How the World Has Changed

Since WW II

By Tad Szulc

Morrow. 515 pp. $22.95

HOW MUCH sense would it make to shop for groceries by walking up and down the aisles and tossing every 100th item from the shelves into your cart? Tad Szulc, a distinguished reporter with some fine books to his credit (including Dominican Diary, The Illusion of Peace and Fidel: A Critical Portrait) seems to have used such a method in surveying the last half-century of history. Then and Now relates a jumble of past events, and the book itself is a muddle of genres: popular history (mainly of world politics), a busy reporter's recollections and a humanitarian's plea for a better world. Periodically, and unpredictably, Szulc throws a few packages of cultural history (music, drama) and domestic politics into his cart.

This book may not have theses but does encompass certain threads and themes: that we are still living with the consequences of World War II; that great leaders no longer walk the earth (why is not stated); and that "an inverse ratio has developed in our civilization between the scientific, material and intellectual wealth we have accumulated and human behavior . . . humankind's attitudes and actions grow more and more destructive and suicidal."

Frustrating a reader's search for meaning in this 515-page medley are frequent encounters with superficial analysis (wars are madness and paranoia), flawed historical judgments (American isolationism had its "birth" in 1919, and Watergate was "the greatest crisis in {the Republic's} history"), bloated rhetoric ("Scientifically, militarily and politically, the atomic bomb marked the start of the most dramatic era in history, with all its potential implications, risks, dangers and promises"), and syntactical clunkers ("we had to keep informed the parents").

All of which is regrettable, for Szulc's background and experience raised expectations of a far better book. Born in Warsaw, cut adrift from his homeland by war, educated in part in Brazil, adept in languages, and for many years a journalist for the Associated Press, United Press International and the New York Times before turning freelance, he has reported from 68 countries and met the Kennedys, LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger, Bush, Zhou Enlai, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Tito, Castro, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Mitterand and Michel Rocard, Franco, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and Mario Soares, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, Dubcek, Jaruzelski, Walesa, Paul VI and John Paul II, Peron, Kubitschek, Oscar Arias Sanchez, Omar Torrijos and King Yigme Singye Wangchuck. "It is a privilege and a pleasure," he writes, "to engage in such name-dropping."

Here he tells us little about these leaders or the headlines they produced. With a few sterling exceptions (like his essay on women, mortality and public health in India), he seldom draws on his own reporting assignments. Yet anecdotes from his own experience provide the most original and redeeming features of an otherwise disappointing book. It adds to our image of the early days of the war, for instance, to read of Szulc's meeting in Vietnam a CIA pilot named Mountain Man Murphy. SIMILARLY intriguing is his account of receiving daily military briefings on the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala from "a friend who was in charge of United Fruit's public relations." And of watching the news with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who hisses at an on-camera reporter who registers doubts about U.S. policy in Vietnam: "Are you with us, or are you against us?" President Kennedy welcomes him to the Oval Office and abruptly asks, "What would you think if I ordered Castro to be assassinated?" (When Szulc deplored the idea, the president said he concurred entirely.) Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger confides in August 1974 that he would disobey any desperate, last-minute orders to the military from a teetering President Nixon.

He is told in a 1970 briefing that it is now safe to travel through the Mekong Delta at night, then solicits comments from a couple of beer-drinking army captains, who look at each other "and burst out laughing. 'That's bullshit, man,' one of them said. 'It's worse than ever . . . I'd have to have my head examined before I'd drive anywhere at night around here." And he is told by a senior U.S. official during the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam that "We are bombing them to force them to accept our concessions." (Szulc comments: "I found this line too surreal to include it in my New York Times story.")

My favorite comes from Szulc's eyewitness account of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when he drove out in the country to search for columns of Soviet tanks rumored to be converging on an unsuspecting Prague. Discovering one such column, he "managed to make {his} way inside {it}, driving my American-made convertible (with a big USA sign on the rear fender) between two Soviet tanks."

But such lively moments are rare. In the last chapter -- purportedly on the 1980s -- Szulc addresses humanitarian matters left over from the Cold War and his fears that in its euphoria over the Soviet collapse the West will grow indifferent to the poverty, illness and violations of human rights still rampant in Third World nations. A full, systematic treatment of these problems would be a project worthy of Szulc's experience, talents and humanity. Robert L. Beisner is a professor of history at American University.