and activities of the Comintern and the new Bolshevik regime. Since the latter was by definition antitraditionalist, it followed that to work for it was to work for justice and peace.

There were many ways of doing so, and in Sorge's case it was through recruitment by the Fourth (Intelligence) Department of the Red Army. Between 1933 and his arrest in 1941, just prior to Pearl Harbor, he was stationed in Japan and, through the collaboration of several European and Japanese assistants, collected and forwarded to Moscow mountains of data on Japanese foreign policy and military dispositions. He was spectacularly successful as he befriended German embassy officials in Tokyo, including Eugen Ott, the military attache who became ambassador in 1938. Sorge's chief Japanese collaborator, Ozaki Hotsumi, likewise penetrated the highest reaches of his nation's government. Both Sorge and Ozaki ultimately paid for their successes by being arrested and executed. Their deaths by hanging took place in 1944, nine months before the end of the war.

THUS THE STORY of the Sorge spy ring is very much part of the history of international relations in the 1930s that culminated in the Second World War. The ring's cardinal objective was to ensure the survival and growth of Soviet power. Sorge and his aides were fearful of a two-front war against Russia waged simultaneously by Germany and Japan, and in order to prevent such a calamity, they not only forwarded the relevant military information they could lay their hands on, but also tried to persuade German and Japanese high officials that it would be in those nations' best interests if Japan reoriented its strategy away from the north to the south, in the direction of Southeast Asia. Japan's "southern strategy" would embroil it in conflict with Britain and the United States, just the thing that would benefit the Soviet Union.

Of course, Japan's decision to go to war against Britain and America, and not against Russia, would have been made even if Sorge and Ozaki had never existed. Just because they worked hard to prevent a Russian-Japanese war, it does not follow that they were "martyrs in the cause of peace," as the Soviet government and their Japanese admirers have maintained. Still, nearly 50 years since the tumultuous 1930s, it is possible today to appreciate Sorge, Ozaki, and their coworkers for the consistency and courage, if not the naivet,e, of their convictions. It was their tragedy that while they truly believed the Soviet Union would put an end to the traditional state system, it was actually developing into an even more monstrous, totalitarian state.

The Sorge episode has been written about by a number of eyewitnesses, journalists, and scholars. Among the latter, Chalmers Johnson, William Deakin, and Richard Storry have given reliable, well-researched accounts. This book, by the late Gordon Prange, adds little to what is already known. Like his majestic study of the Pearl Harbor attack -- At Dawn We Slept -- which was also published posthumously, the book is presented as a human drama in which the author vividly portrays personal idiosyncrasies as well as ideas and activities of the protagonists. It makes fascinating reading.

Unfortunately, unlike the earlier book, this one is marred by simple factual mistakes and superficial generalizations.

The author's research appears to have been limited to the reading of standard documents and some interviews he conducted almost 20 years ago. Because he did not read Japanese, he had to turn to Japanese assistants. But they do not seem to have served him well. There are literally scores of misspelled Japanese names. (To cite but one example, the head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's information department was Amo Eiji, not Amaha Tema as is given in the book, two wrong renderings of Chinese characters.) The author shows little awareness of recent scholarly writings on prewar Japan, particularly on army factionalism and "Japanese fascism." More annoying are many generalized statements on Japan in which the book abounds. For instance, referring to Ozaki's execution on November 7, 1944, the Soviet Union's national holiday, the author says, "being typically Japanese," the reason for the choice of this date "might be difficult for a Westerner to understand and appreciate." In fact, Prange's very book is evidence that he understands and appreciates Japanese politics and culture quite well, though it also reveals that Sorge's understanding of Japan may have been even greater.