AQUARIUS REVISITED: Seven Who Created the Sixties Counterculture That Changed America By Peter O. Whitmer Macmillan. 260 pp. $19.95 FROM CAMELOT TO KENT STATE: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It By Joan Morrison and Robert K. Morrison Times Books. 355 pp. $12.95 THE SIXTIES Years of Hope, Days of Rage By Todd Gitlin Bantam. 513 pp. $19.95

THE BEGINNING of the decade ruefully or warmly remembered as the '60s (depending on one's point of view) can be precisely dated: On Feb. 1, 1960, four well-dressed, polite, highly disciplined freshmen attending North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro, N.C., sat down at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter near campus, asked for and were refused service. They left peacefully only to return the next day augmented by larger numbers of their fellow students. The process of seeking service, the refusal, student mobilization and police counter-attack launched the sit-in movement that swept the South and became the starting point for all else that followed during the decade.

The end of the 1960s can also be dated, if less precisely, in the landslide defeat of that somewhat ersatz, co-opted version of '60s idealism that was the presidential campaign of George McGovern in 1972.

It is what transpired in the middle that remains a muddle.

Against the backdrop of three important technological advances -- nuclear parity between the great powers, the development of the birth control pill and the growing centrality of color television in the lives of most Americans -- the '60s were, in essence, an assault by four movements on the American center.

The seminal movement was the sit-in movement, which, in turn, spawned the Freedom Rides, the voter registration campaigns of 1963-64, Mississippi Summer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the leadership for the teach-in movement, the Free Speech Movement, the Dump Johnson Movement, the 1968 campaign of Eugene McCarthy, the first half of the Vietnam Moratorium and later the women's and environmental movements. Those movements were liberal in values, reformist in character, disciplined in tactics, persuasive in approach and produced most of the positive substantive changes in policies that were associated with 1960s' activism.

The other three movements were essentially reactions to the first. Impatient with the slow pace of progress, angered and horrified at the brutality directed at those who were fighting the just fight and the lack of protection afforded them by elected and appointed leadership, pessimistic about meaningful change occurring, skeptical about adult allies, the New Left emerged in all its separate entities -- from black power to the Black Panthers, from SDS to the Weathermen. Also emerging out of generational consciousness and an unfounded sense of complete liberation was the counterculture of rock music, free sex, drugs, hippies, Yippies, flower children, communes, long hair and a total disregard for the civilities of discourse and action. And finally in stark hostility to all of this came the Thermidorean reaction of the '60s -- the movement that began with Young Americans for Freedom, produced the Republican presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater, the candidacy of George Wallace and ultimately, a generation later, the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Against this assault the center did not hold, nor has it been subsequently restored or replaced. Changes came too slowly, the war lasted too long, the fragile basis of public trust in leadership eroded.

It is the judgment in this corner that the center will not be restored or replaced until there is a more precise understanding of what happened in the 1960s. The three books reviewed here -- to one degree or another -- help provide some understanding of aspects of the '60s without providing an understanding of the decade as a whole.

The least helpful is Peter O. Whitmer's Aquarius Revisited. Its premise is grandiose and perhaps hallucinogenic -- that the '60s (as the author says once) or the counterculture of the '60s (as he says a number of other times) can be explained by the intersection of the lives of seven counterculture heroes -- Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins and Hunter S. Thompson. The book, on the other hand, is little more than a not very accurate travelogue (Rennie Davis is neither black nor a Panther; Tom Hayden was not a Yippie; President Kennedy did not encourage the 1963 March on Washington) of the author's visits to the various heroes, with sidetrips to the Esalen Institute, the Rajneeshpuram and Berkeley, Calif. The interviews with Whitmer's chosen seven are not very informative, the accompanying biographical material is informative but available in other places and the insights gleaned are minimal. While he shows how the lives of these men intersect, nowhere is there the slightest hint of why so many in one generation marched to the ridiculous banner of "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out." Whether one visited Aquarius the first time or not, this revisit can be avoided.

OF MORE use is Joan and Robert K. Morrison's From Camelot to Kent State. It is a compilation of more than 50 edited interviews with people -- some famous, most not -- involved in various aspects of the 1960s. Like many books of this type, the whole is substantially less than some of its parts. But some of these parts are extraordinary: The recollections of John Lewis and Bob Zellner of their involvement in the civil rights movements; the tales told by Jim Hoagland, Dave Baker, Clarence Fitch and Steve Wilson of their experiences in Vietnam; the dark views of the counterculture of David Malcolm and Bruce Hoffman; and the reflections of Charles O'Connell on what it was like to be a progressive administrator of a university under siege are all well worth reading.

The best, most interesting and most useful of these books is also the most ambitious, Todd Gitlin's The Sixties. It is a beautifully written, thoughtfully critical account of the '60s experience from one who was the product of liberal parents, had the benefit of a good education and was involved in the reformist movements of the early 1960s. Gitlin became president of Students for a Democratic Society and thus was part of a movement that became progressively more radical and wrecked itself on the shoals of its own intransigence. It is the fourth history of SDS to be written and is likely to be the one to which historians will look for guidance as they seek clues to unlock the mysteries of the 1960s.

Gitlin's account is not successful as an account of the decade as a whole, but it is brilliantly successful in the recounting of what he was himself intimately involved in. In one chapter, he does what Peter Whitmer fails to do in an entire book -- explain the appeal of the counterculture to a generation of the young. In an equally brilliant chapter, he shows how narrow were the differences that ultimately precipitated a parting of the ways between older activist liberals and socialists and the nascent New Left. And he is particularly insightful in his analysis of how the growth of SDS as an independent force also contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. With a growing hostility to liberal values and liberal leaders, with analysis substituting for strategy and tactics, with perceptible paranoia about leadership within society and within its own ranks, with a growing identification with Third World revolutions at the expense of American democratic traditions and with a need to pursue ever more extreme tactics, it is little wonder that SDS self-destructed.

Where Gitlin falls short in his analysis of the '60s is in his unstated assumption that the New Left and SDS were the movement of the decade. Nothing could be further from the truth. When SDS was created at Fort Huron in 1962, it was all manifesto and a handful of leaders who were, in essence, the tail wagging the dog. The dog was the southern civil rights movement and SDS and those who would later be the New Left were but cheerleaders and support troops. When the New Left came into its own, after its break with liberal leadership at the 1964 Democratic National Convention at Atlantic City, it was as a large fringe movement. Its northern ghetto organizing projects attracted few takers and little sustaining organization. The thousands it mobilized to its confrontational marches at the Pentagon and in Chicago were small when compared to the tens of thousands who participated in the McCarthy campaign or the Vietnam moratorium. If the New Left made any lasting changes in American democracy, it is because its extremism made respectable the more disciplined actions of others.

The movements of the 1960s brought an end to legal segregation and American involvement in Vietnam. They also provided solid evidence that citizen action could bring about positive substantive changes in society. But the excesses of the movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s were at least as responsible as the perceived failure of the Carter Administration in bringing to power Ronald Reagan.

Todd Gitlin is correct in saying that the final history of the 1960s has not yet been written, in part because the writing demands a broader perspective than that of those who have assayed the task so far and in part because those who were active in the '60s are just now reaching the age when the torch of leadership is being passed to their generation.

Curtis B. Gans was staff director of Sen. Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign.

CAPTION:Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling before a dead Kent State University student on May 4, 1970