THINKING IN TIME: The Uses of History For Decision-Makers. By Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May. The Free Press. 329 pp. $19.95.

THIS IS A BOOK by two Harvard professors who believe that "the fun to be had from reading history has it all over that of reading almost anything else about real people." Their love of history leads them to a fascination with decision-making in the American political process. Clearly they would agree with former U.S. senator John Culver that "politics is the only game in town for adults."

The obvious joy of the authors in exploring history gives this book a sprightly, tolerant and deeply human flavor. But their subject -- the relevance of history to government policy choices -- is a deadly serious one.

In examining some crucial foreign policy decisions in the recent past that now seem mistaken, notably the Bay of Pigs invasion and the intervention in Vietnam, the authors avoid smug hindsight. They are modest and carefully avoid the temptation to claim too much for their proposition that a sense of history can be valuable in reducing the risk of poorly conceived decisions.

Of their own proposed historical method for decision-makers, worked out in large part in a course taught by the two authors at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, they write: "If our students (including policy- makers and their staffs) were baseball players, we would not expect to turn out Ted Williamses or Sandy Koufaxes; we would be happy to see a batting average go up from .250 to .265 or an earned run average go down from 6.0 to 5.0. And we do believe that almost any continuous effort to use history routinely will improve the averages of players in the public arena."

The two key words emphasized by Professors Neustadt and May in fashioning a historical method for decision-making are "prudence" and "caution." Take the time to ask hard questions before you decide, they repeatedly warn. "Enlightening questions are the point of every method we propose, questions that shed light almost regardless of the answers."

Their historical model for decision-making contains several elements.

First, an effort must be made to appreciate the problem at hand by separating its various elements into what is Known, what is Unclear, and what is Presumed.

"Focusing on matters of evidence provides momentary protection against the natural tendency to react to trouble by saying, 'Damn! What do we do?' instead of 'What's our problem?'"

Secondly, since many policymakers with a sense of history frequently resort to historical analogies, the authors warn (very properly, I think) against an undiscriminating use of analogies. To avoid this danger, they suggest a second test: What are the Likenesses and the Differences between the current situation and the historical analogy?

IN MY VIEW, the most abused and most costly historical analogy since World War II has been the frequent invocation of American policymakers of the "lessons of Munich." By appeasing Hitler at Munich, the lesson goes, we set the stage for World War II under even more dangerous circumstances. The Soviet Union, via Korea, Cuba and Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, or Angola has created another potential "Munich." Let us therefore apply the lessons of Munich and intervene to stop these manifestations of Hitlerism and thus avert World War III.

I won't belabor the point here. But the defense-minded, inward-looking Soviet Union -- paranoid after three nearly fatal invasions from the West -- is not analogous to Adolf Hitler, an expansionist psychopath. Neither are Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro or the Sandinistas.

Historical analogies are fine if properly drawn, but they are dangerous in the hands of policymakers who lack the capacity to discern historical differences. Former secretary of state Dean Rusk, for example, thought that Ho Chi Minh was another Hitler -- or at the least a puppet of another Hitler, Mao Tse-tung. The Vietcong in the South and Ho in the North represented another Munich challenge; therefore those with the Rusk point of view believed that we should stand against the beginning aggression of World War III just as we should have stood with Czechoslovakia against Hitler.

The third historical test recommended by Neustadt and May is "the Goldberg Rule." It is the question posed by Avram Goldberg, a New England retail executive who tells his store managers when they come with a problem, "Tell me the story." In other words, give me the historical background. Or as Neustadt and May put it, "What's the story?"

If President Jimmy Carter had asked that question, write May and Neustadt, he would have learned that the supposedly newly discovered "Soviet Brigade" in Cuba, revealed in 1979, had been there since at least 1962. With that knowledge, he would not have assumed that the presence of Soviet troops in Cuba dramatically announced in 1979 called for a chilling denunciation and ultimatum to the Soviet Union which contributed to the death of SALT II.

Thinking in Time opens with a chapter entitled "Success Story" which deals with President John Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. I doubtless represent a minority point of view, but I regard this crisis management as a "success" only because the wily Nikita Khrushchev was less willing than the youthful American president to risk World War III.

I believe that the Cubans wanted a small number of Soviet missiles, but not to attack the United States -- ridiculous in that it would have assured the incineration of Cuba; rather they were seeking a deterrent against a more carefully planned second Bay of Pigs invasion. Although Neustadt and May ignore this historical probability, the Kennedy administration after suffering a painful reversal at the Bay of Pigs seriously considered both the assassination of Fidel Castro and a second more astutely planned invasion of Cuba. A small number of missiles capable of damaging Miami and a few other American targets was the probable deterrent needed to forestall this possibility. That Khrushchev was willing to surrender this Cuban option is a measure not so much of the Kennedy administration's wise use of history as of Khrushchev's realism and common sense.

I commend this book to lovers of history and to American policy makers who will heed the advice of its authors to use it with "caution" and "prudence."