PEARL HARBOR; The Verdict of History. By Gordon W. Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. McGraw-Hill. 699 pp. $19.95.

THERE ARE many ways of examining the Pearl Harbor attack, an event that took place 44 years ago but has continued to hold fascination. The late Gordon W. Prange, a University of Maryland historian, was unabashedly old-fashioned, treating history as narrative, to be explored in terms of key personalities to assess their motives, roles and responsibilities. He applied this approach with merciless vigor to the Pearl Harbor story. "One cannot understand the defeat which the United States suffered on December 7, 1941," he wrote in this book, "by attempting to analyze it in terms of economics, sociology, technology, or any other of history's neat pigeonholes. It arose from the nature of the men involved."

Thus convinced, Prange combed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed hundreds of participants in the drama, both American and Japanese. And after his death, two associates (Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon) read additional material as soon as it became available. A major product of this joint research was a 1981 publication, At Dawn We Slept , a magnificent study that traced in great detail the immediate circumstances that led to the attack. The book is likely to remain the best treatment of the subject for many years to come.

Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History is essentially a footnote to that volume; those who have read At Dawn We Slept will find relatively little that is new here. In it Prange's main concern is with the question of why the Pearl Harbor disaster could not be prevented, hardly an original one. Almost as soon as Japanese planes dropped bombs n the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, Americans began asking the same question, and several inquiries were held during the war by Congress and the military services. Because the data presented at these hearings, as well as many others, were utilized by Prange in writing At Dawn We Slept, readers interested in the question can turn to that book; it may be doubted if they also have to peruse the new volume, which is nearly 700 pages long.

THIS BOOK is nevertheless valuable as the latest statement against revisionist historiography, especially those who have argued that President Roosevelt and his aides knew in advance of the Japanese attack -- or even that they had provoked the attack -- but did nothing to prepare for it because they wanted to take the nation to war. Prange and his associates confront such revisionist writings -- most recently John Toland's Infamy -- head-on, and proceed to demolish their interpretations mercilessly. They assert that the disaster in Hawaii must be blamed, not on a high-level conspiracy, but on the general complacency of the commanders there (Admiral Kimmel and General Short) and on the failure of Washington "to take Kimmel and Short into full confidence" by forwarding to them some of the critical intelligence it had gathered through "Magic" intercepts. These are valid insights, and will be particularly useful to Japanese readers who have tended to be swayed by revisionist influences. But they are hardly novel perspectives. Most historians (and one suspects readers as well) would be bored by too single-minded a concentration on the responsibility/conspiracy question. Focusing on the question inevitably means discussing "the nature of the men involved," to evaluate them within "the structure of Occidental justice" as Prange calls it. Even so, one may well ask if it is sufficient to understand the Pearl Harbor episode by describing the roles played by individual Americans and Japanese. For the U.S.-Japaese crisis was far more than a bilateral issue.

Speaking of the crisis of 1941, Prange notes, "A workable, lasting agreement between the United States and Japan was as nearly impossible as anything in the unpredictable human equation could ever be." An unexceptional statement, it reveals a failure to stress the international dimension of the bilateral relationship. After all, the Pacific war involved the pitting of Japan against China, Britain, France, the Netherlands and ultimately the Soviet Union, in addition to the United States. It was the Japanese leaders' cardinal folly to have decided on war against virtually the entire world, and the Pearl Harbor attack was but one manifestation of this irrationality. In the face of such irrationality, individual Americans could have done little to defend themselves. Although the question of their responsibility is a valid one, it will remain of only antiquarian interest unless it is coupled with an exploration of how a nation irrationally came to perceive itself as being surrounded by hostile forces. That in turn will necessitate an examination of individuals in China, Britain, the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

A recent trend among historians working on the origins of the Pacific war has been to emphasize the multinational aspects of the crisis. By narrowly focusing on the bilateral phenomenon, Prange seems to have missed some of the more important recent studies, such as those by Waldo Heinrichs, Christopher Thorne, Peter Lowe, David Reynolds and James Leutze. Holding fast to an uncompromisingly old-fashioned position (Prange speaks of "the hard core of a nation, the solid substance that is not for sale or trade") is a principal strength of this book; it is also its weakness.