CLOAK & GOWN 1939-1961 Scholars in the Secret War By Robin W. Winks Morrow. 607 pp. $22.95

DURING THE early '60s while I was an undergraduate there, I felt Yale to be a very odd place indeed. A leaden seriousness, an inclination to duty, even if unnecessary, hung about the towers and clung to the ivy on the faceless "tombs" of the university's unique secret societies -- and it was partly because of a gloomy dread that I did the only crazy thing of my mediocre career -- I turned down a "tap" from Skull and Bones.

That legendary society -- it is said that whenever its name is uttered members must rise silently and leave the room -- turns out to be a prime "feed" for the Central Intelligence Agency, according to Professor Robin W. Winks' powerful book about the CIA and the Ivy league. From one spook to the next, as we would have said in irreverent New Haven days.

A generation later, thanks to the tireless attention of Winks, now master of Yale's Berkeley College, I understand the source of my dread (call it dread of a lifetime commitment to a class) and know it was uniquely Yaleish. But I am still astounded to hear that even the Yale crew coach was a CIA recruiter from '46 to '50.

Winks' book is about the part played by upper-class American men, particularly students and instructors at the Ivy league colleges, particularly Yale graduates, in the formation and running and management and most of all the mores and philosophy of the Central Intelligence Agency. It is not a "spy" book and will not reward readers seeking to find out how wicked (or how honorable) an institution the CIA is. But it will make the reader understand the CIA and some of the passionate interest, both pro and con, that the agency has aroused since its first battles with its archenemies Fascism and Nazism, and later with its gray antagonist, International Communism.

One of his strongest points is that the elitist sons of Yale naturally gravitated into intelligence work, just as they gravitated to the secret rituals of Skull and Bones or graduated to the faculty. "It, too {wartime intelligence work}, was anarchic; it favored the idiosyncratic individual, the person of odd curiosity and distinctive knowledge, the freewheeling thinker who went past tested systems and conventional wisdom to the untried." The intelligence community, he concludes, is so like the university. Wouldn't you know, the nickname for the CIA compound at Langley, Va., is "The Campus."

No longer, Winks notes, is Yale the hunting ground for spies. The CIA is for the nonce dead as an attractive career to Ivy Leaguers, thanks to the bungling of the Bay of Pigs, of Vietnam, of much else which is detailed here.

Winks has accomplished his task with polish and a high degree of craftsmanship. His design -- to tell a chapter of the agency's history through detailed job biographies -- is brilliant. Ignoring a narrative, he concentrates on the spying careers of some of the agency's great men: Joseph Toy Curtiss, Donald Downes, Norman Holmes Pearson, James J. Angleton. All were Yale men; and in Winks' reading, scions of the stern and unbending roots of the university "founded by clerics who had broken away from Harvard College because it was becoming too liberal."

HE SETS the scene for the long eventful voyage from 1939 to 1961 by introducing not a theme, but a character. It is Yale's greatest revolutionary spy, Nathan Hale, whose statue, with noose loosely around his neck, adorns the New Haven campus. It's less well known that a copy stands outside CIA headquarters at Langley, Va., but Winks lovingly footnotes that story as well (Yale asked $6,000 for the job).

From Hale to the unfolding of the long and intimate relationship between Yale and the CIA is but a hop to Winks, who seems to relish a point the tougher it is to make.

"Only connect," he reminds us, was E.M. Forster's resonant admonition, and there are few writers who connect as cleverly as Winks. An example is his use of the Whiffenpoof Song ("We're poor little lambs who have lost our way") to introduce the theory of Gentlemen-Rankers -- the fallen sons of the nobility who are disgraced, yet gallant in the field of battle, like the leaderless samurai, like the unmedaled, unheralded heroes of cold war espionage.

There is a class of men, Winks seems to argue, whose real function in life is war. The CIA is their natural home. At peace and without a mission, they may become torpid, or dissolute, quarrelsome, troubled; but inspired by a cause or by an enemy, they become pure, brave, dedicated. Such romantic idealism is somehow part of the fabric of Yale University -- or was until the reversals and scandals of the '50s and '70s created a tide of revulsion for the CIA which has not yet ebbed.

That these men are valuable to the nation Winks believes strongly, citing instance after instance, including wartime exploits behind the lines, painstaking research which produced important results -- and the inevitable bungled operations, of which there were plenty.

Until Winks wrote this book, many could argue that it is, as a matter of principle, illegitimate for academics to cooperate with the CIA. Winks explodes this purer-than-thou theory completely with example after example of how the universities came to the aid of the nation both in public and in secret during time of threat. The universities did not do this as a matter of ponderous resolution -- single men (and women after 1969) did it, because as Winks says, they understood "education is meant to create a sense of civic virtue."

This is a book of deep research and fresh views. But that would not be enough to pass the common reader's muster problem of an author writing about an elite's involvement with another elite. It is the "So what?" question. Winks clears this hurdle with his impudent storytelling. To take a small example, he relates how Sherman Kent, a longtime CIA chieftain, more or less to prove one of his pet theses, set out to show that a small group of researchers, without any spying or access to classified documents, could come up with a 90 percent accurate report on the "order of battle" (the state of the U.S. military) in a few weeks -- to show that the Russians could do the same.

Five Yale scholars did it, in the summer of 1951, and the Truman administration and the press went into a tailspin about national security. The document the scholars relied on for their most sensitive information? The Congressional Record!

Duncan Spencer is the co-author of "Conversations With the Enemy: The Story of Pfc. Robert Garwood."