BLACK EAGLE; General Daniel 'Chappie' James, Jr. By James R. McGovern. University of Alabama Press. 204 pp. $22.50.

GENERAL Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. was both a genuine American hero and a self- made man. Born in 1920, the youngest of 17 children in a family struggling against poverty and prejudice, he rose to the rank of four-star general in the Air Force, a warrior and leader of immense skills, an articulate and effective exponent of American ideals and an intimate associate of his country's political and military elite.

But this recital omits the crucial ingredient: Chappie James was a black man.

Race has always counted in America, rarely more so than in the South of James' formative years, and any assessment of his rise to eminence must take his blackness into account. It is a telling feture of American history that no black man's success story can be considered solely as a personal experience, but must always be appreciated for its larger social implications.

This is precisely what James McGovern sets out to do in this accurate and generally perceptive study. Depending on the best secondary sources and a host of interviews, he draws a portrait of a complex man whose outsized zest for life and friendship was matched by a consuming and lonely ambition to succeed. In James' remarkable career these attributes never seemed in conflict, but actually complemented one another.

There was, of course, supporting all the rest, the brave, resourceful fighter pilot with the inevitable social accoutrements, the gin, the music and the pretty ladies. There was also the energizing leader with the gift for personalizing relations with both subordinates and superiors, always sensitive to their needs and feelings. And there was the senior commander, deftly handling international crises, not so much on the basis of formal training but an innate understanding of human motives and vast personal charm.

But skill gets you only so far in the military, and none flies as high as James without a singleness of purpose and a good measure of political deftness. James, as McGovern clearly demonstrates, was an extraordinarily ambitious officer who could maneuver politically with the best. In fact, James never tried to hide his ambition, which must have sounded pretty foolish in 1946. "I am staying in," he told his comrades in the segregated 477th Bombardment Group, "and I expect to make general."

IT TOOK HIM 24 years. There is an interesting picture in Defense Department files that shows James receiving his first star from Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. Everyone is laughing with good will, none more so than L. Mendel Rivers, defender of the old order but also chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a power to be reckoned with in the Pentagon. McGovern describes how James cultivated Rivers and other congressmen, and how successive administrations used the black hero as their spokesman before countless groups to defend American policy in Vietnam. After his death in 1978, The Washington Post was moved to see in James "a kind of rock- ribbed Americanism." It was a genuine trait, as appealing to his audience as it was productive to his career.

McGovern makes clear that James' successful career was animated by a social philosophy inherited from his remarkable mother. The author devotes considerable space to "Miz Lillie," and rightly so. The mother of her large family and the teacher of a whole generation of children in her Pensacola neighborhood, Lillie James sought to imbue them all with a sense of personal worth and a dedication to the work ethic. Her message -- ability and upright behavior produce success regardless of race -- was eagerly absorbed by her youngest son, who became an ardent apostle of the idea of black self-improvement through the pursuit of excellence. James sincerely believed that blacks who accepted the challenge to develop their potential to the fullest could overcome prejudice in an integrated society.

According to McGovern, James always viewed social problems conservatively, in terms of the individuals involved and their characters.

It followed that James would take a jaundiced view of some aspects of the civil rights movement. Although as a young lieutenant he participated in a peaceful sit-in demonstration to desegregate the officers club at Freeman Field, Indiana, and later supported Martin Luther King, he publicly denounced violent protest. "If anyone threw a rock, I would be on the other side." His personal philosophy also caused him to reject separatism. "Racial problems are going to be solved," he once told an audience of black Marines, "by men and women who consider themselves Americans, not Africans." James also rejected preferential treatment for blacks because, he argued, it denied them the equality to be won in open competition.

An attractive human being, James ranked among the most influential blacks of his generation. As Black Eagle clearly documents, his philosophy of racial progress through excellence meshed perfectly with his own outstanding talents. To those who might ask if such a philosophy can serve for less able mortals, Chappie James would probably answer that pursuing excellence is always worth the try.